In 2009 JJ Abrams did what I thought was impossible: he made Star Trek cool.
Now some might argue that Star Trek was always cool. Others would argue that those people who enjoy Star Trek are not cool. But there were very few people who disliked JJ Abrams’ take on this classic sci-fi icon, whether you were a longtime Trekkie, a Star Wars fan boy, or pretty much anyone else for that matter. He gave a 21st century coat of paint to a four-decade-old franchise, and made a damn good film while he was at it. When the inevitable sequel Into Darkness was announced, I wondered whether he could keep his vision in warp flight, or if he would succumb to the gravitational pull of “sequel syndrome” and join the Star Wars prequels in their black hole of mediocrity?
Into Darkness opens with the Enterprise team on an observation mission, tasked with observing the indigenous species of a planet. Their prime directive, which cannot be violated under any circumstances, is to not be seen. When a volcano eruption threatens to wipe out the planet, the team decides to detonate a device within the volcano in order to save the species from extinction. While they succeed, you guessed it, they’re seen, resulting in Captain Kirk’s (Christopher Pine) demotion and Commander Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) reassignment. But when former Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits a pair of deadly terrorist attacks, the Enterprise team is reformed by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, or as I like to call him, Robocop), and given orders to track Harrison to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, and eliminate him using 72 prototype torpedoes.
Much like film one in this revamped series, Into Darkness isn’t exactly reinventing the energy pattern beam teleportation machine here. This is straight up adventure sci-fi. As such, it suffers by resorting to a few plot devices that have been done to death. “Villain getting kidnapped deliberately” is probably the most blatant. I won’t spoil anything else for you, and I won’t have to; the film does it by signposting particular plot points much too obviously. Rather than little cat’s eyes on the road that could lead the audience down a number of roads, they’ve put big bloody flashing neon signs down: “THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT!!!”
But it’s still a ripping ride. It’s like looking at a rollercoaster before you get on, thinking to yourself “wow, that would be an absolute ripsnorter”, then getting on said rollercoaster and realising at the end that yes, it was an absolute ripsnorter. Special effects are expectedly awesome, with some truly exhilarating action sequences melded in with a few moments of downtime, which for the most part break up the pace pretty effectively. The soundtrack is an expert blend of new and old. There’s a couple of fan-pleasing cameos from the Klingons and old mate Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his role as Spock Prime, albeit very briefly. And the performances are largely excellent.
Pine nails the womanising, swaggering, reckless yet emotionally volatile Kirk, taking him from the headstrong upstart he was in Star Trek to the flawed, selfless, ball of rage hero he is here. Quinto clearly relishes his role as the borderline-robotic Spock, but also convinces when his character shows glimpses of humanity. In fact, for me some of Spock’s moments of tenderness are the most affecting scenes of the film. Pegg is outstanding as Scotty, showing that he’s more than just comic relief, although he is DEFINITELY comic relief.
There is a distinct lack of female input here. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) chips in with a few lines about her relationship with Spock. And Dr. Carol (Alice Eve) is decent, but seems to be more of a device used to further the plot (analyse something here, negotiate there, impart wisdom elsewhere), rather than a fully-fleshed out character unto herself. And the outrageously gratuitous shot of her toned figure in her undergarments? Pretty uncreative way to lighten the mood, and it won’t exactly win over many female fans sitting on the star fence.
It’s Mr. Cumberbatch who steals the show. His delivery is like delicious chocolate for the ears, if the chocolate had extremely sharp shards of glass embedded in it. His voice is simultaneously menacing and eloquent and he’s got a death stare that would make Medusa turn in fear. He’s a far more nuanced character than Eric Bana’s incessantly angry Nero from Star Trek. Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is a supremely pissed-off, hyper intelligent supersoldier harbouring sadness as deep as his hatred for Starfleet, and he’s a breath of fresh air. Sci-fi filmmakers take note.
On the whole, what we have here is an exquisite sci-fi pie. It’s presented well and pretty much all the ingredients are quality. Sure, it’s just an apple pie. You kind of know where it’s going to go, but you enjoy it nonetheless. With a little extra time in the oven, maybe another twist to ensure even cooking or some unexpected elements to add a bit of extra spark, this would’ve been a perfect sci-fi pie. But that just makes me more excited for the third instalment. And as a Star Wars fan, waiting for Abrams’ continuation in that universe just got all the more unbearable.
Into Darkness is every bit as good as the preceding film, and I give it a four-year mission on the Starship Enterprise to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before… out of five.