(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2013)
Although I tend to write about quirkier films on the blog, I have to be honest: most of the time, like everyone else, I go to the cinema for the simple reason that I want to be entertained. I’m not a huge fan of action films; nor am I anything remotely approaching a Trekkie; but I really enjoyed the first instalment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise and wanted to see the sequel. Into Darkness obliged by completely bypassing the critical part of my brain and going straight into overdrive, leaving me with a bubbling sense of exhilaration and a grin on my face a mile wide. It may not be a great film. It may not be Art. But it was bloody good fun.
If anyone actually cares about the plot (which is debatable), the film kicks off with a pre-titles action sequence, in which the crew of the Enterprise go beyond their brief: actually interfering in the ecology of a world they’re only meant to be observing. Back at headquarters, Kirk and Spock have their respective wrists slapped; but, before they really have to suffer any punishment, disaster strikes. A Starfleet employee in London, whose little daughter is in a coma, receives an unexpected offer from a mysterious man. Her life can be saved, in return for one small favour: the destruction of a Starfleet archive building. It is a trade-off that her distraught father can’t refuse, and it gives the audience some intriguing shots of a futuristic London – though I seriously doubt the London Eye will still be standing in two hundred years’ time.
As Starfleet top brass gather in San Francisco to face this emergency, it becomes clear that the lost archive is actually a mere distraction: the tip of the iceberg of one man’s insane desire for revenge. And the only ones brave – or foolish – enough to track this man to the ends of the universe, to bring him to justice, are Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. The name of this man? Well, to avoid revealing the worst-kept spoiler on the Internet, let’s just call him John Harrison for now. In a stroke of casting genius, he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who effortlessly outacts everybody else in the film.
I haven’t seen any of the original Star Trek films and perhaps only one or two episodes of the various series, so I’m completely unaware of changes to the canon or in-jokes which more devoted fans will have easily picked up. For once I am not the person sitting in the cinema grumbling darkly about what they’ve done to Character X, or Plot Device B which invalidates the logic of Law Y. It was actually a relief to sink into the cinema seat, work my way through a bag of excessively sugary sweets, and lose myself in a film. It was just jolly good escapism, complete with warp speed, Klingons and a tribble, along with the usual dramatic grist to the mill of personality clashes, ruthless ambition and political manoeuvring. It’s probably true that character development has been slightly sacrificed in order to leave time for the action, but when the special effects are this good, and the story is engaging enough to support them, I really don’t mind.
Of course it’s all rather over the top, but that’s what makes it so fun: I lost track of the number of times someone cried, ‘But Captain, if we don’t (do x) then everybody on this ship is going to die!’ Indeed, by the end of the film I was quite astounded that the Enterprise hadn’t broken up somewhere in the middle of hyperspace, because it seemed to have taken an awful lot of damage without any visible repair work being done.
Chris Pine continues to play Kirk as a restless maverick action-hero and he pulls it off very well – I’m not sure how much is due to his acting and how much to his impulsive charm, but it’s an example of actor and part coming together very well. His spontaneity and devil-may-care attitude play off perfectly against Zachary Quinto’s thoughtful, measured Spock and the friendship between the two feels plausible, even if it seems to have grown up rather rapidly since their competitiveness in the first film. Quinto makes an excellent Spock, managing to convey a lot without displaying much emotion, which must be terrifically difficult.
The rest of the crew seem to be slightly underused, except perhaps Simon Pegg’s Scotty, who provides much of the comic relief here. Karl Urban makes pleasant scenery, but doesn’t get to do much except deliver growled one-liners; and I feel rather sorry for Zoe Saldana, whose Uhura never really gets the chance to shine in her capacity as linguistics expert (despite a brief run-in with the Klingons) and who appears to be present mainly as a romantic interest for Spock. It isn’t even a particularly convincing relationship and I wonder whether it was introduced less for its plausibility than as an (unsuccessful) attempt to divert fan attention from the Kirk/Spock dynamic.
Women generally have a bit of a hard time in the film – poor Alice Eve, for example, must have been delighted to have been offered the role of Carol Marcus, physicist and weapons expert, and it’s disappointing that one of her key functions in the film is to strip off to her underwear in a completely pointless and unnecessary scene. Shame on the writers, who didn’t even have the decency to think of a comparatively pointless scene for the benefit of the women in the audience. There’s a rumour going round the Internet that a deleted scene showed Benedict Cumberbatch in a shower which, if true, is further evidence of the cruelty of fate.
Clambering (with effort) back to a slightly more serious level, Cumberbatch really did add a touch of class to the film. His John Harrison has many of the qualities that he’s been able to hone as Sherlock: arrogance, effortless intellectual superiority, and barely-disguised contempt for everyone around him. However, Into Darkness offered him the chance to combine this superciliousness with some intense action sequences, which included taking out a troop of Klingons single-handed and grappling with Spock on the roof of a fast-moving shuttle, both of the former achieved while wearing a very fetching long leather coat. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely and I must say that I did too.
Part of the reason I didn’t get into the earlier Star Trek films and series was that, in those days, it still seemed strange that a group of fans would invest so much time in discussing and following a series. As a teenager, I felt that I couldn’t understand the various series without having a level of knowledge and understanding far higher than that I possessed. And I regarded the Star Trek fans with slight suspicion as a result of their intense enthusiasm. This was, of course, in the halcyon days before I used the internet; before The Lord of the Rings brought fantasy and sci-fi into the mainstream. Nowadays, thanks to fansites and Tumblr, every TV series has its own fandom and fervent enthusiasm is de rigueur whether you’re speaking of Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey. Times have changed.
However, I digress. What is great about this new franchise is that it strips the Star Trek mythology back to the characters and concepts at its heart and thereby makes it accessible and enjoyable to those of us without an understanding of the ‘old’ canon. Throw in some stunning special effects (I loved the moments when the Enterprise rose out of clouds or sea, accompanied by rousing music), a good dose of humour and some great action scenes, and you have a film which is genuinely good fun to watch, even if it might exasperate some of the purists.