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Film review: Star Trek Into Darkness ****

By Preston Wilder

O, me of little faith! Golden memories of the first Star Trek from 2009 – J.J. Abrams’ joyous reboot of the old sci-fi warhorse – were starting to fade, replaced by a cynical reminder that it is, after all, just another Hollywood franchise. True enough; but Star Trek, as currently configured, is the most exuberant Hollywood franchise, perhaps the only exuberant Hollywood franchise. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, may have sounded like a cash-grab, but in fact it confirms Abrams’ knack for finding the elusive sweet-spot between fierce commitment and affectionate send-up. Star Trek is as breezy and funny as Iron Man – but Robert Downey Jr always seems faintly embarrassed to be in the blockbuster business whereas this retains its awed reverence for the starship Enterprise and its motley crew, even while playing their dynamics for comedy.

Every character sings here; no other franchise has such strength in depth. John Cho’s Sulu is clenched, po-faced, inscrutable – but the actor underplays (yes, it’s possible to underplay a character with only one facial expression) and Sulu’s big moment in the Captain’s chair, after which his face relaxes slightly for what seems to be the first time, is very effective. Karl Urban’s permanently peeved Bones is a great grouch – albeit chattier than his permanently peeved Judge Dredd in Dredd – especially when he speaks in elaborate metaphors (“You don’t rob a bank when the getaway car has a flat tyre”). Chekov – a relatively minor character – is played by Anton Yelchin with a ludicrously thick Russian accent (something of an in-joke since Yelchin was actually born in Russia), while Scotty is Simon Pegg in loose-cannon mode, aided by a pint-sized alien sidekick. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is a bit of a token chick, but her pursed lips and steely glares are memorable – and of course she’s in love with Spock (Zachary Quinto), despite his cold Vulcan ways.

That brings us to the main dramatic motor, the love-hate relationship – almost a sibling rivalry – between Spock and Kirk (Chris Pine), fire to his ice, wild emotion to his logic. Kirk is impulsive, immature. “It won’t fit,” says Spock when the Captain tries to fly the Enterprise through a narrow chasm, and Kirk erupts in inarticulate yelps – “Will fit! Will fit!” – like a child having a tantrum. Later he attacks John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a blind rage, Harrison being a rogue Starfleet agent turned terrorist – though he’s actually Khan, “a remnant of the past”, a superman engineered as a war machine who’s now turned against his former masters.

Khan is a well-known name to Star Trek veterans, and indeed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is widely considered the best of the 10 pre-reboot movies. Speaking as a rabid non-Trekkie, I’m not too bothered with how Into Darkness links up with the series’ mythology – but it’s interesting to note that Khan is a very ambivalent villain, and far less of a villain than the Admiral who exploited him in order to wage war.

That’s another way in which Star Trek differs from other Hollywood franchises, most of which are aggressively militarised. Transformers and G.I. Joe wallow in weaponry, Iron Man (i.e. Tony Stark) is an arms manufacturer (I won’t even mention out-and-out war fantasies like Battleship and Battle: Los Angeles). Here, on the other hand, Spock disapproves of the plan to take Khan out with long-range missiles – not unlike Obama’s drones strategy in Afghanistan – calling it “murder without trial”, while Scotty disapproves of the Enterprise going on a military operation in the first place (“I thought we were explorers”). Later, a line is spoken which could serve as a caveat for the whole War on Terror: “To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves”.

The film, in other words, is politically savvy and responsible. But it’s also exuberant, only sagging slightly in the overlong climax (the starship plummeting to Earth) and final lachrymose Kirk-Spock scene (“Because you are my friend…”) which I could’ve done without. The prologue is thrilling, set on a distant planet with scarlet forests and white-plastered primitives in bright yellow rags – the exotica serves as a reminder that Abrams is due to direct the new Star Wars in 2015 – the rest of it ingeniously balanced between action and comedy.

Spock and Uhura have a lovers’ tiff mid-mission. Kirk calls Spock ‘Pointy’ (“Is that a derogatory reference?”), and gets his truisms shot down by the Vulcan’s superior intellect. Then there’s a fabulous action scene in which Kirk and Khan are launched from one spaceship to another, aiming for a tiny doorway – it’s akin to “jumping from your car into a shot glass” – that’ll only be open for a few seconds BUT ONLY if Scotty (having smuggled himself aboard the second spaceship) can find the right switch AND ONLY if he can somehow outsmart the security guard who’s asking questions AND ONLY if the two astronauts can dodge the rain of debris that constantly threatens to knock them off course. Abrams cross-cuts, piling on the impossible odds with the flair of Spielberg circa Raiders of the Lost Ark – then everything happens at once, the door opens, Kirk and Khan tumble in then roll down the floor of a vast hangar, closer and closer and closer then come to a stop as the music ends with a final flourish. I felt like cheering, and did.

 

DIRECTED BY J.J. Abrams
STARRING Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch
US 2013 132 mins



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