When growing up, I was always more of a fan of Star Trek than the other popular sci-fi franchises available. Specifically I watched a lot of The Next Generation television series, which was airing just at the right age for me, really. A lot of the vague ethical issues bandied about in this newest film (the twelfth overall, and the second since its ‘reboot’ in 2009) are familiar from that show in particular, though perhaps the 40-minute small-screen format was better able to handle such complexities. Added for the film is a lot more action and a lot more explosions, but a whole lot less sense.
What’s good about Into Darkness remains the key players, particularly Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Zoë Saldana’s Uhura, whose at times prickly relationship is a lot better drawn than any of the other pairings (the Spock/Kirk antagonism which provided the heart of the previous film is less prominent here). Unfortunately, it’s only glimpsed on occasion, but the time given it is among the film’s better minutes. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, too, who (as one might expect) is more indebted to Shatner than Stewart, has an engaging derring-do spirit. I had a passing sense that the other actors (particularly Karl Urban’s McCoy) were largely underutilised, though Simon Pegg’s Scotty was given more to do as the broad comic relief and did pretty well at it (aside from the accent of course), so maybe the problem is more that the screenwriters don’t seem to know what to do with them aside from putting some of their characters’ more familiar quotes in their mouths (if McCoy hits only one note, at least it’s a fairly amusing one).
The way that these minor ensemble cast members are deployed is a reminder of the difficulty inherent in trying to accommodate kitschy caricature in a big budget setting. The clunky one-liners, the 60s-style utopianism of the uniforms (not to mention the entire ineffective Starfleet organisation) and the perfunctoriness of the antagonists’ character motivations might have worked if this were, say, Austin Powers, but nestled amongst so much po-faced sobriety, it comes across as really quite jarring.
Sombrely leading the way into the title’s darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, a villain who appears to have sprung from nowhere, his character having no apparent past (though hiding a strained over-abundance of it). Certainly, he looks and acts the part well, clad in leather and carefully enunciating. All. His. Words. For he is, after all, evil. There’s also an evil starship in the film, and it too is all in black. There are even Klingons, but they aren’t really evil, just a bit stupid. However, I welcome them as it handed the excellent Saldana another scene.
I suppose the screenwriters may have had some reasoning behind all their decisions, but in the frantic cut-and-thrust of the action film genre, it all blends into so much noise and confusion. Just taking the opening scene set on a vibrantly-coloured alien planet populated by primitives in face-paint, it’s unclear why any of it is really happening, why the Enterprise is hiding underwater (rather than in, say, space), or why Spock needs to go into the volcano himself. There’s a bit of to-do about needing to be able to see someone to teleport them, but that’s the kind of detail which is conveniently dropped when it suits the writers. There’s just so much stupefying plot detail throughout the film which even a moment’s thought would render incoherent, that the film ends up relying too much on director J.J. Abrams’s admittedly deft touch with propulsive narrative momentum. There’s no moral quandary, ethical decision or life-saving action that isn’t heavy-handedly foreshadowed by exposition so clunky as to show contempt for the audience.
But all of that is probably to overthink the whole enterprise. As a series of setpieces interspersed by the vamping of a number of talented actors, it all comes across as perfectly entertaining, provided you just don’t think too much about what’s going on, and why. And if they can give a movie to just Saldana and Quinto, that would be a move in the right direction.
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry); Cinematographer Daniel Mindel; Starring Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (2D), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013.