Post-reboot films are tricky endeavors. Christopher Nolan's Batman soared to even greater heights in his second time out, whereas Daniel Craig's James Bond followed one of that long franchise's best entries with one of its worst. The first sequel to J.J. Abrams' energetic and robust 2009 relaunch of the sagging "Star Trek" franchise sadly leans towards the latter, although doesn't fall so far off the mark. Handsomely directed, often beautiful looking, and chock full of impressive action set pieces, what it is in desperate search of is a good story - something it never finds.
What can't be denied is just how effective Abrams and those involved in the marketing have kept so much of the film cloaked in shadow and misdirection ahead of its release. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a very difficult film to review because so much of the film, and its criticisms, depends on one being aware of certain spoilers. I won't go into any major plot details, but I can say that the reveals should result in some quite strong reactions - especially amongst long-term Trek fans.
The script for 'Into Darkness,' by returning champs Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman along with "Prometheus" scribe Damon Lindelof, starts out with a potential-fuelled manhunt for a terrorist and coalesces into a clunky parable about loyalty and corrupted idealism. To be fair there is some clever weaving in of both consequences of the first film's actions, and some DS9-era lore to justify character decisions.
Yet the story never really forms a cohesive whole, the thrill ride elements taking precedence and often interrupting the flow rather than sitting comfortably within it. Some of these action beats, from the opening volcano sequence, and a quite thrilling ship to ship EVA scene, to some sub-orbital third act antics, are expertly executed and work fine on their own. Others however, such as an aerial dogfight and shootout on Kronos with the 'emo' versions of Klingons (as in bald and pierced), are rote and dull. Even the final mano-e-mano fight scene feels like an anticlimax, leaving you wondering if there's a whole third act that was excised at the last minute.
It's a shame because the film explores some interesting themes and character beats - from the differing natures of the Pike/Kirk and Kirk/Spock relationships, to the thorny moral issues of state-sanctioned murder and justifiable militarisation. They are juicy themes that 'Trek' has explored, most visibly in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" which handled it with defter skill than we see here. These issues, not to mention the character dynamics between the Enterprise crew, are given far too little time for any exploration.
In a more specific way however, the film succumbs to the "Prometheus" problem - a film that sticks slavishly to working in and around plot points of an existing and far superior work. So many of the 'surprises' of the film only register if you know the earlier work, and if you do - the 'surprises' aren't a surprise. An attempt is made to keep things fresh by taking existing major moments and subjecting them to 'reversals'. This trick results in versions sadly lack anything close to the same impact, and turns tasteful homage into mildly insulting borderline plagiarism.
The "Star Trek" films are an odd beast because, unlike "Star Wars," it is the TV incarnations of 'Trek' that are its heart. The small screen is where Roddenberry's vision has played out over the years, with stories and characters that really broke ground in the genre. Each of the series had plenty of useless filler episodes, but when they worked they worked beautifully. In contrast, the films have always been secondary and their own thing, pushing 'Trek' into a more limited and familiar action formula with only a few real standouts. The pre-reboot ones were also often hindered by low budgets, and an obvious lack of respect on the studio's part.
Armed with a solid cast, massive budget and a major success behind them, the hope was that Abrams and crew could build upon the first film's success to deliver something even more extraordinary whilst still retaining respect for the franchise that came before. Instead, we've received a kind of "Trek" film that has happened all too often in this franchise - a respectably mediocre one. Oddly mechanical and lacking any real weight, the film is paradoxically reverential about parts of Trek lore while simultaneously showing an almost garish lack of respect for some of its overall sensibilities.
Performances are fine, with Benedict Cumberbatch the real standout. The character may be a mess, but Cumberbatch delivers his clunky lines with exquisite iciness and menace. The British thesp has such a charismatic big screen presence that you can't wait to see him soar with better material like he often does on "Sherlock". Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller are also stand outs, the pair giving the film some of its few genuine human moments.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Once again Pine is fully committed to his performance, but the character seems to have regressed rather than advanced, leaving us feeling like we are treading over old ground. Zachary Quinto has one solid little emotional moment early on in an otherwise solid turn, while Simon Pegg's Scotty has great fun with his few scenes. Everyone else - Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, even Zoe Saldana - are all essentially window dressing with only a few lines. Yelchin in particular is stuck in an embarrassing turn. Alice Eve is lovely, but her Carol Marcus character leaves no impression whatsoever.
Reinventing a franchise requires a careful balance, and Abrams' 2009 reboot got it mostly right. On the one hand it broadened the appeal and re-injected some vigor into the all too stolid, rigid and formulaic trappings that 'Trek' as a whole had sunk into. On the other, you could feel a surprising sense of careful respect for the original material.
'Into Darkness' falls a bit too far into the generic action/fantasy mold rather than the thought-provoking science fiction adventures that the brand built its name on. There's a little too much focus on mindless action beats and exploiting what came before, executed in ways that could alienate both long-term fans and newcomers. It's time to take this franchise into fresh and exciting new territory rather than fall back on regurgitating half-decent cover versions of its greatest hits.