The following piece contains spoilers.
When the crew of the USS Enterprise started boldly going where no man has gone before in the final frames of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 film, my first thought was that I had to experience it again. And again. And again. By the end of summer of that year, I had seenStar Trek seven times in the cinema, mainly on my own, but always with the same ecstatic glee that I had not experienced in a whole decade of cinema.
As amazing as Star Trek is, there are, I think, two principle issues with it. First, in order to give the newly formed Enterprise crew the screen time they deserve, their adversary, Romulan defector Nero, was a spitting, high-camp, painted panto dame. Nero’s motives were clear (home planet destruction + accidental time travel = angry Romulan), and created the alternate reality required by Abrams to re-begin the Star Trek legend, but he was largely a MacGuffin which kicked the crew into gear. Secondly, the unbridled pace of the first film meant that, in the end, something had to give. Kirk and Spock’s infiltration of the Narada, and their subsequent rescue by the Enterprise, would have been a thrilling end to any other film. However, in the high-pace world of Abrams, this climax was oddly limp, although far from peril-free.
These slight shortcomings are forgivable, and they are certainly tweaked for Abrams’ second Starfleet mission, misleadingly titled Into Darkness. One feels it would be too easy for the bespectacled director to punch the ‘Darker Sequel’ button and follow the trend of every blockbuster of the past ten years, so it is a relief that this sequel maintains the zero-gravity lightness of its predecessor.
We begin with what should be a routine machine for hot-blooded captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his short-suffering crew: freeze a volcano to save a crusty, primitive race from destruction (which, incidentally, looks excellent in 3D). But hey, this is J.J. Abrams, so nothing goes exactly to plan. One flimsy zip-wire later and Spock (Zachary Quinto, born to play it) is stuck in a volcano. Kirk’s dilemma is simple: let his friend die and follow Starfleet procedure; or save Spock and break every rule in the electronic archives (do books exist anymore?). There are no prizes for guessing which path Kirk chooses, and this opening action sets the tone for a sequel which is intelligently poised on issues of friendship, differences and sacrifice.
Kirk and Co barely get time to re-engage the external dampeners, because before the paperwork from the last mission has been filed, they have a terrorist to deal with. You wanted a scary baddie? You got a scary baddie. Benedict Cumberbatch, playing ex-Starfleet officer, ahem, John Harrison, does not burst onto the screen so much as ooze, filling frames with his towering posture and viscous annunciation. His first attack, on a Gherkined London, is not entirely representative of the kind of villain Harrison is. Getting Noel Clarke to do your dirty work seems a cowardly move for an antagonist who is far more hands-on than this: Harrison is neither puppeteer nor puppet, but a one man army of retribution which makes him more unpredictable than the organised villainy seen in the work of Christopher Nolan. Still, despite the topical yet incongruous London attack, Abrams must be praised for a match-cut which pairs Harrison’s water provoked bomb with Kirk’s ice cube in a glass of whisky.
The London bombing and a further attack on Starfleet’s big names are enough for Kirk to put his foot down and chase Harrison to an uninhabited Klingon colony, but while this second act maintains the pace of the electric opening, it also gets bogged down in information in which, if you had a second to think, you would begin to see the black holes. Alarm bells should ring at the appearance of the Major’s daughter, Carol Marcus (posh, pointless tottie Alice Eve) and some suspect WMDs aboard the Enterprise, which attract so much jargon that even techie Scotty (Simon Pegg) doesn’t want to be involved. This means that what should be the fun voyages of the Starship Enterprise, as seen in the Vulcan rescue mission of the first film, is more disjointed than that, as we get our heads round plot points, new faces and the terrible decision to maroon chirpy Chekov (Anton Yelchin) in the engine room.
This slightly frayed, plot-heavy section of the film is partly redeemed by Abrams’ dedication to character, which no doubt secured him the Star Wars gig. For all the crashes and bangs, the crew of the Enterprise remain at the core, seen in a wonderfully written exchange between Spock and nagging girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) where the philosophy of Vulcan fear, and subsequent loss, is discussed. Uhura argues that, during Spock’s near-death volcanic experience, he did not once consider their future as a couple. Women, eh? Spock ripostes that she mistakes his coldness for a lack of care: in fact the reverse is true. The pointy-eared one has experienced loss, fear, loneliness and anxiety too many times for his liking, and does not wish to repeat the process. Spock, thanks to his human mother, constantly tries to hide his emotions, and his success in the first scene of the film is tested right up to the climax.
And what a climax it is. In the modern era of three hour running times, it has become difficult to pinpoint exactly when a climax begins. For Into Darkness, it comes about forty minutes before the credits, which is not a moment too soon. Before this point Abrams must get through a lot of plot development, including the back story behind captive Harrison (revealed as Khan in a thoughtful, teary monologue), the real purpose of the WMDs, and the true motives of Peter Weller’s crinkly Starfleet boss. While some of these parts add character depth and allow us an insight into the (frankly not too bonkers) motives of Khan, it all feels like too much too soon, and the film threatens on a few occasions to spiral out of orbit.
It is the alliterative tag team approach of Kirk and Khan which stabilises the film, allowing Cumberbatch a brief period of antiheroism which is as curious as it is unsettling. Kirk, by allowing Khan to help take down Major Marcus, makes a decision which is typically illogical but rooted in compassion for the wrongs faced by the terrorist. Thankfully Khan is never quite on Kirk’s side, and although we never get the Holmes/Moriarty chess play many might expect, the tension is ever present in these climactic moments thanks to Cumberbatch’s astonishing work.
As the tables turn for the last time, Into Darkness hits a gear that forgives the underwhelming climax of the first film: the Enterprise may be falling out of space, but the action rises to stratospheric levels and once again questions how far one will go for friendship. Kirk’s inevitable death as he resurrects the heart of the film’s female lead, the USS Enterprise, is never going to be the conclusion for the captain, but it allows for the film’s most touching scene: a homoerotic, quiet and tear-jerking confession between the captain and his undeniable first mate, Spock. In this moment, Spock cannot hide his human half. His need for human contact is prohibited by the glass which holds back irradiated Kirk, and spurs on his brutal revenge on Khan in the final showdown through San Francisco. Spock’s only hate is sprung from his only love: he may have been able to observe kolinahr for Uhura, but he will never be able to for Kirk, who has been, and always will be, his friend.
After the poignancy of these scenes, a happily-ever-after denouement seems rushed, but at least prepares us for the buoyant Star Trek theme as the credits roll. Due to Star Warsresponsibilities, it is unclear whether or not Abrams will rejoin Starfleet, but perhaps by that time there will be direct flights running at warp speed between Earth and Tatooine. If this does prove to be Abrams’ last trek, he has bowed out with a film that, despite its occasional lack of neatness and clarity, once again redefines blockbuster. The legacy he has given to science fiction will undoubtedly live long, and certainly prosper.