JJ Abram’s follow up to his largely well-received Star Trek reboot has met with very mixed reactions, and it’s not hard to see why.
On the one hand, it propels forward the 2009 film’s iconoclastic spirit of energy and reinvention, continuing to explore familiar elements of the classic Trek universe while simultaneously subverting expectations. There’s a whole lot of action and noise going on here, and very little time to pause for breath. As an attempt to open the franchise out to newcomers, it has to be judged a success; unencumbered by narrative baggage, Into Darkness roams where it likes, taking old plot points and characters from wherever it likes and moulding them into something fresh and new. Newcomers feel able to enter a world they would otherwise know or care very little about, while those who are more knowledgeable about Trek’s past can enjoy the tips of the hat and revel in the past being recreated with such dynamic verve.
That’s the theory anyway. The other side of the coin is that there is a strong sense of déjà vu hanging over Into Darkness. The central plot tries once again to mimic that of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film widely regarded as the franchise’s finest hour. TWOK has long cast a shadow over the series; its epic battle of wills between Kirk and the villainous Khan, a man hell-bent on revenge against the captain of the Enterprise, has inspired many imitations. Thanks to an intelligent, literary script (which elevated an otherwise routine bad-guy-of-the-week plot to near-Shakespearean levels of drama) and Ricardo Montalban’s deliciously muscular performance as Khan, the film delivered everything one could hope for in a Trek film, as well as a surprisingly emotional finale.
Since then, there have been several attempts to replicate its formula, most obviously in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, which saw Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard face off against a Romulan clone of himself, and the 2009 reboot itself, with another Romulan, Nero, hell-bent on avenging the destruction of his planet by trying to kill Spock, whom he held responsible. Into Darkness’ idea of a conspiracy within the Federation to kickstart a war has also been seen before, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, while 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection similarly exposed dubious goings-on within the Federation’s own ranks. And the déjà vu doesn’t end there; when Leonard Nimoy is crowbarred into an entirely unnecessary cameo, you can’t help but feel that too much old ground is being trodden once again.
So how does this new take on familiar material stand up? It’s a fun ride, certainly: there’s action by the bucketload and the special effects continue to dazzle. Cocky young Kirk and his crew are an interesting bunch to be around. But will anyone remember this as fondly as they remember the earlier adventures? The performances are good, the script okay (plot recycling notwithstanding), but it seems to be all surface, no depth; the emotional core of the story is impossible to connect to when the action is dialled up to 11. Into Darkness is a hyperactive pastiche. Perhaps that’s the right attitude for this early stage of Kirk’s career, but if so, then this story is all wrong. There will come a time to deal with conspiracies and vengeful villains, but it’s not now. First he has to live; first he has to make enemies. New enemies.
Of course, this won’t matter one jot to those who love nu-Trek and view the classic era as old hat. Abrams’s shiny reinvention of the Star Trek world continues to be enjoyable. But for those of us who do remember the original era, and remember it fondly, there’s little going on here that hasn’t been done before, and done better. By pillaging from Trek’s finest hour, Abrams and his writers are inviting comparisons, and this time they aren’t all that flattering.