Star Trek Into Darkness Review
rating: 3.5J.J. Abrams left himself a tough act to follow after the surprise success of his daring 2009 Star Trek reboot, which re-imagined the franchise as a sleeker, sexier, shiner outfit simultaneously tailored to both hardcore fans and new initiates. Though it struggles to live up to the breath of fresh air that was Abrams' first film, this sophomore effort is nevertheless an exhilarating, entertaining thrill-ride that clips by at a confident pace, even if that ultimately might also be one of its key problems. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Enterprise are this time tasked with stopping John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a top Starfleet agent who has gone rogue, laying waste to London in an attack that has catastrophic consequences. With Harrison having fled to the Klingon world Kronos, putting an end to his path of destruction won't be easy, and diplomatic relations notwithstanding, Kirk, uneasily granted the mission by his superiors following an opening violation of a Prime Directive, is certainly on thin ice. An unexpected point of comparison for Star Trek Into Darkness is the recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace; similarly, it follows a bold reinvention of a beloved franchise, and then can't find a way to sufficiently up its game, instead compensating with a wealth of frantic set-pieces. That might sound like back-handed praise at best, but on the whole, this latest Trek is expertly crafted, combining uproarious humour with intense, spectacular action - it just doesn't do much to evolve the franchise or the characters within it. After the tricky time travel mechanics of the 2009 film, Into Darkness takes on a far more simplistic through-point; an A-to-B-to-C chase narrative that sees Kirk and his intrepid cohorts chasing down a domestic terrorist. Thanks to both Benedict Cumberbatch's exceptional performance - who should surely see his international stock go up a few points here - and the clear rooting in contemporary concerns, the villain mythology far outdoes Eric Bana's mild baddie from the previous film. However, it does have to be said that after Nero killed 6 billion of Vulcan's inhabitants, John Harrison's attacks here don't seem quite as impressive. Still, the sustained intensity of Harrison's presence on screen makes for a number of thrilling set-pieces, as they chase the man down, capture him, attempt to re-capture him and, inevitably, take him down once and for all. Less keen than before to stop and chat, this time Abrams stuffs his film full of action, such that for all of the film's misgivings, audiences will certainly not be bored. The problem, then, is the means by which much of this action comes about; the script feels far less water-tight than before, with contrivance weighing in heavily on the events therein. Take one key moment in which Kirk, Admiral Marcus (played by Robocop himself, Peter Weller, in an unexpectedly meaty role) and other dignitaries are gathered at a meeting; no more than 30 seconds go by following a John Harrison name-drop and he arrives in a ship, ready to cause all manner of mayhem. It seems cartoonishly convenient (even if the film does try to lampshade this), a lazy way to move the plot forward and deliver some action - thunderous and superbly-orchestrated though it is. Similarly, a sub-plot involving Marcus' daughter Carol (Alice Eve) who stows away on board Kirk's ship seems like a relatively convoluted way to keep the story pulsing along, especially once you've had some time to meditate on the story's finer points. To that same token, many characters are given practically nothing to do, and it too often seems to be the females; as Carol, Eve has little agency, paraded out in her underwear in one unbearably perfunctory scene, and is simply a touchstone to allow the next plot beat to abound. Zoe Saldana's Uhura, meanwhile, is demoted to the role of nagging girlfriend to Quinto's Spock, even if it does generate a few haughty laughs. The characters who best benefit this time around are Spock himself - whose character continues to develop well upon the foundation so adequately built in the first film - as well as Karl Urban's Leonard McCoy, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, John Cho's Sulu, who even gets a few minutes in the Captain's chair (setting up for a hilarious joke). Much like the recent Iron Man 3, this is a film that purports to be as fashionably dark as possible, though balances its tone exceedingly well, allowing for tragic death but also plenty of wry humour that fans of the original Trek will particularly enjoy. The problem is simply that, after delivering a first film dripping with ambition, Into Darkness feels a little more keen to coast. Fans of the Shatner Trek might take umbrage with one particular chain of events that intentionally plagiarises one of the classic franchise's most-praised sequences, the problem being that this time around, it's a lot harder to care. Abrams mistakenly puts Kirk in a wealth of mortal danger above all other characters which, given our surety that nothing fatal will ever happen to him, sucks the tension completely out of the film. Combine this with a resolution that stops barely short of "because...magic", and you have a finale that doesn't totally convince despite some thrilling high-wire action. J.J. Abrams built himself quite the mountain to climb, and the key to enjoying Star Trek Into Darkness is simply by tempering expectations, which are unavoidably through the roof. Even though it doesn't meet the highs of the first film, this does little to dissuade from the fact that both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises appear to be in very good hands indeed. This is a perfectly functional sequel that nevertheless falls rather short of 2009's water-tight reboot. Star Trek Into Darkness is in UK cinemas this Thursday, and is released in the US on May 17th.