Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

20130510-173258.jpgStar Trek Into Darkness

2009’s Star Trek, the reboot of the series under the watchful eye of JJ Abrams, did many things; it gave the franchise a new lease of cinematic life, it updated the stuffy Trek of old for modern times, and most importantly it made it feel fun amongst all the technobabble and timey-wimeyness. The sequel retains the same sense of fun and wonder, but winds up feeling like a movie you’ve seen before. Twice.

It opens with the confidence and brio you’d expect from a film unburdened with character set up; we’re thrown straight into the action with nary an explanation in sight. You get everything you need to know about the crew in mere moments. Kirk; impulsive. Spock; pragmatic. Bones; sarcastic. Scotty; comic relief. Uruhu; uh, womanly. And from then on, the plot rarely lets up or stops for breath.

After an attack on a Starfleet facility carried out by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are tasked with bringing him to justice. The themes raised in the first film are revisited, most prominently the idea of family not necessarily being your blood relations as well as the love/hate relationship between Kirk and Spock (Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) who are both on top form, with Pine showing more layers to Kirk while still being the cocky ladies man, and Quinto bringing more humanity to his portrayal. It’s really the Kirk and Spock show although most of the crew do get at least one chance to shine. The only character getting the short shrift is John Cho’s Sulu, who I can’t remember doing anything except change chairs on the bridge of the Enterprise a few times. Sadly, Benedict Cumberbatch is little more than a punching bag whose villain isn’t nearly as interesting when revealed in full and was much more effective in the film’s opening scenes, orchestrating things from the shadows (despite a hideous musical cue during his introduction that may as well scream “THIS IS THE BAD GUY!”). To say anymore about the plot would be to spoil the film’s surprises, but for a summer blockbuster it’s peerless.

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Introducing fresh ways to keep space battles thrilling, injecting just the right amount of humour and keeping the film from following the usual sequel template of ‘going darker’ despite where the title says we’re going, it’s a great ride of action, romance and comedy. And boding well for JJ Abrams next project, the film doesn’t disappear under a fog of CG set pieces. Yes, they’re present and correct but this is a film about its characters first and foremost. And as such it succeeds beautifully.

But the film’s main problem is the plot; one that it suffers from an identity crisis. It’s trying so hard to distinguish itself from that other Star Trek sequel yet tries to ape it at every available opportunity. It follows the beats of that movie almost exactly, with little tweaks and variations here and there. After freeing itself so successfully from established Trek lore in the first film (the whole point of the first film in fact) to have it fall back on such a tried and tested formula smacks of lazy writing, which all the spaceship battles and stunning vistas can’t hide, try as they might.

[Of course this also depends on your own knowledge of Star Trek. Going into this with no prior knowledge would negate the above criticism.]

And as such it makes the final act feel very predictable and by the numbers; when the movie is coming to a close, it should be thrilling, not plodding. And whenever the resolution to the main thrust of the narrative is so blatantly signposted earlier in the film (seriously, they should have just flashed up THIS WILL BECOME IMPORTANT LATER on screen in big flashing letters) the fate of a main character is never in doubt, when you should be on the edge of your seat because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

I’ve been quite harsh here, but I did really like the film. It’s not bad by any means; it’s a lot of fun and ticks all the blockbuster boxes, but it just doesn’t advance things as much as you’d hope and it lacks that certain spark that’d really make it pop. We may be at warp speed, but someone’s left the handbrake on.

3 stars

Review by Jonathan Cardwell.

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