I set out a promise to you, dear readers, before I continue: I promise I will try as hard as I can to make sure this doesn’t just descend into my ramblings concerning the attractiveness of Benedict Cumberbatch. It’ll be hard. He is one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen and his voice should come with some sort of parental guidance. Seriously this film should have been rated a 15 just because of how erotic all of his lines sound. Not since the days of Jack Bauer has someone sounded quite so sexy whilst threatening to kill a bunch of people. But here I am falling into the same old trap.
Back in 2009 JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise by rewriting history to allow a wider range of people to embrace a dwindling franchise. Abrams famously admitted to not being a fan of Star Trek and set out to make a film that would appeal to people like him whilst hopefully not alienating the loyal fans. It was a Star Trek film made as a Star Wars film and the whole thing was considered to be a major success. The decision to start a clean slate by rewriting such familiar character histories allowed Abrams to do what he wanted with the franchise whilst still leaving the classic television show in tact. It was a brilliant decision and for the past four years cinema goers have been eagerly awaiting the follow-up.
Into Darkness picks up shortly after Star Trek left off with Kirk (Chris Pine) and friends exploring the depths of space in his very own ship. We catch up with them mid-adventure with Kirk and Dr Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) sprinting through an alien wilderness to escape an angry extraterrestrial mob. We quickly learn that this is all just a huge distraction whilst Spock (Zachary Quinto) works to calm down an active volcano. To be honest, I could have done without this opening piece as, really, it adds little to the overall story and seems to drag everything out a bit. (Also, the idea that the Enterprise could survive hidden underwater for a few days seems a bit far-fetched to me but there we are.) Although, it allows Quinto the opportunity to shine once again as Spock. The actor continues to get better in the role and his inner-wrangling between his two halves is a great thing to watch as he finds himself getting deeper into two personal relationships. The most important and loving of the two is between Spock and his Captain and as we pick up the story we find ourselves in full bromance mode. The pair continue to play off each other very well and it’s a double act I’m looking forward to seeing more of in the future.
It is the conflict between the two men that creates the supposed need for the opening gambit as it’s major purpose is to remind the audience that Spock is all about the prime directive and favours the needs of the many over the few. Of course, Kirk being Kirk the crew manage to go against the all important Prime Directive and makes their presence known to the simplistic lifeforms inhabiting the planet. Inevitably this doesn’t sit well with the important people back at Star Fleet and Kirk has his ship taken away from him before being made First Officer to a returning Admiral Pike. That is until a disgruntled ex-employee John Harrison vows vengeance against The Federation by blowing up one of their secret bunkers in London, with the help of Dr Who’s lovable Mickey Smith (also known as talented actor and film-maker Noel Clarke). Kirk is called back into play after promising Admiral Marcus that he will hunt down and capture the deadly Harrison.
Benedict Cumberbatch gives another stand-out performance as Harrison. He plays the character with a chilling intensity but doesn’t make the mistake of taking him into ridiculous super villain territory. He humanises Kirk’s deadly foe to the extent that it often becomes difficult to separate him from the the supposed good guys who are out to stop him. I won’t go into massive spoiler territory (as my personal cinema experience was slightly marred after IMDB revealed the true name of his character before I’d seen the film) but he brings about a great new insight into one of the most infamous Star Trek foes (OK maybe that was a bit too obvious but the film has been out a while and I doubt any of my two (at best) readers are coming to me for advice on whether or not they should see a film). Cumberbatch really is one of the greatest actors around and will no doubt go down in history as one of the most devilish villains in the history of the franchise. The decision to cast him in the role may now be creating some controversy with some critics but based solely on performance, Harrison is a complete success and I can’t imagine any other actor playing him with the same balance of drama, humanity and light-heartedness. And he’s pretty easy on the eye… don’t know if I’ve mentioned it yet.
The scenes between Harrison and Chris Pine’s Kirk are wonderful as the pair face-off in an increasingly dramatic fashion. Pine has nowhere near the level of acting talent that Cumberbatch possesses but it is this fact that makes these scene all the more effective. Harrison is a deadly enemy, a super-soldier, and Pine manages to make his own shortcomings highlight his foe’s clear head-start. Kirk is left floundering in front of his superior enemy just as Pine is left to try and catch-up to Cumberbatches superior performance. It leaves Kirk seeming vulnerable but determined to come out on top.
It is a welcome consequence that also adds greater depth to the moments shared between Pine and Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike. The difference between the pair as actors only makes the father-son style relationship all the greater on screen. What Pine does bring to the role is an unending energy and ability to make all of the outlandish situations and slapdash narrative stick together. He appears to have absolute faith in what he is doing which makes it easier to accept some of the looser aspects of the plot.
That would have to be my major criticism of the new Star Trek. It just isn’t as slick as Abrams’ first outing and it doesn’t fit together as easily. There is a tension between Abrams slick production and the film’s thin and, at times, haphazard script. Into Darkness offers amazing visual episodes, moments of documentary style camera work and references to modern day terrorism. It is a triumph of modern film-making but this story just seems quite childish and sloppy. Rules don’t seem to matter in this world and there are no real consequences. Like a childhood game where you’re all just making it up as you go along, Into Darkness changes the importance of certain ideas as and when it feels like it. For all of Spock’s banging on about the Prime Directive there appear to be no consequences when the crew of the Enterprise consistently fail to abide by it. Kirk loses captaincy of his ship for all of 2 hours before he’s back in the hot-seat.
The main writing technique seems to be if it doesn’t make sense just add another fanboy reference in there to keep the audience happy. ‘Wait why the hell has that been allowed to happen… ooh look a Tribble!’ On the one hand I appreciated these little references to the Original Series and delighted in hearing talk of the neutral zone and Harry Mudd. On the other, it’s the Steven Moffat thing all over again. If you don’t have the substance to keep an audience happy why not just treat them like dribbling morons and wave shiny/familiar objects in front of their face? If Star Trek was about introducing a new generation of Roddenberry’s franchise then Into Darkness is about celebrating it. We have more great performances from the lead characters: something like a mix between an impression and a re imagining of old friends. All of the key players are there doing what they need to do to make this a successful Star Trek film. We delight at seeing Chekov (Anton Yelchin) panicking in his ‘can’t believe it’s real’ Russian accent and shiver when Sulu (John Cho) shows off his dark side whilst taking temporary command of the ship. Karl Urban continues to provide great laughs (and a great impression) as Bones and is not only one of my favourite characters but provides some of the most memorably one-liners. Who would be happy to call it a Star Trek film if Dr McCoy never said “Damn it man, I’m a Doctor, not a *insert occupation here*.” I can’t say I’m a massive fan of Simon Pegg’s Scotty and I do find his pretty dire Scottish accent grating but there can be no denying that he provides humour and, in this film at least, drama and emotion. All of the necessary ingredients are there but I still can’t help but feel the final meal is lacking some seasoning. It’s just not quite as good as it could be.
That’s not to say that there isn’t enough to keep you entertained and Abrams’ set action pieces continue to be amazing. There is nothing quite as intense as the arrival of Nero’s ship in the the previous outing but there are some great space-based sequences that will surely keep fans of the show and the new films entertained. The film’s world of the future is, as far as this can be true in 2013, a realistic one. Gone are the clichéd visions of the future from pre-1980s sci-fi. Instead we have a world that you could genuinely see existing; a world where the Federation live and try to keep Earth safe. It’s a joy to watch and it makes the connection between Harrison’s acts of violence and the modern world all the more obvious. This is a genuine look at terrorism and the hidden dangers that could be facing us every day. Our greatest fear nowadays isn’t the big, well-known foe but those hidden amongst us. The potential violence and hatred that lives within humanity. In any other setting this idea would have been lost in a haze of space kitsch. It speaks to a modern audience is a way that the Original Series spoke to the audience of the 60s. Abrams may not be a fan of the show but he is certainly keeping alive its ideals.
Finally, there has been a lot said already about the female representation in the latest Star Trek film but that’s not going to stop me throwing my own thoughts into the ring. In the first film we were introduced to Uhura (Zoe Saldana) as the romantic interest that comes between Kirk and Spock. Yes she can speak a few alien languages but she didn’t exactly make much of an impact. To be fair to Abram and writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, the Enterprise’s major female presence does have a bit more to do in the latest instalment but there is still an apparent lack of kick-ass women in Star Fleet. The main argument I can see in favour of Uhura is that she has two moments of bravery and action (yes that’s right two whole short pieces in a film that lasts over 2 hours.) I can’t deny that she does has her moments of kick-assery as we see her face up to the Klingons with steely determination and she plays an important role in bringing down a deadly enemy during the final showdown. However, that still doesn’t seem enough to me. For the most part, she is present in the film as Spock’s girlfriend (and even then she is secondary to the all important bromance) and primarily to remind us of the separation between his Vulcan and human heritage. It’s just not good enough.
Especially when her only other female member of staff is Alice Eve’s Dr Carol Marcus who spends half of the time getting herself into sticky situations so a big brave man can save her and the other half being the sexy (and preferably half-naked) romantic interest for Kirk. There was a great deal of potential for Dr Marcus to be an intelligent and influential character in the plot but it just falls down to another example of an objectified damsel in distress. Alice Eve does a great job with the material she’s been given but there is only so much anyone can do with a character who spends her screen time being helpless and alluring. I’m not trying to preach about the sexualisation of women (and indeed men) in cinema and Star Trek in particular (especially when you consider that I started this review by salivating over the gorgeous Benedict Cumberbatch) but it would be a lot easier to take the unnecessary underwear scene if Marcus was shown to be something more than a hot bod. The argument that Kirk was shown in his underwear and that Harrison was supposed to be shown in a state of undress does nothing to diminish the argument either. It’s not so much about the nakedness but about the lack of depth. Both Kirk and Harrison prove themselves to be more than just a piece of eye-candy by the subsequent actions within the plot so these more sexual scenes are less prominent. Ask anyone what Alice Eve did in the new Star Trek film and I guarantee most people would tell you she got undressed.
This character would be easier to handle if there were a few more important female characters. Look at all of the scenes that take place at Star Fleet headquarters. Were there any senior female officers present during any of the key meetings? I certainly didn’t see any. Are we really meant to believe that a society that has started exploring space is so backwards in their ideas of gender equality that there are only about three females employed in the entire Federation? Although, we have gone from having one key female in the first film to two in the second. Maybe by the time Abrams’ 6th film comes out we’ll either have a plethora of women parading around in their underwear or, hopefully, just one strong and useful one?
(While I’m at it, I’d like to point out that arguing in defense of the undressing scene because the ladies from the 1960s show were sexy is the biggest load of bullshit imaginable. Times have changed so to say that something that was allowed in the 60s should be OK now is unbelievable. Star Trek can and perhaps should be sexy but we have to make sure that the female characters represent the sense of equality that society is now supposed to be supporting. Women can and are as useful and important as men and our biggest cinema franchises should share that view. What kind of message are the film-makers giving its primarily young audience with one-dimensional characters like Dr Marcus? Just think of the children. Won’t somebody please think of the children?!)
So, in closing, it’s not quite the Star Trek film we were all expecting but it’s good enough. Cumberbatch’s Harrison is a more than great follow-up to Eric Bana’s Nero and manages to take us into new territory by often forgoing the brute force tactics favoured by the angry Romulan and instead playing mind-games with his victims. He’s a deadly mix of strength and cunning like a terrifying amalgamation of Batman’s two greatest enemies Bane and The Joker… but with a much nicer face. There is enough to keep us all happy but it does seem slower and less slick than the original. Abrams’ first film was a game-changer and it is no wonder people left the cinema in wonder. This just feels a little flat next to its older brother. Nothing terrible of course. It’ll still beat most of the original films for sheer enjoyment and quality but we’ve come to expect something now. It’s better to not think of this as a sequel but merely a CV for Abrams next big science-fiction challenge. If Into Darkness tells us anything, it’s that Star Wars Episode 7 is going to be epic.