You wonder if the title of the new Star Trek movie is almost a joke. It’s shot with so much flare you find half the time squinting.
No matter. With his 2009 reboot of a series long since shrinking into fannish inconsequentiality, JJ Abrams achieved something quite extraordinary. He deserves a spot of glare. Taking the iconic original characters, recasting them with wider emotional expanses, and giving the thing a retro sheen that looked sleek and modern, he created something that delighted fans while providing an entry point for people who’d never heard of Photon Torpedoes, Prime Directives or Romulans made as much sense as garbled. It was almost universally acclaimed.
After a hit like that, the relentless and lengthy pre-hype campaign of its sequel has surpassed even Dark Knight Rises levels. That film was great, but it couldn’t help feel a slight let-down after all of that. By the time the umpteenth trailer had been released for this the other week, the overwhelming feeling was ‘just get the bloody thing out’. The news here is good, Abrams has done it again and the hype is completely justified.
Of course, Abrams’ Starfleet does not take itself as seriously as Nolan’s Gotham. A criticism of Into Darkness in early reviews has been that this blockbuster is just too blockbustery. This, again, is a consequence of fandom.
Star Trek was, of course, a revolutionary force when it launched in the 1966. At the height of cold war paranoia, it painted an optimistic future where humanity had resolved its own differences and headed out onto the final frontier as peaceful explorers. By the time of spin-off series The Next Generation, peace had even been made with the Klingons, a shorthand for Communists, who progress and understanding had found to be a noble enough race all of their own, with a code that was to be understood as different, rather than fought as antagonistic. The crew were multi-racial, multi-species, and a black woman held a position of authority.
That progressive spirit seeps through to Abrams’ version, but it’s necessarily done with the bish-bash-bosh required of the multiplex blockbuster. The sequel does the same, unapologetically upping the ante. But it turns other things up as well. Having established the team first time out, it’s time to throw them into some real jeopardy, test their mettle and see if the relationships, as much as the people, can survive. Like any science fiction worth its salt, Into Darkness holds a mirror onto our own times. Much has been made of Benedict Cumberbatch’s central villain, John Harrison, billed as a ‘one man weapon of mass destruction’. This notion of an enemy within, a terror cell with a stealth that our clunky military struggles to fight, is of course eerily redolent of current challenges. This is still Star Trek, but the catalyst for the action is an atrocity in London, and the climax sees a sequence so shocking you do pause to wonder how they got away with doing it.
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It’s Cumberbatch of course who’ll be the hook for those of you who wouldn’t otherwise be going boldly to the theatres. Not that Abrams exactly needed to coax people in, but anyone still resistant to his re-cooling of Trek last time will likely be tempted along by the casting of our current hipster laureate actor at the absolute terminal velocity of his ascent. He’s compelling throughout; bulked up by gym and protein to an action hero for sure, but a villain who can switch between brain and brain in a quicksilver one-two punch of antagonism.
He’s necessarily over the top – fans of the franchise will soon realise why (the nods to lore will make you punch the air). But if Cumberbatch towers over this movie, it’s only because the rest of the cast have already gelled together so well as an ensemble. Chris Pine’s hot-headed Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock provide the awkward bromance at the film’s heart. Quinto is quietly stunning as the half-Vulcan’s internal battle between logic and passion plays out throughout the arc. But it feels like there is no star, other than the noble mission itself, and that’s as things should be.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that demands you go with it. It makes no claim to being a sci-fi Citizen Kane, but as a spectacular thrill ride with dizzying emotional wallop, it’ll likely not be bettered this side of the Neutral Zone.