Please note: there are no spoilers here. At worst, we’ve talked about things that happen before the title card appears.
Given that modern day blockbusters like to burst out of the traps with something really rather special to get us sitting up and taking notice, it’s something of a surprise that Star Trek Into Darkness‘ weakest sequence is the one that opens it.
Here, we find the crew of the rebooted USS Enterprise on a volcanic alien planet, whose inhabitants are, to put it mildly, not the ones to go to when your computer doesn’t work. Said sequence (which still impresses) does present the movie’s first moral conflict, and by no means the last, but even with the scope of the IMAX format to soak up, it feels a softer opening than we got with JJ Abrams’ hugely successful 2009 reboot.
Furthermore, there’s some careful re-establishing work done in the first ten minutes or so. Star Trek characters remind us that they do Star Trek things, and regular traits are established (Kirk: impulsive, Spock: logical, Scotty: stressed, McCoy: the go-to-guy for metaphors in space). It’d be remiss to call it an unsure start, but it does feel as though the proverbial engines are turning over at a level where Scotty might even consider taking an hour off.
It doesn’t take too much longer for things to dramatically spring into life, though. And as it turns out, the early scenes, whilst establishing some important touchpoints for the movie, are bristling with the kind of wit that underpins much of the movie. In fact, the first surprise about Star Trek Into Darkness is just how light it is. It’s fast, entertaining, funny (Spock particularly so) and content to spend a good 70% of its running time with some kind of smile on its face, before thoroughly earning its 12A rating with the remainder.
Furthermore, the screenplay also remembers that details matter. The characters, as the movie progresses, are caught in mammoth events, but it’s the fact that we’ve seen them discuss and bicker over apparent trivia that makes it all actually matter and feel in any way tangible. JJ Abrams and his team managed this a treat in the early stages of his last movie, Super 8. There, a spectacular train crash sequence felt all the more dangerous and real because there were believable characters at the front and center of it. That ethos firmly carries over here, and you’re in little doubt just what the stakes mean for everyone.
But then character is a real strength throughout, as it was in the last movie. Star Trek Into Darkness is an ensemble piece, that finds room for several characters to thrive. Zachary Quinto’s deadpan Spock is a wonderful mix of conflict, humor and perfectly pitched delivery, whilst Karl Urban threatens to steal any scene he’s let near, with his grumping a constant highlight. Simon Pegg is almost back in Hot Fuzz mode here too, running at speed and generating more than a few chuckles himself. It feels as though any member of the impressive key ensemble can comfortably take over the heavy lifting at any time, and they frequently do.
And then there are the trump cards. There’s a strong argument that Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t quite manage to scale the same heights as its predecessor, but it does have one thing that movie hasn’t got: a strong villain. Eric Bana’s Nero was curtailed by limited screen time, as the 2009 Trek busied itself with setting lots of things up. But there’s a lot more space for Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison to establish himself, and he’s wonderfully magnetic to watch. That said, you know from the off he’s going to be an important character, as Michael Giacchino’s impressive score all but spells it out in big letters when he first appears. And important the character proves to be.
But if Cumberbatch is going to get most of the attention, it’s arguably Chris Pine who’s the hidden-in-plain-sight gem here. His James Tiberius Kirk bubbles with humor, rebellion and non-conformity, before revealing a steel undercoat when required. Pine nails it. He’s taking the lead in the Jack Ryan reboot, due this December, and by the credits roll on that, he’ll surely be a full-on movie star in his own right. As it his, his performance here is generous, anchoring the cast and giving them plenty to play off.
That said, credit must also go to the Venn diagrams that writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof map between the characters. Certainly the central core are all coloured with gradations of each other throughout, giving interesting shades of grey, and potential conflict, to pretty much every one of them. Take Harrison. He’s a Shakespearean-esque foe in many senses (although, as Trek devotees know, you don’t really appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve read it in the original Klingon), and he and Pine prove to be impressive foils for one another. Not for nothing are many of the best moments here are when people simply stop and talk to each other.
It’s not all successful. There’s a distinct lag in the middle of the movie, and you may just tire a little of seeing lots of people running down corridors from lots of different angles. Furthermore, we weren’t utterly convinced by Alice Eve’s character, who fares the least well of the newcomers. Quite why she ends up in her underwear at one stage remains a bit of a mystery.
Still, Star Trek Into Darkness brims with positives. It certainly feels like a more unifying Trek than the last one. The 2009 reboot was, arguably, more about a recruitment drive to bring a new audience to the world of Star Trek. Here, the script keenly weaves in little touches and references that longer-term Trek fans will appreciate, whilst also delivering on its prime objective, to put a thrilling two hour summer blockbuster on the screen.
And at its best, thrilling is just what Star Trek Into Darkness is. It’s little secret what project JJ Abrams is moving onto next, and the quality of the space-based action sequences here suggests that Star Wars: Episode VII is in extremely capable hands. But what’s of greater importance is his ability to put believable characters in otherwise unbelievable situations, and make it all hang together. Star Trek Into Darkness may be a slightly bumpier ride than the last one, but at its best, it does manage to exceed it.
Appreciating that Iron Man 3 kicked summer blockbuster season 2013 off by subverting the comic book movie genre and, in places, turning it on its head, what Star Trek Into Darkness has done is no less impressive. It’s played its hand a lot straighter, with a three act story bustling with characters it’s fun to spent time with, unified by a director who not only knows how to shoot an action sequence, but who also continues to prove he’s a damn good storyteller. The end result? An exciting, entertaining and pretty excellent blockbuster. Let the clamour for another movie start right here…