When JJ Abrams jumped on board the ailing Star Trek franchise, his 2009 reboot did the unthinkable – not only was it an engaging piece of cleverly realised science fiction that played to the fans, it was also a rip roaring adventure, both sexy and cool, hooking in the non-believers too.
Four years later, that’s a tough act to follow, but alongside writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Abrams has kicked the franchise into warp speed. The destruction of Vulcan in the previous outing was a stroke of genius, allowing him to play fast and loose with the Trek toy box, unbound by the weight of decades.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a stunning scene set on a red forest planet that’s home to a primitive culture under threat of annihilation by the imminent eruption of an enormous volcano. When Spock (Zachary Quinto), no doubt with the death of his own homeworld in mind, takes matters into his own hands, with the full support of Kirk (Christopher Pine) and the crew, their actions challenge the Prime Directive not to interfere, opening up a complicated moral quandary that runs through the heart of this exhilarating film.
With barely a breath, Benedict Cumberbatch, excelling as shadowy villain John Harrison, strikes. Manipulating the father of a dying child to aid him in detonating an enormous bomb in the heart of a gorgeously rendered 23rd century London, with St Paul’s Cathedral dwarfed by shimmering skyscrapers abuzz with hovercraft, all hell breaks loose.
Having mastered the art of the glacial stare and rakish fringe on BBC’s Sherlock, Cumberbatch is a deliciously maniacal villain whose motivations for this unthinkable atrocity remain shrouded for much of the film.
When Harrison immediately follows this up with an assault on Star Fleet HQ in San Francisco, things get personal for the Enterprise crew. Like all the best science fiction, Into Darkness holds up a mirror to our own society, using the futuristic setting to question the morality of our time.
Who is Harrison and why does he commit these atrocities? Why target Star Fleet? When he subsequently flees to the Klingon homeworld Kronos (and yes, we get to see the new and improved, rather sexy looking pasty heads in action) the film lurches in a violent new direction that challenges the politics of war, and the morality of remote strikes.
Perfectly blending quiet character moments with mind-bending action scenes, all sound and fury, there’s plenty of heart on show here. A cute tiff between Spock and Uhura (the spunky Zoe Saldana) drags an unwilling Kirk into the mix, further testing his already troubled bromance with the logical one. Saldana gets to kick some serious Klingon arse too.
As Scotty, Simon Pegg, still with wildly oscillating accent that rarely, if ever, hits the mark, is nonetheless a bundle of comically timed joy, even as he gets to hammer home a few tricky questions as Kirk gets further embroiled in the murky waters of Admiral Marcus’ (Peter Weller) ploy to destroy Harrison.
Alice Eve is a welcome addition as a weapons expert and fellow science officer, bringing out some uncharacteristically territorial tendencies in Spock, and she’s no pushover either. Karl Urban as Bones is a droll as ever, while Chekov and Sulu both get moments to shine.
As with Abrams first outing in the Trek universe, some major tweaks are made to the existing lore, riffing off previous films with fairly monumental and inspiring twists, with nods to everything from the original series’ tribbles to the shadowy Section 31 of Deep Space Nine.
A late quick fix that’s fairly heavily signposted is a minor quibble in a film that soars through operatic highs and lows, leaving the viewer breathless during its final act. This is magnificent, intelligent and heartfelt stuff that shows off the best of a strong ensemble cast.
Pine, dashing and believably conflicted, nails it in a remarkably understated performance that places his ‘family’ above all else and the film’s deep waters allow him to travel a redemptive curve that never loses sight of the gung ho attitude that makes Kirk such a lovable rogue.
If this is where we’re boldly going, then I’m on board with Abrams for the duration. Hopefully he can resuscitate Star Wars from the mire of its own self-importance too, though preferably not at the expense of his stellar work here.
Stephen A Russell