So, to recap: didn't like the 2009 Star Trek movie very much. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it most the first time I saw it, which was dubbed into Russian and lacking in subtitles. Looked nice, rattled along, but it didn't really work on any level other than as an SF action spectacular, and I had serious issues with the way it opted to honour and ground itself in the rich heritage of Star Trek history by casually obliterating most of that history in one fell not-especially-coherent swoop. But, as usual, I was in the minority, the box office kerchinged to the tune of $385 million, and four years on here we are with the next offering from director JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.
There's not a lot of darkness initially on display as we find ourselves on a primary-hued planet where our heroes are engaging in a spot of surreptitious geological intervention. This segment is colourful and frantic but mainly seems to be here to permit the inclusion of an effects sequence where the Enterprise rises from the depths of an ocean (why on earth is it down there in the first place? Even Scotty complains that this is a ridiculous idea), although I suppose it also launches some of the character plotlines which run through the rest of the film.
Kirk (Chris Pine) saves the life of Spock (Zachary Quinto), rather against his will, mainly because by doing so he breaches the Prime Directive. Ructions ensue at Starfleet Command, but are curtailed by a terrorist attack on London. It turns out that the culprit is an enigmatic rogue Starfleet officer, named (it says here) John Harrison – he is played, quite as well as you might expect, by Cumbersome Bandersnatch from Sherlock. Not content with blowing up London and Noel Clarke, Harrison has a go at blowing up the top brass of Starfleet as well, then – before you can say nuqDaq 'oH puchpa''e' – transports himself off to the Klingon planet Qo'noS.
Thirsty for vengeance, even though some members of his own crew have deep reservations, Kirk accepts the mission of carrying out a retaliatory strike against Harrison. But can the young captain put his desire for revenge aside in the name of real justice? And is there more to their mysterious, almost-superhuman adversary than meets the eye?
If you liked the 2009 Star Trek movie, you'll almost certainly like this one too, because it has all the same virtues: it looks sumptuous, the actors give it everything they've got, and the story barrels along energetically enough. There is even a bit of a topical moral quandary for the characters to wrestle with, which is a welcome improvement. I have to say, though, that I think the plot this time around is perhaps just a little too convoluted for its own good: much of it is powered by the interplay between two separate villains, and occasionally it's not completely clear when they're working in concert and when they're actually in conflict with each other. I'm not going to flatly state that the plot doesn't make complete sense: but I do think the film doesn't quite work hard enough to show exactly what the sense of it is.
On the whole the movie seems rather more interested in illustrating the main and fundamental difference between the new Star Trek universe and the one it replaced: specifically, that in nu-Trek people wear more hats. It's true: we see Kirk and Spock turning up for various functions wearing peaked caps, while one of the new uniform designs unveiled here put me rather in mind of staff officers in the Imperial Navy of Emperor Palpatine. Even the Klingons wear hats in the new universe – well, helmets, anyway, though these do not completely obscure the fact that they have mysteriously got their cranial ridges back a few decades earlier than they did in the real universe.
For me it just added to the sense that this somehow isn't real Star Trek – quite apart from the general aesthetic, there's a subtle suggestion that the Federation still has a market-based economy, for one thing – and this is at its strongest when we consider the main characters of the film. Never mind that most of them don't even look very much like their originals, they don't behave or interact in a remotely similar fashion. Pine's Kirk is an irresponsible wild man with none of the charm or charisma of William Shatner's version, nu-Uhura's importance has been boosted to the point where she's arguably superceded McCoy as a lead character, and so on. Even the ones who are particularly well-played – and Simon Pegg makes the most of some good scenes as Scotty – aren't recognisable as the same characters. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the other characters who get their first nu-Trek outing in this film: not only do they behave totally differently, but their accents have changed and one is a completely different ethnicity.
Despite all this, the film stays quite watchable as long as it sticks to its own terms of reference. However, as the climax approaches... well, one of the predictions I made after seeing the 2009 movie was that this new iteration of the franchise would be condemned to endlessly revisit and reinterpret old characters and stories in order to justify its existence. And so it proves here, as Abrams and his writers have the sheer brass neck to revisit and reinterpret some of the Trek movie series' finest and most memorable moments. They stuff it up; they honestly stuff it up very badly. True, there's a physical confrontation at the end of the movie which is brilliantly staged and will caress the pleasure centres of any genuine Trekkie – but this didn't make up for the moments which had me literally snorting with derision: it was like watching a home-movie remake of an Oscar winner.
Still, I expect this movie will do at least as well as the last one, and further instalments will doubtless follow. But I suspect these will do no more than attempt to recycle past glories in same manner as Star Trek Into Darkness. The starship Enterprise is travelling in circles: attractive circles, energetic circles, well-crafted circles, yes, but still circles. At the moment this is a franchise which is boldly going nowhere new.