It began with a lightning storm in space, and out of that storm was born James Tiberius Kirk, but it was J J Abrams who took that lightning and caught it in a bottle. Four long years later, the sequel has arrived amidst unprecedented secrecy and enough rumours to sink a battleship, not to mention the expectations of the fans, old and new, and a studio who have stated their desire to expand the appeal of Star Trek beyond its traditional stronghold, requesting Abrams to deliver a film that will appeal to audiences beyond science fiction fans and will also play strongly to an international audience.
While his first Star Trek film may have been a bottom up reinvention of the phenomenon that began almost fifty years ago (although The Man Trap was not broadcast until 1966, The Cage was filmed in 1964 and is remembered here in a sickbay graphic that displays the name Doctor Boyce, the chief medical officer and confidante to Captain Christopher Pike during his voyage to Talos IV), it was an affectionate reinvention that reminded fans why they so loved Star Trek in the first place – there was excitement and adventure, a glittering rebirth of the Federation flagship, and there was a crew who were cast not for A-list status but for their ability to give life to the iconic roles and a dedication to the ideals that inspired the first followers two generations ago, wrapped up in a modern package that remembered how to be fun, something lost in the last years of the televised series.
Not only that, but there was continuity, with Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime, giving perhaps his finest ever performance in the role that has defined his career, playing an older and more serene Spock given the chance to reflect on the friendship and decisions that shaped his half Vulcan life and explore deeper emotions than the character had ever displayed before. In her final role completed days before her death, Majel Barrett Rodenberry voiced the Enterprise computer, and Christopher Doohan, son of James, had a supporting role as the transporter officer, reprised in this new film.
Opening with a daring rescue mission on the planet Nibiru, where a pre-warp civilisation is endangered by violent tectonic activity, the crew so carefully assembled in the first film are immediately present and involved; the audience know who each of them are, and while the pre-credit sequence may not match the destruction of the Kelvin and the death of George Kirk for power, it is obvious that the warp speed template of the first film is to be followed closely, yet as if to wrong-foot expectation, the pace immediately slows, as Michael Giacchino’s fanfare segues into a sombre piano piece as we move to London, where Thomas Harewood (Doctor Who’s Noel Clarke) attends his terminally ill daughter in hospital, a reminder that even in 2259, there is still disease. In scenes of minimal dialogue more akin to a sophisticated thriller, he is approached by a stranger who offers to save Lucille’s life, but there is a heavy price attached.
Even as Kirk is called to account for his violation of the Prime Directive on Nibiru, word arrives of the shocking events that have occurred in London and the instigator is identified as a Starfleet operative known as Commander John Harrison. Kirk is the first to realise that London was only the first target, and he takes the Enterprise to the edge of Federation space to track the fugitive with a determination that alarms even those closest to him who fought alongside him against the rogue Romulan Nero, fearful that the operation could trigger interstellar war with the Klingon Empire.
It is surprising how much Star Trek Into Darkness is a direct sequel to its predecessor, almost as if the main function of that film were to set up this; there are multiple references to Kirk’s background and rise through Starfleet, and also specific references to the plot of that film, such as Mr Scott’s transwarp transporter solution, so many that at times it becomes a minor irritant, especially for Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy, both in much expanded roles but given lines that are almost rewrites of previous dialogue (some of it dating back further – Bones first said “Shut up, we‘re rescuing you“ to Spock in The Immunity Syndrome), though fortunately the rest of the crew, Kirk, Spock and Uhura in particular, are given wonderful moments that expand and redefine their characters and their relationships as well as prompting frequent laughter.
It was said from the outset that 1982’s Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan was the inspiration for this film, but it is the ways that this is true that are surprising; concentrating on the visual, the grey dress uniforms sport the same metal Starfleet emblems as first worn in that film, there is a focus on photon torpedoes and their launch bays, and the severe battle damage matches that inflicted by Nick Meyer in his first Star Trek film. In the dialogue, there are concerns expressed that Starfleet is becoming increasingly militarised, a line originally spoken by Doctor Carol Marcus, a character who is reborn here in a radically different role by Alice Eve, and the reflections on mortality and the prospect of death in the line of duty would not have been out of place in that classic film.
The two principal additions to the cast are Peter Weller as Admiral Alexander Marcus and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, both genre heavyweights who carry with them memories of Robocop, Buckaroo Banzai, Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes, and while neither disappoint, it is Cumberbatch who will be remembered as the force who defines the film in the same way as Ricardo Montalban burned through the screen with his eponymous wrath in only a handful of scenes.
That Harrison is a stronger character than Nero is no reflection on Eric Bana; Cumberbatch is simply given a far more complicated part which drives the whole narrative rather than being a plot device to allow the pieces to come together, and while both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto match him in their performances, the whole bridge crew embrace their expanded roles, with Pegg in particular moving into the position that Scotty historically occupied as the person on board closest to Kirk beyond Spock and Bones, the only person other than them who will call him Jim.
Though the twists of the film may be surprising to those who are new to Star Trek, those who knowtheir future history well may deduce key reveals ahead of time, but there are many pleasing surprises in the references to the wider universe, some of them throwaway, such as mention of Christine Chapel (“transferred to the outer frontier,” presumably in search of Doctor Roger Korby), a trader ship seized in the recent “Mudd incident,” and a specific section of the original articles establishing the Federation. Many years after Rick Berman underestimated the Star Trek viewership when he declared that Klingon conversations would no longer be subtitled as he felt it put audiences off, Marc Okrand’s language makes a welcome return, and it is delightful that Uhura not only knows Klingonese, but more importantly she understands Klingons.
Despite the reticence of the first trailers, a great deal of the film is set in outer space, and the Enterprise looks glorious both within and without, with new areas of the ship explored and astonishing use of the soundstages in moments never before seen in Star Trek in any version, along with a beautiful new warp effect nostalgically reminiscent of Firefly. While Saturn was briefly visited in 2009, here Jupiter is key, rendered in perhaps the most detail ever seen on a movie screen, and certainly more imposingly than the majestic but brief flyby of Star Trek The Motion Picture.
Much like the first film, there are noticeable holes in the plot; Earth has apparently no satellite defences or other ships able to intervene when a space battle is taking place in orbit or even to throw a tractor beam around a starship about to crashland in San Francisco, the understaffing of the enemy vessel due to automation is a little too convenient, and a serious dramatic debt is bought back far too easily considering the deaths that have gone before, but it is still a worthy sequel, a fantastic film in its own right, and a proud successor to the work of Gene Rodenberry, Robert Justman, Herb Solow and Gene Coon. The only sadness is that with J J Abrams now committed to Star Wars, the question of what will happen to the impending five year mission of the Enterprise is now unknown.
Star Trek Into Darkness is now on general release in 2D and 3D IMAX