Sunday 17 July 2016

From the archive: "Star Trek Into Darkness"

JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot gave a once-dusty, kitschy brand an appreciable boost of youthful energy: its origin story, recounting Spock and co.’s early days at the Starfleet Academy, mixed state-of-the-art sci-fi with a college campus comedy, arriving at Revenge of the Nerds in space, or Starship Troopers with the earlier film’s grown-up satire replaced by a puppyish enthusiasm. The one question mark hovering above it was that of dramatic scale. For all that this 21st century Star Trek filled the IMAX with big bangs and other out-of-this-world effects, the story felt absolutely like the beginnings of something – a TV pilot that got lucky, from a creative with eminent small-screen credits (Felicity, Alias, Lost), starring actors beamed up from the boob tube. Dramatically, the sequel Into Darkness goes backwards if anything, stringing together a succession of playground tiffs, of a type the target audience might well recognise. 

Spock (Zachary Quinto) tells teacher on Chris Pine’s ever-impetuous Kirk, in filing a negative report after the latter temporarily abandons his crew during an early mission. Kirk isn’t the only one abandoning our favourite Vulcan: his on-ship squeeze Uhura (Zoe Saldana) isn’t speaking to him either, after a set-to over something or other. Hell, even the loyal Scotty (Simon Pegg) is driven to hand in his resignation after his toys in the Enterprise’s engine room are momentarily removed from him. Captain’s log, stardate summer 2013: everybody’s sulking A LOT. It takes a common enemy to reunite them. This is disaffected doctor John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who begins his reign of terror by using Noel Clarke to blow up the Starfleet archive in future-London, and then goes into hiding. More so than The Mandarin in the recent Iron Man 3, Harrison is essentially Osama-for-beginners, obliging the Enterprise to go, more reluctantly than boldly, on a pre-emptive bombing raid against a planet that will stand for just about anywhere in the Middle East.

What Abrams has subscribed to about the original Star Trek is the notion that Starfleet somehow stands for America, its values and challenges. The pairing of Pine’s Kirk (the rebel/adventurer/cowboy) with Quinto’s Spock (the cool, rational analyst) appears more than ever here a humanisation of the checks-and-balances system the US prides itself on. Still, this is a summer event movie aimed more at teenagers than Prospect readers, so its notions of good and bad, right and wrong, tend to be rendered in easily grasped terms – as in the contrast between the deck of the Enterprise, with its soft-lit, Habitat-showroom feel, and that of rival spacecraft, which betray all the warmth of a Goth’s bedroom with the curtains closed. As a storyteller, Abrams specialises in momentum, not depth: it’s what drew millions of viewers to the withholding nonsense of Lost, and made him an ideal choice to jumpstart the ailing Mission: Impossible franchise. He’s quickly mastered the very modern skill of breaking up “character” scenes (i.e. tiffs) with a sudden jolt of set-spinning action, even if it’s something as hokey as having one of his characters strapped to a bomb that’s armed itself. 

He doesn’t want us to become bored, but in so doing he risks our full involvement: we’re constantly more distracted than we are engaged, which is why I sensed even the fanboys around me beginning to get restless. All the movement reveals is the thinness of the material, its resemblance to the kind of glib teen drama one might idly ogle mid-afternoon on E4. With the characterisation set in stone, some of the schtick that tickled or amused first time round – Anton Yelchin’s Slavic accent (as Chekov), Pegg’s paycheque-eyeing mateyness – comes across as precisely that: mere schtick. Saldana and John Cho (as Sulu) are again limited to pushing buttons, and ticking boxes; even Karl Urban’s Bones – a man among boys, whose grouching was the closest the first film got to self-awareness – proves disappointingly subservient this time.

It’s an especially cheap trick on the screenwriters’ part to, at one point, try and milk emotion from James T. Kirk’s apparent demise, when we all know he’ll grow up to become William Shatner, but one typical of the relentless chicanery sustaining the film. Besides, no franchise has devoted itself more to preserving the smirk on Chris Pine’s face: you see it here in the way Alice Eve’s research scientist is served up to him on a plate, all curves squeezed into a figure-hugging jumpsuit, like the loveliest of bananas, just waiting to be unpeeled. It’d be a very jaded viewer who didn’t respond in some way to Into Darkness’s bouncy optimism – if nothing else, it’ll make a perfectly decent, eminently watchable Saturday-night contrast with Iron Man 3’s older-skewing snark and savvy – but bouncy optimism is really all this series has after two films: it remains a franchise you may prefer to pat on the head, rather than fully embrace.

Star Trek Into Darkness is available on DVD through Paramount; a third instalment, Star Trek Beyond, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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