As was the case when it came to me watching Star Trek in 2009, I know little about, and care even less for, the history of Star Trek and the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I can reel off the names of the ship’s crew, some of the enemies the series has created and know enough about it to recognise when it is being parodied or referenced in television or popular culture, but I’ve never watched any of the various TV series set in that universe, and although I’ve seen bits of the previous films, I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually watched them or not.
But despite that, I still enjoyed JJ Abrams’ rebooting of the series in 2009, and as a fan of a lot of his work (he has been involved at some level in so many TV and film projects that it’s almost impossible to be an Abrams completest, or like everything he’s been involved in), that meant that Star Trek Into Darkness became a film I wanted to see.
The 2009 Star Trek was an origin story (Enterprisers Assemble, if you will), and Into Darkness picks up the story with the crew of the Enterprise more established as a team, working together to save an alien species from extinction by preventing a volcano from erupting and destroying their planet. But Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has done this without permission, and when his First Officer, Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto), hands over a true report of the alien encounter, Kirk is demoted to First Officer level, losing control of the Enterprise. But after a terrorist attack in London, a man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks an emergency meeting of Starfleet command and kills Admiral Pike, Kirk’s mentor and the man who demoted him. So Kirk is restored as Captain of the Enterprise, and goes after Harrison, planning to stop his from attempting further attacks.
After that, I have to admit that I got a little lost about the plot. John Harrison is clearly an unhappy man and has very personal unresolved issues with certain members of Starfleet command, and he has a complicated plan to get revenge. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Raoul Silva in Skyfall or Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3, Harrison’s plan is a little sketchy and over-elaborate. He wants revenge and has an idea of how to get it, but it’s not really clear what his end-game is. If he gets his revenge, what next? You could probably spend a lot of time picking holes in his plan, and thinking ‘Well why didn’t he just do that instead’, but ultimately a villainous plan like that isn’t really much more than a Macguffin, a way to bring the good guys and the bad guys together to beat each other up until one man (or one crew) is left standing.
So Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t really dwell on the whats and whys of the story, and instead moves along at a rapid pace that keeps you entertained and interested for the duration of the film. There are very few scenes of people standing around telling themselves (and the audience) what is happening any why, and it’s never too long before another big (and impressive) set piece enters the story, giving the film a real impetus. And it’s only really after the film has ended that you might find yourself thinking ‘Wait, why did he do that?’ or ‘Why did that thing do that?’
Because Into Darkness is hugely entertaining, moving from one location to another with and one battle to the next without pausing for much of a breath. If the plot is lacking, the action more than makes up for it, as Kirk and his crew battle Klingons (who look more bad-ass than they have previously, although they are only briefly in the film), Harrison and other, unexpected enemies. It also does a good job of establishing the bonds that have grown between the crew of the Enterprise, particularly the relationship between Spock and Kirk as they become great friends, while still unable to fully understand the differences between their species.
While the Enterprise crew are more developed and all give good performances, there’s little doubt that Cumberbatch is the standout in the film. He’s already firmly established himself as a TV star in Sherlock, but he excels in his biggest film role to date, and is sure to get himself plenty of offers for big roles in film in the future (but hopefully not so many that gaps between series Sherlock get too big).
Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a perfect film; at times it relies a little too much on familiar beats from the original series, whether it’s in the dialogue or the way certain characters act, and yes, the plot is bit flimsy when you really think about what’s just happened. And perhaps the weakest part of the film is the abrupt ending, which really does seem to come out of nowhere. It’s almost like Abrams and his writers realised they’d reached the two hour mark and just decided to stop, with the resolution of the film coming just a little bit too easily given what has happened before.
But the film is ultimately what it should be; a fast-paced and exciting sci-fi blockbuster that improves upon what made the first (or more accurately, the eleventh) Star Trek film a success. What happens next is somewhat uncertain as JJ Abrams has another space-related franchise to re-invent (I forget its name) before he can consider directing a third film, but it certainly feels like the right tools are in place in front of, and behind, the camera to continue the story of the Enterprise over the next decade or so.