JJ Abrams surprised everyone back in 2009 by delivering the perfect Star Trek reboot, an enjoyable romp that provided a fresh spin on established characters without being hamstrung by reverence. The film set up its own mythology without sacrificing the essence of Star Trek, leaving the door open for the sequels to boldly go where no film has gone before, and so on.
So what happened? Instead of seeking out new life, Star Trek Into Darkness goes back to the canon to essentially just retool one of the previous films. That would be more acceptable had the film been more exciting but despite almost non-stop action sequences, this is a surprisingly dull affair with every scene dragged out longer than it needs to be, killing a lot of the forward momentum.
The film opens with the crew on an observation mission to a jungle planet. When the mission goes awry, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is faced with certain death unless Kirk (Chris Pine) defies Starfleet rules and reveals the Enterprise to the primitive natives. Always the stickler, Spock is ready to accept his fate but naturally Kirk goes against orders and saves his buddy, landing him in hot water with the higher-ups, Admirals Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Marcus (Peter Weller).
They don’t get much time to dwell on their problems though as soon a new threat emerges in the form of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sinister ex-Starfleet agent who has set his sights on destroying his former employers. Cumberbatch plays Harrison in full on evil Brit-thesp mode, his Rickman-esque baritone relishing every single line as he brings weight to the character while also chewing up every piece of scenery he can find.
With all due respect to Eric Bana, his Tyson-tattooed Romulan Nero made for a lacklustre villain in the last outing but Cumberbatch steals the show here, providing a potent threat to Kirk and Spock, both physical and intellectual.
If Cumberbatch adds the sizzle, then it’s Pine and Quinto who bring the steak, their stormy friendship providing the film’s emotional hook. Both men have grown into the roles immensely and the constant clash of sensibilities between the hot-headed human and his more logical, rational Vulcan counterpart makes for a compelling dynamic.
As well as the leads, there are welcome character beats throughout with each of the returning cast getting their chance to shine. Karl Urban’s Bones is a particular standout and Simon Pegg’s outstanding comic timing and manic energy makes Scotty a loveable character despite an awful Scottish accent.
Unfortunately the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as the characters. Many plot points are telegraphed so much that crucial scenes are robbed of tension, including the emotional centre-piece of the film. It’s a pity the actors are left short-changed by the script. Prometheus scribe Damon Lindelof joins returning writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and his influence is felt as the plot meanders along through overlong scenes, building to an ending that feels flat and anticlimactic.
Star Trek Into Darkness is another fun if unspectacular entry into the Trek canon but fails to live up to the high expectations set by the first – or eleventh – film. There’s an overriding sense that Abrams and co have chosen to play it a little too safe, leaning too much on the mythology of old instead of blazing their own trail.