Sense of wonder. That’s what these big, daft summer movies are supposed to be about. In recent years, it’s been sadly lacking. Movies have been getting too frantic, directors too afraid to let their cameras linger on something beautiful, for fear the audience will get bored.
In 2009, JJ Abrams did a great job of reversing that trend with the meticulously crafted Star Trek. Now he’s delivered a sequel. So is the sense of wonder still there? Let’s find out.
First the good news. Under Abrams’s confident direction, Star Trek Into Darkness is a rousing movie that contains pretty much everything you could want from a summer blockbuster: strong story, solid cast, spectacular action. The familiar characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy – played by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban respectively – bounce off each other to great effect. Watching the movie, there’s a real sense that this is the Star Trek you enjoyed when you were a kid.
Nowhere was this feeling stronger than in the film’s opening sequence, in which our heroes are trying simultaneously to escape from a tribe of bloodthirsty alien primitives, extinguish an active volcano and lift off the Enterprise from its underwater hiding place. It’s such a joyful, audacious sequence that it’s no surprise the movie takes a little while to find its feet once it’s over.
Once it gets going, Star Trek Into Darkness romps along at a decent lick. Abrams is a great storyteller, equally comfortable with intimate character moments and action set-pieces. His direction is so effective that it mostly makes up for the weaknesses in the narrative – yes, I know I said the story was strong, but sadly the script creaks in too many places for it to be truly satisfying.
Take the ease with which Kirk is despatched to the Klingon homeworld with his payload of super-torpedoes (super-torpedoes – really?). I know the set-up’s meant to be hokey, but the trouble is it feels hokey, so when the big revelation comes later it’s neither a real surprise nor – if you think it through – terribly plausible.
Then there are the big action scenes. Great as they are, strip away Abrams’s assured direction and some of the best visuals you’ll see this side of the Neutral Zone, on paper they’re just a little ho-hum. The high-speed transfer between the Enterprise and the Vengeance is a rehash of the space dive from the last Star Trek outing and the final showdown between Zachary Quinto and villain Benedict Cumberbatch, while flawlessly executed, is still just a fist-fight on a moving vehicle.
Cumberbatch, by the way, is one of the three outstanding things about this movie. Good as the rest of the cast are, he acts the pants off them all. As a Brit, I’ve been enjoying his TV performances for a good few years now so it’s great to see him up on the big screen. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of him. When you’ve got an actor as capable as this playing a villain as interesting as … as the one he plays in this movie … it’s a crime not to give him all the screen-time he deserves.
The second outstanding thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is the visual effects, delivered primarily by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM have got really very, very good at throwing enormous starships around with weight, grandeur and sheer chutzpah. They’re also very good at water. In this movie they put the two together to stunning effect. In partnership with the third outstanding thing (director Abrams) they’ve delivered what I’ve been craving for a good many years now: a whole bunch of beauty shots.
Star Trek Into Darkness is fundamentally a thing of beauty. Whether it’s the USS Enterprise rising majestically from an alien ocean or the USS Vengeance on a collision course with San Francisco bay, there are dozens of shots that genuinely take your breath away. That’s why I’m prepared to forgive the movie its fundamental silliness and casual sexism. It’s why I’m happy to forget its undeveloped villain and remember the moments of genuine emotion between its heroes.
It’s why I’m pleased to say that the cinematic sense of wonder is well and truly back.