I loved JJ Abrams' bold, colourful and kinetic reboot of the STAR TREK franchise—which wasn't as intellectual as some fans would like, but retained the spirit of the 1960s series in terms of emotion, characterisation, and pure fun. I understand the criticism that Abrams spliced STAR TREK with STAR WARS (his true childhood love) and the subsequent movies are thus a weird cross-breed, but his 2009 reboot was so much fun and cast so brilliantly that I found it impossible to take any criticism too seriously.Read more of my Letterboxd film reviews as they happen.
However, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a different matter entirely. There are obvious problems and frustrating moments for fans, although it works perfectly fine as a 'rollercoaster blockbuster' that almost literally doesn't stop moving for more than a few minutes. It's a breathless spectacle with several stand-out sequences and tense action beats, with Abrams exhibiting much greater confidence and clearly enjoying the increased budget ($190m to its predecessor's $150m)--which goes even further now they don't need to develop and design this parallel universe from the ground up.
The things I enjoyed about the 2009 movie are true of its grittier sequel: the cast are incredible in their iconic roles, and folk like Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin and John Cho outclass their forbearer's. Chris Pine may lack the cult appeal of William Shatner, but he's a better Captain Kirk in many ways, and Zachary Quinto is doing a fantastic job at emulating Leonard Nimoy without lazy mimicry. (Nimoy will always by the best Spock, but the character's duality is explored better in these new films.) You can argue that Simon Pegg's Scotty is too comical and doesn't resemble a younger James Doohan in the slightest, but he's still fun to have around looking flustered. Unfortunately, Abrams seems to enjoy Pegg more than Karl Urban—who's doing a decent DeForest Kelly impersonation, but the writers have somehow forgotten "Bones" was part of a Kirk-Spock-McCoy trifecta and he's too often pushed to the sidelines.
SHERLOCK's Benedict Cumberbatch gets his biggest movie role to date as Federation terrorist John Harrison, and does a great job at glazing the goofiest of lines with so much Thespian relish that you can't help but enjoy him. He also proves to be a surprisingly adept physical actor in various fight sequences that have you wincing in your seat. However, I'm unconvinced Harrison needed to be revealed as legendary TREK villain Khan Noonien Singh half-way through the film—not least because he's ethnicity doesn't make any sense for the role. (Benicio Del Toro was first choice for Khan, which makes much more sense as the successor to Ricardo Montalban, although perhaps they backed away because Del Toro would look so much like Eric Bana's scowling Nero from the previous film?)
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a breathtaking action spectacle that has the budget to bring the TREK universe to life like never before, while being so much fun to watch because of the actors involved. (I haven't even mentioned ROBOCOP'S Peter Weller as an asshole Starfleet officer, or Bruce Greenwood's touching mentor Admiral Pike.) But it also has a plot that doesn't hang together when you stop to think about it (why the hell would you park the space-faring USS Enterprise underwater on a planet if the Prime Directive is to avoid contact with pre-Warp civilisations?!), and a few things actually suffer when the 'Khan reveal' happens—particularly towards the end, when INTO DARKNESS unwisely starts echoing classic moments from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN... and comes off second-best, of course. The less said about Young Spock having Old Spock on speed-dial, the better...
But I had fun with this bigger and brasher sequel, which is the main thing. I like the universe that's been created, and it's wonderful to see STAR TREK alive as summer blockbusters packing in mass audiences, in numbers the classic and NEXT GENERATION movies never could. INTO DARKNESS even sets up the five-year mission to "explore strange new worlds...", so here's hoping the next sequel will restore a sense of wonder and exploration to the film franchise with the Enterprise out in uncharted space. Or will they be fighting revamped Klingons in their PREDATOR masks? Hmmm.