Director J.J. Abrams demonstrates precisely why he’s been tapped to direct the upcoming Star Wars sequel with an exhilarating, fabulously entertaining entry in sci-fi’s other biggest franchise, one that should well and truly satisfy regardless of the extent of your fandom. Following on from the successful 2009 reboot, Star Trek Into Darkness continues the adventures of the fledgling Starship Enterprise, this time pitting the explorers against an enemy from within, one who will stop at nothing to achieve his malevolent ambitions. Indulging in neither the dour self-reflection nor the convoluted plotting of so many other recent blockbusters, Abram’s latest film, although by no means a game changer, is exactly what it needs to be: a straightforward, blessedly unencumbered popcorn flick brimming with excitement and slickly rendered spectacle.
Exploding out of the gates and setting the pace and tone for the next one hundred and twenty three minutes, the film begins, Raiders of the Lost Arc style, in the middle of the action, with the impulsive Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and prickly Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) running for their lives through an alien jungle, a group of angry extra-terrestrial tribesman hot on their trail. Meanwhile, the logical Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempts to lowers a high-tech calcification bomb into the heart of an enormous volcano in an attempt to annul its imminent eruption. Slowing only to let the heroes quip and trade barbs, it’s a breakneck set-piece that delivers big thrills while also establishing – or re-establishing – the dynamics between the ship’s crew.
But this is just the warm-up act. The Enterprise is barely back on Earth long enough for Kirk to be chewed out for recklessness by his superior/surrogate father figure Rear Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) before a bomb goes off in a research facility in London. The suspect revealed to be a vindictive former Starfleet agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch; TV’s Sherlock), Kirk and his crew find themselves tasked by the hawklike Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller; RoboCop) with a new mission: pursue Harrison into the depths of Klingon space, and bring him to justice through the use of deadly force.
From the fifty-million dollar Spielberg tribute that was Super 8 to the third, best entry in the Mission: Impossible series – not to mention his previous outing with Kirk and company – Abrams has over the course of his career demonstrated a considerable talent for large scale action, and his latest is definitely no exception. A starship in freefall and a deep space dive through a field of debris are just two of the film’s pulse-racing set-pieces, each one of which is captured dazzlingly by cinematographer Daniel Mindel. Admittedly, not all of them hold that much weight from a narrative perspective, yet their staging is so spectacular that it’s difficult to hold it against them. More importantly, no matter how much stuff Abrams packs into the frame, it’s always easy to make out. All the effects money in the world comes to nothing without decent editing and a steady-handed cameraman. Thankfully, Into Darkness has both.
Pine continues to make the Kirk role his own, never once impersonating Will Shatner while none-the-less embodying that mix of rashness, brashness, determination and loyalty that epitomizes one of sci-fi’s biggest icons. Zachary Quinto is equally strong as Kirk’s classic foil Spock, the characters’ natural detachment allowing for some great moments of deadpan humour, as well as flickers of emotion when he allows the dispassionate mask to crack. Simon Pegg handles the bulk of the film’s comedic material as the excitable engineer Scotty, although Urban’s irascible “Bones” McCoy gets his share of laughs as well. Zoë Saldana, John Chu and Anton Yelchin round out the crew as Lieutenant’s Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively, and while the latter two especially don’t receive a great deal of screen time, they all do the most with what they’re given.
That all said, the stand-out performance comes from Cumberbatch as galactic terrorist John Harrison – a mysterious character whose place in Trek lore has provoked endless speculation on the web. Regardless of such questions, there’s no denying the gravitas the English actor possesses, or the chills one feels when fixed in his merciless gaze. Ironically, the weakest element of the script involves Harrison’s plan, one that is questionable at best, totally nonsensical at worst. Yet so cold and arresting is the actor’s characterisation that such problems are easily forgotten. And really, that’s the key to the movie’s success. Lean and compelling from the very first scene, it never once slows down long enough to let you dwell on the things it does wrong.