Director JJ Abrams has followed up his sensational 2009 Star Trek reboot with a sparkling 3D sequel.
The core of the earlier film is present and correct: Chris Pine as the unfeasibly handsome junior Kirk; Zachary Quinto as the fringed logician Spock; Zoe Saldana—her status subtly enhanced after her leading role in James Cameron’s Avatar—as the lissome Uhuru; Karl Urban as grandstanding medical officer Bones; and Britain’s Simon Pegg as engine-room supremo Scotty, gamely approximating a Scottish accent about half the time.
Abrams also maintains the glistening visuals of his earlier film; Into Darkness is slathered in so much lens flare it looks like a Kylie Minogue video. And the flashes of crackling, knowing comedy have been retained, punctuating the shuddering fight scenes and chase sequences that are the very currency of the action blockbuster.
The film picks up shortly after its predecessor left off. Kirk is firmly installed in the Enterprise chair, Spock his first officer, and a mission is in progress. Abrams orchestrates an opening scene that mixes all the above-mentioned ingredients in a 100-proof cocktail, designed to get the audience instantly drunk.
Still burdened by the destruction of Vulcan, Spock is attempting to prevent a planet’s incineration by a giant volcano; Kirk flouts the Starfleet prime directive by allowing the primitive inhabitants to clap eyes on the USS Enterprise as it rises from the seabed to deliver Spock from the point of death.
This conflict between military regulation and personal loyalty is allowed to run through the story; it becomes a wedge driven in the overt Kirk-Spock bromance that was such an entertaining feature of the first film. After Spock sends in an official report that exposes Kirk’s fibbing, the rupture is worthy of a tycoon’s divorce. Kirk, furious, is deprived of his command, while Spock is transferred elsewhere. But they can’t stay mad at each other for long, and fortunately a murderous cataclysm erupts that has the happy effect of reuniting them. Benedict Cumberbatch essays the latest in a long line of British supervillains as he arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, to lay waste to a Starfleet base in future London, and follows it up with his own sequel, devastating a military conference in San Francisco. Within seconds, it would seem, Kirk and Spock are reinstalled on the Enterprise bridge, vowing to take Cumberbatch down.
At this point it’s necessary to draw a veil over the plot’s subsequent revelations, though plenty of rumors have been swirling as to how this Star Trek film—the 12th, incredibly—locks together with a much earlier entry in the sequence. Suffice it to say that it’s not actually all that interesting—one supervillain, these days, is very much like another, whatever their superficial attributes may be.
The real grit is provided, as ever, by the emotional politics, always Star Trek’s strength. Abrams threw everyone a curveball by getting Spock and Uhuru together in the first film; here, their relationship is knottier, thickened, while Kirk aims his bee-sting pout in the direction of newbie Alice Eve, as a not entirely convincing science officer. (Perhaps Kirk’s lack of success with the ladies will become a major theme of a third Star Trek reboot; despite his puppyish eagerness, and occasional bout of bedroom action with an alien chick or two, women never seem as keen on him as he is on them.)
There’s consequently a palpable air of world-weariness about this Star Trek; it’s as if Abrams and his writers concluded they couldn’t replicate the cockiness and bounce of the first film, and opted instead to allow their characters to grow up a little.
Everyone is a little more battered, a little less dewy-eyed. People are unlikely to charge out of the cinema with quite the same level of glee as they did in 2009, but this is certainly an astute, exhilarating concoction.