Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

ST Into DarknessStarring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch

Directed by J.J. Abrams

Paramount, out 9 May UK, 17 May US

Star Trek Into Darkness  reintroduces us to the re-imagined Enterprise crew’s formative years as we’re instantly flung into a situation where Spock (Zachary Quinto)  is quite literally a Vulcanologist in need of being plucked from an exploding volcano. Unfortunately, Kirk (Chris Pine) has to break the Prime Directive to do so and Spock’s subsequent report sees Kirk demoted and Spock reassigned. That dilemma doesn’t last long when a terrorist outrage hits London and then Starfleet itself is attacked.  The culprit appears to be an operative named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Kirk is given a chance to redeem himself by chasing the villain down to the edge of Klingon space.

However the moral high-ground becomes less stable when it becomes clear that Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) may not have been completely forthcoming with the crew of the Enterprise and Kirk finds he’s placed his friends and colleagues in the line of fire and in the cross-hairs of various deadly agendas. In the aftermath of a major confrontation, James Tiberius Kirk is going to have to choose sides and ultimately gets a real lesson that being a captain is not just about flirting with lady luck but being prepared to sacrifice everything for the needs of the many… 

As a rollercoaster ride through the collective geek subconscious, Into Darkness works as an enjoyable action romp, deftly doffing its Starfleet hat and wearing its Vulcan heart on a noticeably red-shirted sleeve. It piles on a whole range of franchise touchstones (some quiet and clever, others singing their references from the rooftops) and unapologetically tweaks the nose of nostalgia like it’s going out of fashion. Even those who think they’ve guessed the twists, turns and reveals beforehand are likely to find some unexpected moments and references to keep them watching and engaged… and that’s an accomplishment not so easily dismissed.

Director J J Abrams and his cast are all having fun – and walk that delicate line between respecting the iconic characters we’ve known for generations and yet bringing something new. Pine effortlessly slips back into a convincing Kirk in his younger years and while Leonard Nimoy will always be Spock, Quinto inhabits his own version convincingly. Karl Urban draws the short straw of screen-time (largely reduced to ‘Dammit, Jim’ variations), but most of the rest of the crew have their moments to shine. Abrams and Co have definitely caught the ensemble vibe and dynamic joys of the original show and it’s hard not to respect how well he’s side-stepped some of the obvious cosmic pot-holes that could have scuppered the reimagined mythos from the outset.

But equally, the very title of the film – and its foreboding trailer – promised something more nuanced from the film, something that never quite materialises on screen. Cumberbatch’s ‘John Harrison’ is clearly a great performance from the actor and every word drips from his lips with calculated menace and a barely restrained inner fury… but by the time the film is nearly done, he’s moved from being a complex morally-skewed manipulator to something of a cliché on super-steroids where the punchline is merely a punch.

This is a film that feels like it initially wanted to say something profound about the nature of terrorism, loyalty and power, but after paying lip-service to the notions to set the main plot in motion, it ultimately loses the courage of its convictions and fails to fully follow through…  Instead it tilts its payload from brain-food to eye-candy.

Perhaps the greatest evidence is best summed up by one bizarrely contrived scene, where Alice Eve’s top scientist Carol Marcus momentarily strips down to her bra and panties in a shuttle with Kirk – for absolutely no reason. A heavenly body to behold though it is, it’s proof positive of the film’s innate doubt in itself to hold the attention of the audience without aiming a little lower – that all this talk of revenge, death and morality is a bit heavy, so… here’s a lingerie catalogue.  (“I admire Carol Marcus’s  fierce  intelligence – which she’s clearly so distracted by that she will even change in public…” Eve offered tellingly at the recent press launch…)

This is a film where individual opinions on its success will probably be divided by several light-years – though the box-office registers will kerching pleasingly. There is much to enjoy here unless you’re determined not to, but just enough self-referential and self-reverential elements to act as masking tape over the cracks that you’ll begin to notice when the momentum ends. If you go in with the desire to be entertained by a film with much derring-do, explosions, quips and bravado, then this should do the trick nicely. Quibbles – and, as it happens, tribbles – aside, this is a film that ultimately feels like a bioengineered pick-n’mix of the franchise, test-tube tested to breaking point and with enough spot-the-lens-flare-visuals to create a whole new drinking game that will have you sloshed before the first reel is done.

Verdict: Some may loathe the calculated feeling of the retrofitted nostalgia, others will revel in an undeniable rummaging through (and rearranging of) a revered  toy-box of delights. Dark it may not be, but it shines well enough. 8/10

John Mosby

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