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Movie review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Facing the future of the franchise with eyes firmly on the past

By Tony Smith, 6 May 2013

You reboot a popular science fiction series, but you cleverly restart the series’ timeline too, to give you not only a fresh, clean page on which to begin writing a brand new mythology, but also a fan-friendly way to tie it all in to the established continuity.

That’s the trick director JJ Abrams - he of Lost fame - and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman managed to pull off with 2009’s Star Trek. And, having swept the USS Enterprise’s decks of 40 years’ dusty, muddled continuity, what do they do for a follow up? Do they boldly go forward in an exciting new direction that while respecting the old nonetheless gives us something fresh?

Star Trek Into Darkness

The Earth threatened, the Enterprise all but destroyed... again

Do they heck. No, they turn right back on the series’ past and munge together elements from the mid-1960s TV show and the films of the early 1980s in a movie, Into Darkness, that plays out like the worst kind of fan fiction: rehashing established continuity for the sake of it, and without bringing any new ideas to the table.

I shouldn’t reveal the Enterprise crew’s adversary - you can find out on IMDB if you don’t care about spoilers - though dear old Leonard Nimoy is once again called out of retirement, this time to inform his younger self that their opponent is one of the most dangerous the original line-up ever faced. This time round Nimoy appears merely on a video link, like ailing first Doctor William Hartnell in The Three Doctors, to advise but not to assist. Please, let the poor man rest.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The eyebrows have it

Spock Senior’s appearance to provide his junior with data that could easily be found within the ship’s computer databank - and would have been in the original series - is just another example of the obsessive compulsive fan behaviour shown by Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and new co-writer (and film Producer) Damon Lindelof. ’We got both Spocks in. Because we can!’ It can’t, surely, be because no one will believe this is a real Trek movie without him?

I am not Spock

That’s the least of the writers’ fanboy excesses. Into Darkness quotes wholesale from one of its more popular predecessors in particular, grabbing lines from the earlier script and putting them into the mouths of different though appropriate characters in what becomes a massive, self-aware exercise in ‘Did you, like, see what we did there? Cool, huh?’ Citing previous films once or twice gives fans an opportunity to have a nice, warm chuckle, but there’s so much of it it quickly becomes tiresome.

Star Trek Into Darkness

A specialist in alien tongue?

Orci, Kurtzman and Lindoff were all born in 1973, IMDB tells me, so missed the first three TV series’ debut runs, but would have caught repeats in the early 1980s, right at the time when the movies got their own mini reboot following the largely unsuccessful - but rather good - Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That refresh brought in a whole new audience for the franchise, kids who’d grown up on Star Wars and believed science fiction and space opera were one and the same. Star Trek went mainstream, and fandom, like Linux, forked: on one side the folk who preferred the more cerebral sci-fi of the five-year mission; on the other, those who just wanted more space battles.

The film’s three writers are clearly keener on the movies than the TV series. Abrams is a bit older, and probably caught re-runs of the original Trek in the years before Star Wars came out. But the early 1980s are obviously a strong influence on his work - witness his (rather good) homage to the Spielberg films of the period, Super 8.

Star Trek Into Darkness

‘Daisy, you’ll never guess where I am now’

Into Darkness is pure space opera, though it’s no less engaging or beautifully rendered for that. The hundreds of film crew who created the movie’s visual effects show that we are at last in the age of truly photorealistic CGI. While it’s clearly possible to work out which parts of certain sequences are digital and which are not - you can make a good guess simply based on what is being depicted - there are many, many instances where live action and CGI are blended with an undetectable join.

Bolding going... backwards?

It’s a gorgeous film to watch, and for once the imposed 3D didn’t mute the movie’s bright tones. I’m still not a fan of 3D, and Into Darkness will be no less enjoyable in 2D, but at least it’s well integrated here.

In fact, there’s little fault to be found, if any, with Into Darkness’ technical side. Abrams is a good director, and he has assembled a solid production team and a splendid cast, here joined by Peter ’Robocop’ Weller, Alice Eve and, of course, Benedict ’Sherlock’ Cumberbatch as the new crew’s nemesis.

Star Trek Into Darkness

‘I can quote Moby Dick, you know’

For the first, better half of the movie he goes by the nom de guerre John Harrison, seemingly some kind of terrorist or perhaps a Star Fleet intelligence agent gone rogue. Cumberbatch is very watchable, as usual, and his performance only misfires when the revelation of his character’s true identity is made - a moment Abrams choses to underplay, despite it being the film’s turning point.

Cumberbatch plays a character who would not have been affected by the timeline-twisting events of the previous film. Yet he is not the man he, as it were, once was. That’s not Cumberbatch’s fault - it’s how his character has been written or, more likely, shoehorned into an earlier script. He’s not the story’s prime mover, for instance. At once the film is playing with the series’ past but, here, trying to play it down, presumably to make it harder for you to guess who it is. Fans will have worked it out already.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Prince among men

The upshot is that the second half of Into Darkness is less satisfying than the first, because it’s here that the movie becomes so especially self-referential.

Maybe the writers were trying to be all cleverly meta-textual, to acknowledge the rich legacy they’re working with, but instead they come over as smart-arse fanboys.

Fan-ying about

It’s not all bad, though. As I say, Abrams’ Enterprise crew is great, and if most of them are less central to the action than is Chris Pine’s excellent Kirk, that’s because this is really his story: the swaggering teen learning the lesson he failed to grasp when he cheated the Kobayashi Maru test and growing as a character - and growing up - in consequence. The leader of men at the end is not the boy he was at the beginning of the film.

Zachary Quinto is again a splendid Spock, though neither he nor Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov quite capture their predecessors as well as Karl Urban does of DeForrest Kelley. But then, this being Kirk’s flick, they all have less opportunity to do so than they had in the previous film.

Star Trek Into Darkness

There will be blond

I wasn’t looking forward to Simon Pegg returning at Scotty. But with more screen time and things to do this time - and, dare I say, accent lessons - he’s a pleasure to watch this time round, he and Abrams seeming to have worked out the right balance to strike between Pegg the actor and Pegg the comedian.

The Reg Verdict

Let’s not pretend Star Trek Into Darkness is anything more than flim-flam. But it is entertaining and enjoyable, and it’s more than a CGI roller-coaster ride. Even the excessive self-referentiality doesn’t entirely detract from the experience while you’re sitting in your seat staring up at the screen. Thankfully it never descends into farce the way some of its predecessors did, most notably the god-awful Voyage Home. But the writers will need to exercise some real self-restraint to stop that from happening next time.

With the Enterprise and her crew now about to embark upon their five-year mission, I hope Abrams and his team - or whoever else is at the helm of film three - have exorcised their inner fanboy and be able to set aside the past mythology and give us something fresh. But the cynic in me says it’ll probably be yet another phaser and explosion filled run-in with the Romulans, the Klingons or the Borg. ®

In cinemas across the UK from 9 May. Check out trailers and cast on the official Star Trek Into Darkness movie site.

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