Somewhere on the fringes of the galaxy, the Starship Enterprise is on a suicide mission. The stakes are high, the odds are bad and the enemy is deadly.
But inside the landing vessel heading straight for a war zone, the lead characters are having a conversation about emotional repression and the meaning of death.
In the end, JJ Abrams’ sprawling sequel is a character piece masquerading as a big, brash blockbuster. In this scene and throughout, it’s the precision and vulnerability of Zachary Quinto’s performance that stands out, as the chinks in Spock’s Vulcan armour begin to show.
With an external threat as potent as Benedict Cumberbatch’s invulnerable, calculating terrorist John Harrison, it’s impressive just how much time is spent on smaller human foibles.
Scribes Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have simultaneously gone big picture and small scale, honing in on details only touched upon in 2009’s Star Trek and giving their lead actors plenty of room to unfold.
And it’s just as well, because some of Darkness’ plot mechanics clunk. Kirk (Chris Pine) is stripped of the Enterprise after one reckless stunt too many, but has his command reinstated before it can matter. Here, plot exists to serve character, and the incident sets up the bond between captain and ship which comes to a dramatic head in the final act.
But Kirk’s great romance is with Spock, and it’s perhaps for this reason that the much-discussed Alice Eve underwear scene feels so out of place; Eve’s character never becomes the love interest you expect her to, so it’s an isolated moment of perving rather than a stepping-stone in a flirtation.
The Kirk/Spock relationship, by contrast, is laid out in loving detail from the off - with the yin-yang of Quinto’s precision and Pine’s swagger giving the film an unassailable core of humour and heart.
Not all of the crew fare so well: the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle is shunted aside, with Karl Urban relegated entirely to the role of Cynical Metaphor Generator.
You won’t even need to blink to miss Sulu and Chekov’s scenes, and Eve’s Dr Marcus feels like a character left on the cutting room floor.
Abrams doesn’t so much lean on the Star Trek canon as set up camp directly on top of the franchise’s most beloved film to date, and Darkness’ third act will always be divisive for this reason.
Cumberbatch, though, creates a villain that is entirely his own: an amphibian, mercurial beast who’s dangerous in motion and even more so when he’s still. Blockbuster villains of late have trended so much towards ‘wanting to watch the world burn’ that it’s startling just how ambivalent we’re led to feel about Harrison.
But the idea of him as a mirror to Kirk is under-explored, and the pathos of his story pivots on a single monologue from Cumberbatch, who’s fortunately more than capable of picking up the emotional slack. Harrison’s physical prowess, though, makes for some of the finest fight sequences in Trek history.
While it may lack a single stand-out set-piece, STID falters only as a result of trying to pack in too much plot and character. It’s big-hearted, exhilarating, sci-fi storytelling, hiding real emotional complexity beneath its bright, shiny surface.
Extras include a group commentary (Abrams, the writers, producer Bryan Burk) plus six exclusive-to-Blu featurettes: alien-world-building, how to film a space jump and a look at the pre-release smokescreen of secrecy that surrounded the film’s baddie.
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