In the first film of the regooded Star Trek franchise, director JJ Abrams not only rebooted the series but also rebooted the universe, diverting younger versions of the crew of the starship Enterprise
into an alternate history that was a clever blend of the familiar and the unexpected. In the second film, Star Trek: Into Darkness
, that sideways jog is used to deliver a new twist on an old episode in the Enterprise
's storied history, darkening it with current fears of terrorism and its challenge to liberal democracy.
Superhumanly strong and capable secret agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed in black and mixing Sherlock Holmes's arrogant superiority with Shakespearean villainy) blows up a Federation records archive in 23rd Century London, then (borrowing a move from The Godfather, Part 3
) attacks top-ranking officers when they gather to discuss the incident, killing James Kirk's mentor Christopher Pike. Kirk (Chris Pine, who has really grown into his role, and looks extraordinarily like the young William Shatner) accepts a mission from Machievellian admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to chase Harrison to his hiding place in Klingon territory: an action that might precipitate war and alter the very nature of the peaceful Federation. But neither Kirk's mission nor his quarry are what they seem...
To say much more would be to enter spoiler territory. It's a fast-paced old-fashioned space-opera adventure that contrasts Kirk's impetuosity with Spock's (Zachary Quinto) rigorous control (once again, their friendship is tested by Spock's insistence on following regulations to the letter), and the similarities and differences between Kirk's and Harrison's thirst for revenge. As with the first film, the narrative is salted with references to the original series, and the franchise's version of physics is warped and upgraded to suit the plot. (Like that of the Looney Tunes cartoons, Star Trek's physics deliberately rewrites or ignores actual physics - complaining that spaceships don't fall out of orbit when they lose power is like complaining that gravity isn't dependent on perception, and people can't run beyond the edge of a cliff as long as they don't realise they've done it.) Transporters can now zap people from planet to planet, although no one but the villain makes use of that ability; at one point Kirk, bucketing along at warp speed in the Enterprise
, phones Scotty, dozens of light years away in a nightclub back on Earth, to impart crucial information. But although it's an efficient blockbuster thrill ride in which Abrams once again demonstrates his skill at choreographing complex action sequences, and regular characters are each given a crucial part in the unfolding action, the hectic pace and the narrative clockwork that drives the story from set piece to set piece is exhaustingly relentless. Decisions are made on the fly; Spock and Uhura must work out a kink in their relationship while flying in a shuttle craft towards a Klingon outpost; Leonard Nimoy literally phones in his performance; there's no attempt to show us what a warlike Federation would be like, how bad, how different, it would be from the current model. Like Wile E. Coyote running past a cliff edge, the story survives by momentum alone - when it stops, and you are finally able to think about it, it falls down.
And yet, despite the soundless fury of spaceship battles and the chaos of collapsing cities, the film never quite loses sight of the franchise's strongest virtues. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an imposing performance as the superhumanly brilliant and ruthless villain, but at the centre of the film, as in the original series, is the relationship between Kirk and Spock, a sparring match between heart and head grumpily refereed by Dr McCoy. Kirk grows from headstrong, irresponsible adventurer
to a leader capable of inspiring and drawing on the abilities of his
comrades, and deepens and cements his relationship with Spock, and at the end we are returned to the beginning. And given that we've been shown how this new history can play intricate variations on old stories, we're prepared to sign up for the duration - in the hope, next time, of something a little less frantic, a little more substantial.