2009 saw bespectacled boy wonder J.J Abrams doing the inconceivable: transposing Gene Rodenberry’s beloved creation into the 21st century and giving it a gleamingly cool polish, reminding the world that it was a sci-fi franchise capable of being very much in vogue. Star Trek (2009) was that rare species of Hollywood blockbuster: a CGI-laden romp with a sense of both humour and nostalgia, but also a teeming desire to not merely rehash old ground but deliver to contemporary fans a fresh and exuberant spin on a dusty format. This was done by incorporating an ingeniously assembled alternate reality, allowing Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, to freely break away from continuity restrictions whilst upholding certain relevant story elements and, more importantly, fan favour. Four years later Abrams returns to the directorial chair – before propelling off to a galaxy far, far away for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) – for belated sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which sees him reteaming with Orci and Kurtzman (alongside producer Damon Lindelof, given a writers credit) and embarking on a decidedly more ambitious yet flat and impersonal adventure amongst the stars.
Following up a largely superior first outing, Abrams et al have the unenviable task of trying to replicate its winning formula, which is something Into Darkness excels at through the preservation of a formula grounded by the seamless balancing of action and humour – however much it maintains the first’s schizophrenic attention span, where spectacle monotonously interrupts drama. The other jewel in its imperfect crown is the return of a cast who, rapidly and memorably, grew into their characters first time round. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto’s perfectly rendered Captain James T Kirk and Spock, respectively, are complemented by the epic, echoey bombast of Benedict Cumberbatch’s awesome villain John Harrison, an ex-Starfleet agent with a malevolent penchant for destruction. His villain forms the overarching driving force for the plot, which sees the crew of the Enterprise battling a particularly overwhelming form of terrorism directed all too close to home.
The preservation and indeed wanton fascination with the relationship between Spock and Kirk is the backbone of the franchise, and Abrams fully understands the bearing this has over whatever story he’s telling within this universe. The moral issues between the two protagonists are both engaging and integral to the emotional core of the film, and they cast a formidable shadow over the generic demands of the genre. An opening sequence – set amidst a perilous observation mission on a primitive, volcano-encumbered planet – has ostensibly little to do with the overarching narrative, yet the decisions made by hot-blooded Kirk (his ship’s heart) and rule despot Spock (it’s logic-motivated head) continue to reverberate throughout the succeeding action. This paves the way for the further fleshing out of the traits and principles that clearly define the large cast of characters, allowing even smaller roles the opportunity to once again leave their mark (though Zoe Saldana’s sultry Lieutenant Uhura is unfortunately pushed to the margins, yet fortunately not made as redundant as newcomer Alice Eve is after a glaringly useless underwear shot).
A blatant refusal to part with the frameworks of Star Trek ultimately robs Into Darkness of overall expansion and implants a sense of arrested development. The outcome of Spock and Kirk’s once again tried and tested friendship is copied almost verbatim from its predecessor, which forced into focus the humane notion that, regardless of race, temperament or perspective, loyalty will out. This is also true of the finale of the opening chapter in this hopefully long-lasting revamp, which saw Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime – cleverly interwoven into the current mythology – intoning the show’s phrase by outlining the Enterprise’s five-year mission to seek out and explore new worlds, life forms and ultimately go, boldly, where no man has gone before. It left on the promise of further exotic adventures fuelled by inquisition, yet it’s ultimately a promise that Star Trek Into Darkness – with its backwards-facing elaboration and duplicated nature – struggles to keep.