There is a scene early on in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 sci-fi reboot Star Trek where the young cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has a titillating roll around in bed with a beautiful, voluptuous and green-skinned woman who is also the roommate of another romantic interest. The scene more or less sums up the whole film: it’s flippant, sexy, fast-paced, raises the character drama and makes cute reference to the original Star Trek TV series, in which William Shatner’s Kirk once had a similar inter-species dalliance.
Suffering from a brutal case of sequelitis, that caustic condition whereby a follow-up film tries to up the game by doubling-up on what went right the first time, Abrams’s second Enterprise adventure, the grammatically topsy-turvy-titled Star Trek Into Darkness, features a similar scene early on in its duration. We cut to Captain Kirk’s bed-chambers to the double-screech of a scratched record which heralds some contemporary (for us) hip hop music, before the camera pans to reveal Kirk in bed with not one but two sexy aliens. As in the predecessor, this scene neatly sums up Into Darkness, but says very different things: it’s plotless, intellectually vacuous and desperate (and failing) to be cool. It’s also wildly inappropriate for a film that parents will no doubt bring young children to, but that isn’t exactly the case with the rest of the film. Thank heaven for small mercies.
We pick up a few years after the events of Star Trek, where the overly headstrong young Kirk is still captain of the Enterprise, seconded by the emotionally retentive half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). Opening with a sequence as fun as anything the first film produced, in which the crew of the Enterprise stage an intervention on a savage planet to save its primitive lifeforms from a bubbling volcano, despite their code of ethics being opposed to such activities. Spock is nearly lost in the process and gets his pointy ears boxed by Kirk and girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for not caring about the feelings of others. Thus begins a barely scripted piece of soul-searching for Spock that is somehow drawn out across this film’s 133-minute running-time.
Back on Earth, Kirk is given a dressing down of his own for disobeying orders, and is relieved of his command – this happens to three major characters in this film, and all are back at their posts by the story’s end; hitting the reset button and putting everyone back to where they were last film round is so much easier for writers than to come up with genuine obstacles the characters might face. But just as Kirk is getting used to being first officer again, disgruntled Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins a wave of terrorist attacks that puts the Federation on high alert. Enraged at the assault, Kirk is spurred towards taking a fiery vengeance on Harrison by militarist admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Several increasingly superfluous action sequences follow.
The first 40 minutes or so of Star Trek Into Darkness zips along at a solid pace with some amusing scenes. Banter between Kirk and Spock about the latter’s failure to grasp basic concepts of human emotion provides some easy laughs, while a three-way argument on the same, drawing in Uhura, displays the finest dialogue the film has – a witty, Whedonesque scene of sniping back-and-forths.
But things shift for the worse when the Enterprise arrives at the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison is hiding out, safe from the Federation’s reach. But Admiral Marcus doesn’t care about the dangers of starting a war, and Kirk doesn’t care about rules. After a thrilling shuttle craft scene, a diplomatic incident on the Klingon planet turns into one of the messiest gun battles ever shown on screen – with Hunger Games levels of camera shaking and awkward cutting. In the aftermath, Harrison surrenders; anyone who’s seen a blockbuster in the last five years will know well what this means.
Long before its midpoint Star Trek Into Darkness descends into cliché, with the crew facing two antagonists and learning all too late which is the greater evil. Neither villain is properly defined, and much of the threat is based around knowledge of events that happened in the TV series and original films, which were set in a different universe to begin with. It’s like making a version of A Christmas Carol and forgetting to tell us why Scrooge is a miser (or for that matter, that he’s a miser). The film’s writers, returning duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and Prometheus-defiler Damon Liondelof, have taken almost no effort to recreate these characters, copying and pasting from earlier works. A late scene is a direct re-enactment of one of the finest scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with none of the emotional or dramatic weight of its predecessor. Two famous lines are recycled from that film; the first cleverly, the second showing a failure on behalf of the writers to grasp basic concepts of drama, language or time. All this is is regurgitation; swallowing a feast of adventurous sci-fi and ejaculating it in a flurry of bile back onto the screen – then flaring the lens with enough lights so you can’t see the gooey chunks.
Sure, the crew are all fine, but they’re very much on auto-pilot following their first outing together. John Cho’s Sulu gets one great scene, but it is stolen from him by Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy, which continues to be the stand-out performance in this series. Simon Pegg’s Scotty has more direction this time, and more to do, but the character is still played far too much for laughs.
As for Cumberbatch, one of the finest actors of his generation, he does good work here. His downcast, beady eyes inspire a menace that the script cannot back up. When Harrison weeps, we see Cumberbatch acting so well at weeping, but cannot believe in the character despite the performer’s great work. Hopefully this will not be the villain role for which Cumberbatch is remembered. There are many out there better for him; indeed his dual villainous roles in The Hobbit may yet inspire the right level of dread.
Star Trek Into Darkness looks divine, for the most part, and it’s hard to fault the production design. The futuristic updates of London and San Francisco look superb, the former putting the future London of last year’s Total Recall to shame. The design of the Klingon ships is some of the best spacecraft design seen since Return of the Jedi. The most dazzling moments come whenever the Enterprise enters into warp speed, leaving behind it a luminous blue vapour trail that lingers in the vacuum of space before dissolving – it’s a superb image that captures the grandeur of the Star Trek universe.
But despite all the gloss (there are thankfully fewer lens flares this go-around, though still too many), the stylish design and Michael Giacchino’s enthusiastic score can’t save the pacing. The final half hour is given over to an endless tirade of action sequences that call to mind the seemingly never-ending finale of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Beginning with an excellent sequence in which Kirk torpedoes himself through space from one ship to another, this moment is rapidly followed by a fist fight, a shootout, a photon bombardment, a ship crash, a foot chase and another fist fight. To add insult to injury, this rigmarole of energy culminates in a deus ex machina so ridiculous it would cause J.K. Rowling to spit up blood.
What grates the most is the story, which laboriously draws on recent memories of the War on Terror for inspiration. A vicious terrorist is tracked into hostile territory, but the militant wing of a force for good in the universe decides to hunt him there no matter the cost. It’s all 10 years too late – not to mention how ridiculous the idea of a military junta seizing power in San Francisco is. Star Trek Into Darkness displays the political knowhow of a civics paper written by a 15-year-old whose abiding memory of 9/11 is of the news-coverage cutting into his favourite cartoons. Hiccoughs in the first Star Trek screenplay could be blamed on the Writers’ Strike of 2007/’08. Here there is simply no excuse for this inane refuse.
Plodding, under-written, over-produced, with exhaustingly endless action scenes and “clever” references to previous film properties, Into Darkness is the Van Helsing of Star Trek films, a beautiful misery that will excite as many as it will disappoint.