The cheers and whoops that greeted the 2009 relaunch of the Star Trek series contained in them, I thought, a big bass note of relief. For JJ Abrams had taken on the tricky task not only of appeasing a notoriously judgemental fanbase but of winning over a new generation of cinemagoers to whom a 1960s cult TV serial meant virtually squat.
Abrams’s film was respectful of but not slavish towards the tradition, acknowledging its epic proportions without pretending that any of it was Homer. Some smart casting and a better than average script ensured that intergalactic harmony was promisingly established between old school and new.
Four years on, this follow-up shows how quickly the shine can get knocked off. Star Trek Into Darkness is no disaster – it has too much competence on its side for that. Abrams understands the dynamics of the blockbuster, that ability to blend the outsize with the intimate, and he has got the same writing team (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, plus newcomer Damon Lindelof) to keep the ship steady. Once again, the conflict is scaled at a human level, turning on a moral debate between what is expedient and what is right. Once again, the Starship crew are sporting those viscose mustard- coloured V-necks that used to clad William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy et al. But there’s something missing, some vital creative spark to spring it from the crepuscular realm of the so-so and its border territory, the so-what.
As if to answer the burden of expectation, the film plunges us immediately into a set-piece of chaotic urgency. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is beamed down into the roaring heart of a volcano that will incinerate a whole planet unless he can put it out. Hellfires rage around him while the crew of the Enterprise make anxious faces at one another. It actually plays like the climax of a movie rather than its opening. When the danger approaches meltdown Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) contravenes Starfleet regulations by allowing the chalk-faced natives to clap eyes on the Starship rising from the ocean to rescue Spock from fiery doom. But Jim Kirk doesn’t bother about protocol, he just wants to save the life of his friend and first officer, though he omits this violation in his debrief to the authorities.
So imagine the captain’s outrage when the authorities get wind of his little misdemeanour – from Spock himself! There’s gratitude: you save a fellow from certain death, then he goes and shops you for flouting the rules. Vulcans, as Spock explains, cannot lie, but that’s no comfort to Kirk as he’s stripped of his command and demoted to a subordinate role under his mentor (Bruce Greenwood, who has quietly become one of the most engaging character actors around – see also The Place Beyond the Pines).
In truth, the relationship between Kirk and Spock is the heart and soul of Star Trek, being an ambiguous compound of rivalry, warmth and interspecies misunderstanding. As played by Pine, Kirk is a hothead and a daredevil who relies largely on instinct. Spock, of course, is the logician nonpareil, and Quinto has just the right expression of intellectual bemusement when faced with the muddle of human emotion. One of the best moments here comes when Kirk, about to part with his first officer, goes all misty-eyed. “Truth is, I’m gonna miss you,” he says, echoing one of the movies’ universal refrains of buddyhood, and looks to Spock’s reciprocation of the sentiment. But Spock just stares back, impassive, and poor old Jim’s left hanging, like the high-five that gets no returning smack.
Their sundering is short-lived, because news arrives from London of a major terrorist attack that has devastated its towered skyline. (Our capital in the 23rd century now resembles Dubai on steroids – thank God we won’t be around to see it.) It seems this is the fiendish handiwork of one John Harrison, played in Brit-thesp mode by Benedict Cumberbatch, his resonant basso profundo carrying the same frisson of sophisticated menace that won Alan Rickman similar roles 20-odd years ago. Harrison proceeds to lay waste to a Starfleet pow-wow in San Francisco, the cue for Kirk and Spock to reunite and pursue him to his hideout on the planet Kronos.
At which point the film enters the deep space of secret identities, interstellar debris and the notable reprise of a plot from an earlier instalment of the Star Trek canon. Let’s draw a veil over that one, even if it’s been already whipped away by internet rumour and eager fan-chatter. There’s still room for a little interaction between Kirk’s faithful crew, chiefly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the ever-moaning Bones (Karl Urban), while Alice Eve freshens up the cast as an unlikely weapons expert and a possible love interest for Kirk. Spock gamely puts forward the counter-argument to the crew’s avowed mission to destroy the fugitive Harrison: is it not morally incumbent on them to capture the suspect and bring him to trial instead?
That fine discrimination gets rather lost amid a welter of juddering explosions, collapsing scenery and technical glitches aboard the Enterprise, which generally involve the poor engineer Chekov (Anton Yelchin) scurrying about below decks and frantically explaining to the bridge that – well, who knows what? There’s not a great deal of suspense here. However frantic the scramble, however frequent the panic stations, do we believe that the Starship is heading into anything but the next sequel?
Star Trek Into Darkness gets the job done without ever threatening to raise one’s pulse. It’s a thoroughly professional entertainment. But if someone said you could never watch another one, what would be your response? Would you say “I’m going to miss you”, or would you take the Spock line, and give it your best blank stare?