The closing moments of the 2009 reboot of Star Trek saw a revival of its source material’s famous slogan regarding the ongoing mission of the Enterprise: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life forms and new civilisations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Though J.J. Abrams’ film acknowledged the property’s history, the conceit of its alternate timeline story made it so that the film wasn’t actually a prequel to the original series, laying down a path in which the younger versions of the crew could have new adventures with no obligation to align with established Star Trek mythology.
It is notable that the mission statement that closes Abrams’ film should be delivered by Leonard Nimoy’s incarnation of Spock rather than Zachary Quinto’s, or Chris Pine’s Kirk. In hindsight, tying the reboot series to its past one last time, before the apparent venture towards the new, now reads as a forecast of the 2013 sequel’s direction. Rather than relishing in the freedom to introduce fresh ideas and boldly go where no one has gone before, Star Trek Into Darkness is extremely reliant on repeating what has come before in its own franchise.
Some semblance of the new admittedly opens the film, with a pre-credits sequence that, in the fashion of the Indiana Jones series, picks up with the protagonists at the tail end of an exciting adventure on an indigenous planet. Following that set-piece, which involves Kirk breaking protocol in order to save Spock’s life, the story’s back on Earth where the captain is reprimanded and stripped of duty, only to be re-instated within ten minutes of narrative time after attacks by a treacherous Starfleet operative known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who the camera loves to zoom or linger on for dramatic effect). The location of the escaped Harrison is pinpointed to an unoccupied area of a Klingon planet, and Starfleet’s Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) grants Kirk permission to lead a manhunt, free of other federation assistance so as to avoid war, in order to terminate the mysterious force of terror.
One might be inclined to view Into Darkness’ preoccupation with terrorism and military action as in spirit with the way Gene Roddenberry’s original TV series would reflect the current events of the time. Execution-wise, however, the revenge-fueled narrative feels less exploratory and more an aping of many blockbusters of late. In one scene, Scotty (Simon Pegg, giving one of the film’s performance highlights) expresses major discomfort with the mission, labeling it a clear military operation and asking, “Is that what we are now? I thought we were explorers.” It almost feels like a question to Into Darkness itself, a film in which – excluding the opening set-piece – one sole, brief trip is made to another world, and where a significant majority of the action takes place either on Earth or in the interiors of two vessels placed directly above the planet. One gets the sense that an epic scope is being aimed for, but the film feels strangely small.
That sense of smallness is only enhanced by the screenplay’s nods to past Trek fare. Regarding the comedic elements, this was an often fun touch in the previous film, but here the vast majority of the humour is entirely based around fan pandering and call-backs, even to specific jokes from the prior film à la Pirates of the Caribbean. This extends beyond the comedy to the film’s dramatic turns, with various iconic elements of earlier films in the franchise – recognisable even to those with only a surface level knowledge of the property from pop culture – explicitly reworked. It’s less a case of subtle homage and more an explicit recreation of earlier material with some re-framing; swapping character roles or slightly altering scenarios. One of these reworkings admittedly leads to what some might call a legitimately ballsy narrative choice for this reboot series, only for its resolution to cause what others might call a case of blue balls.
The aforementioned issues aside, Star Trek Into Darkness still remains a relatively enjoyable if underwhelming sci-fi spectacle. Cohesively it is probably better overall than its predecessor, and none of its lulls reach the lows of the 2009 film’s painful opening 25 minutes. There are reliably entertaining rapports and performances, and a few thrilling set-pieces in the third act. J.J. Abrams’ hyperactive visual stylings aren’t quite as striking here, and the colour scheme has gone the way of the oft-mocked orange and teal combo, while there are a few examples of glaring gratuity. The whole proceedings early on, for example, with Kirk briefly robbed of his captain post serves to needlessly complicate, while there’s a particularly shameless sequence that has no purpose other than to show new recruit Carol (Alice Eve) in her underwear for a few seconds. Not all of the older characters are served well either; Zoe Saldana’s Uhura gets the short shrift, while the screenwriters frequently seem to forget Anton Yelchin’s Chekov even exists. Since Into Darkness is so reliant on mimicry, it might have been wise to replicate its direct predecessor’s effective balance of its supporting players.
As the film concludes, one beloved character reflects on how everyone is about to venture forth into space for five years, followed by the bemoaning muttering of “God help me”. It’s a sign that a third film may finally go somewhere new, but one wonders if Bones McCoy’s apparent anguish at the idea is also reflective of the film’s creative forces. Sure enough, the show’s mission statement about exploring is repeated again as the credits loom. They’re not delivered by Nimoy this time but by one of the younger cast members, so here’s hoping this timeline doesn’t get stuck in another time loop.