J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in spectacular fashion with his colourful, witty and fresh 2009 hit, which worked a treat thanks to some canny casting. The director doesn’t exactly rewrite his own rule book for the follow-up, delivering increased spectacle (in sometimes gimmicky 3D), a better villain in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch’s intimidating John Harrison, and a satisfying premise that tests Kirk’s resolve.
Opening in the middle of a dazzling mission on a primitive planet, the crew of the Enterprise are forced to make tough decisions to save the life of a species threatened by an erupting volcano. It’s a thrilling opening, and the consequences see Kirk (Chris Pine) stripped of his captaincy, but earning the life-long respect of Spock (Zachary Quinto). Meanwhile, Noel Clarke is the worried London father approached by a mysterious man offering to save his sick daughter. With the Enterprise crew at Starfleet HQ, a dramatic sequence of events introduces them to the terrorist Harrison, and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) tasks our heroes with tracking the fugitive down to Kronos. Cue a moral dilemma involving Klingons.
It’s no deeper than most blockbuster movies, and doesn’t have the emotion of the first film, but there are some terrific character interactions and familiar notions of terrorism bandied about to keep things interesting. The most successful aspect is Kirk’s character journey, and in his career-defining role, Pine runs with it, pulling off a nicely handled balance of cockiness and resolve that shows up how cardboard cut-out the other characters can be. All the group camaraderie from Abrams’ origins film is lacking though - this is purely the Kirk ‘n’ Spock show.
Cumberbatch is superb casting, and threatens to steal the show. With Tom Hiddleston’s Loki proving you still can’t beat a British toff for a baddie no matter how clichéd it is, Cumberbatch’s rich voice and memorable visage makes for a dashing, genuinely unsettling villain. Unforgivably, the women get short shrift. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is mainly to the doting girlfriend role, with her character this time defined by her relationship to Spock. The worst offence is newcomer Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus, a ‘brilliant scientist’ whose big moment is stripping to her underwear in a ridiculously gratuitous scene. It’s made all the more insulting by the lack of an equal moment of male exploitation, which proves just who the target audience is deemed to be. Just compare this to the increasingly inclusive sci-fi blockbusters Marvel are churning out, from Thor being uniquely shot from the female gaze, and Iron Man 3’s depiction of a young female scientist not defined by her sex appeal.
It’s a rollicking adventure, full of nods to the franchise that will alternately enrage and delight hardcore fans. Reviewed from the point of view from someone whose entire experience of the universe is Abrams’ Star Trek, it’s a joy to gauge the reactions of the audience, which range from laughs to groans. It whizzes through the action, barely pausing for breath, but the finale feels curiously anti-climactic, and the film is over before it really feels as if it’s got going. The set-ups feel rather tired as well - Abrams uses the ‘unexpected explosion causing chaos’ trope numerous times throughout the film, and he recycles one or two of his previous film’s magical moments. For all its problems, it’s a comforting, highly entertaining return to this invigorated franchise.