After achieving the sort of franchise rejuvenation in which Christopher Nolan would be proud, J.J Abrams has boldly gone bigger, badder and bolder for his breathlessly enterprising Star Trek sequel.
It looked like the final frontier was upon one of cinema’s longest-running film series when 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis tanked at the box office. But as the Batman franchise had so effectively demonstrated, when stuck in a creative cul-de-sac the best way out is to wipe the slate clean and start again (this summer’s Man of Steel being a case in point).
The task of delivering ‘Star Trek Begins’ fell to Abrams, a major player in television with such cult shows as Alias and Lost, but whose only previous big screen experience in the director’s chair had been with the underrated Mission: Impossible III. A self-confessed Trek neophyte, Abrams’ lack of fan-baggage essentially made him the perfect man for the job.
With the help of a finely tuned script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman that wasn’t afraid to take risks, 2009’s Star Trek managed to please both hardened Trekkies and newbies alike with its impressive mix of epic action set-pieces and emotionally engaging characters.
Abrams wisely retains the core of what worked last time around, while upping the ante considerably with Star Trek Into Darkness, which sees Starfleet under attack from Shakesperean-esque villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Seeking vengeance, Kirk (Chris Pine) leads Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban) and the Enterprise crew into a deadly conflict against the cold, calculating terrorist.
Trek is often at its best when subtly preaching tolerance on issues reflecting the times we live in. In the 1960s it was civil rights and feminism, here it’s terrorism, specifically the desire for revenge when cooler heads are needed. It’s an issue that gives the writers plenty of scope to play with the dynamics of the cast, in particular the relationship between the hot-headed, unvarnished Kirk and logical Spock. Kirk’s impulsiveness is what gets results, but it’s also what gets them into trouble in the first place.
One of the things that really worked in the rebooted Star Trek was the generous screen time given to the supporting cast. It’s good to see the same approach being taken for the sequel, with Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) all integral to the story and given their moments to shine.
Pine finds the chinks in Kirk’s armour and makes him more likeable this time around, while Quinto’s become so comfortable as Spock it’s as if he’s never taken off his Vulcan ears and makes you believe the tumult of emotions under the surface could erupt at any time. Cumberbatch relishes his role and gives the impression he knows he’s always two steps ahead of everyone else. When he tells Kirk that “I’m better … at everything”, you believe him.
Needless to say the film looks stunning, with Abrams’ signature lens flare present and correct in virtually every frame. His long-time production designer Scott Chambliss manages to make the Enterprise beautifully functional (lots of white) without it becoming sterile, while the digital effects team outdo themselves with their realisation of a 23rd century London and San Francisco that feels entirely authentic.
No Abrams film would be complete without a nod to his hero Steven Spielberg and here it’s in an opening scene lifted straight from Raiders Of The Lost Ark in which Kirk and Bones run for their lives from the inhabitants of a primitive planet. Abrams also seems to have a thing for filming long takes of his actors running (remember the extended scene of Tom Cruise legging it in Mission: Impossible III?) and visits that upon poor old Pegg here. There’s even a wink at The Godfather Part III.
On the negative side, Michael Giancchino’s score is way over-the-top. I’m normally a fan of his work, but there were times when the soundtrack was too big even for a film of this scale. Likewise, the finale gets a little too ridiculous for its own good and could have done with being trimmed.
Abrams leaves enough breadcrumbs to whet your appetite for the next installment, even if he’s likely to pass in favour of that other franchise starting with ‘Star’. As smart and engaging as it is outrageously entertaining, blockbusters don’t come much better than this.