The reasons why JJ Abrams’ 2008 Star Trek reboot succeeded on its own terms are evident to everyone who’s watched it.
It took a fictional universe that, like so many other sagas do over time, become staid and impenetrable to all but the most devoted of fanboys, and distilled it down to its simplest and truest essence so that there was something even non-Trekkies could get on board with.
Moreover, they did something that hadn’t been done with Trek for a while. They made it fun, and we are happy to report that Abrams and co have worked the same trick for this sequel.
Throwing us straight into the action in the form of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) boldly legging it from a horde of angry alien tribesman and Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempting to stabilise an erupting volcano, Star Trek Into Darkness is a white-knuckle powderkeg of explosive action set pieces and equally pithy dialogue exchanges that rarely lets up, and even then only providing a brief respite.
Refreshingly, Into Darkness avoids the easy option of using the five-year gap between films to explain away sudden plot developments by changing little: Kirk is captain of the Enterprise, but still brash and womanising; Spock still hasn’t lightened up, much to the chagrin of love interest Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the rest of the crew are still going about their business.
It’s only after an explosive attack on London by renegade Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) that they’re galvanised into action by Kirk’s desire for immediate vengeance.
Rather than leaning on the readily available crutch of Star Trek mythos – as would have probably been the easiest options – Into Darkness instead seems to take its inspiration from the more iconic tropes of science fiction: snatched mentions of events and locations in the wider universe give it the sense of place most evident in the likes of Alien and Blade Runner, and the rag-tag, quasi Boys’ Own adventure feel of the Enterprise’s journey over the course of the film occasionally evokes the original Star Wars trilogy – another positive sign for fans from the other side of the Star-divided tracks.
Conversely, it’s when Into Darkness panders too closely to the series’ mythology that it is at its weakest: the main plot twist is expressed with all the subtlety of a punch to the jaw, and there’s a moment around 20 minutes from the end which is destined for Tumblr meme immortalisation and extensive YouTube parodies. You will know it when you see it. And let us not even get started on Scotty (Simon Pegg)’s weird little companion.
Apart from these brief moments of awkward lip service, there’s very little wrong with Into Darkness – a fact that can be attributed to the predominantly spot-in performances. Pine continues to evolve in his portrayal of Kirk, adding a newfound pathos to proceedings. Why his star hasn’t gone stratospheric yet is anyone’s guess, but it can surely only be a matter of time. While Quinto’s Spock is initially played off against an indignant Kirk and a frosty Uhura for comedic value, he also adds new layers to his character.
It’s difficult to say too much about Cumberbatch’s performance without disclosing important plot details, although we can certifiably report that he doesn’t disappoint.
Elsewhere, Simon Pegg is effectively promoted to leading man status, making up for missing out on half of the last movie by seemingly being everywhere; Urban continues to be effective foil with pitch-perfect comic timing, and John Cho proves a commanding screen presence in one of the few nods to the movies that isn’t jarring.
The flipside of this is that certain characters, most notably Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Uhura are short-changed in screen time, especially the former, who is given little do beyond running around impersonating his predecessor. Even Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus isn’t as pivotal as you would have perhaps expected.
These are mere gripes, however. Beneath the CGI is an action-adventure in the tradition of the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. Moreover, in the age of after-credits scenes and Nick Fury strolling into the assorted Avengers films to set up a sequel, it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t feel like a sequel or interquel, but stands on its own and actually has an ending.
This shouldn’t feel like a novelty, but it does, and we’re grateful to Abrams for reminding us of this.
Could we have seen the best big-budget blockbuster of the year already?
It’s definitely possible. In an all-out display of frenetic and fast-paced drama underpinned by some of the best action sequences you will have seen this decade, JJ Abrams has crafted a sequel that can not only stand proudly alongside its predecessor, but go beyond its forebears too.