For those who enjoyed J.J. Abrams’s frisky relaunch of Star Trek back in 2009, the good news is that the new Star Trek Into Darkness is more of the same. The bad news is that Star Trek Into Darkness is, well, a bit too familiar. This should please the diehard fans, but leave more casual fans hovering on the edges of the Trek universe with an uncomfortable sensation that the USS Enterprise and its crew may be doomed to an eternity of recurrences.
For the first hour, director Abrams is, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a major modern movie-maker. He guides the tiller with a firm hand and pushes all the buttons in the right fast-scene, slow-scene, order. He works the 3-D depth unobtrusively for a balance of big-screen spectacle and emotional intimacy, and he knows the fan culture inside out. No surprise he’ll be directing the next Star Wars movie as well.
The opening sequence, set on an Avatar-like planet of clay-covered humanoids chasing Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) through a forest of red trees, while the entire planet is about to blow from a giant volcano. In the aftermath, the crew is saved only to be punished and disbanded. Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is suffering wounded feelings toward Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk is demoted for insubordination by his superior (Bruce Greenwood), and the too-honest Spock has been assigned to another ship.
All of this is a model of economy, taking us through the Indiana Jones-style opening, briskly re-introducing the new cast of characters and their various conflicts, and setting up the motive for the new mission. Pine, with his watery blue gaze, now seems entirely relaxed in evoking William Shatner’s choppy speech patterns and swagger as James T. Kirk, though he’s still more of an impulsive brat. Similarly, Quinto’s performance as young Spock emphasizes the character’s aggrieved adolescence more than his supercilious intellect. The rest of the cast do amusingly baby-faced versions of the crew of the Enterprise, first introduced to television viewers almost a half-century ago.
A fresh catastrophe (that’s the “Into Darkness” part of the title) brings the Enterprise together again. A bomb blows up the Starfleet facility in futuristic London (portrayed as a forest of multiform high-rises spearing the sky). The crew is reassembled for a covert mission directed by Admiral Marcus (Robocop’s Peter Weller) to track down and eliminate the enemy leader, who goes by the innocuous name of John Harrison. Harrison has retreated to the planet Kronos, on the edge of dangerous Klingon territory. Against Starfleet protocol, Admiral Marcus insists the ship be armed with torpedoes, which isn’t the only extra baggage the Enterprise is carrying. A sexy science officer, Carol (Alice Eve), lied to get onboard, and she seems equally interested in Kirk and the ship’s torpedoes.
As with the recent Iron Man 3, the antagonist here suggests Osama bin Laden. Once again, a British actor with stage-trained gravitas is given the villain role. This time it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, the bow-lipped star of Sherlock and the recent BBC series Parade’s End. He stands extremely still, like a reptile ready to strike, and proves a disturbingly calm adversary for the short-fused Kirk. “Captain,” he says, in a funereal baritone that drips with pained condescension. Cumberbatch says it so wonderfully, in fact, that the script provides him with a chance to say “Captain” exactly the same way a second time.
To anyone looking to explore new frontiers, be warned: Star Trek Into Darkness slips not into darkness, but into a dark echo-chamber of fanboy self-referentiality in Abrams’s second outing. Anyone with interest and an Internet connection will already know there’s a familiar nemesis hiding behind John Harrison’s handsome mug. As delectable as his vocal delivery is, Cumberbatch is mostly on hand to provide chunks o’ backstory between the action scenes, which are lined up like boxcars in the movie’s second half.
Upping the brutality a notch, as if to prove Star Trek isn’t just for eggheads, the script calls for enough old-fashioned face-punching to make the film feel more like Rocky 12 than the 12th Star Trek movie.
All of this contributes to the impression that this is generally a coarser, less buoyant affair than Abrams’s first Star Trek movie. That one left you leaving the theatre elated, like the sensation of re-reading a favourite book after several years and rediscovering that it still charms. Star Trek Into Darkness offers much more qualified satisfaction, which, especially after the second half, is akin to the relief of surviving a long beating.