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Here are two reviews of Star Trek into Darkness. The first is the review I would have written immediately upon leaving the IMAX cinema. The second is the review I would have written a week later.

Initial reaction

Now that’s how you do a Star Trek movie for the masses – in fact, that’s how you do a tent-pole, late-franchise blockbuster. Driving action, great character beats, well plotted and hugely entertaining. A genuinely hissable villain, who still gets some depth; fantastic set pieces directed with genuine brio; loveable characters with snappy banter; peerless effects work and – amazingly enough – a plot which basically makes sense all the way through. Even the villain’s evil plan makes some sort of sense! Add to this some for-the-fans kisses to the past and you have a pretty much perfect package. Only that silly name lets it down.

One week later

Fucking hell, what was I thinking?

Okay, it does look great on an IMAX screen, and the cast are basically all up for it – the new trio of Pine, Quinto and Saldana (no love for Bones?) are keenly aided by regulars Pegg, Urban, Cho and Yelchin. Guest stars Peter Weller and Benedict Cumberbatch understand what is expected of them and Alice Eve, I dunno, gets her kit off for absolutely no reason at all.

And yes, the big sweep of the plot makes some kind of sense, but all the details are badly handled. The opening sequence (oh, by the way – spoilers!) in which Kirk and co detonate a device to prevent a volcano from wiping out a primitive civilisation and in which Kirk demonstrates that violating the Prime Directive is worth saving a crew member for (especially if it’s Spock) is fine, except when you start thinking about it, which a week after I’d seen the movie, unfortunately I was.

So, let’s take it as read that for reasons unspecified, the Enterprise happens to be close enough to this planet to notice that a) the volcano is about to blow and b) the people on the surface are not technologically advanced enough to be able to survive. And let’s also grant that Spock, who is supposed to be on the side of non-interference don’t forget, agrees that interfering on this occasion is warranted, provided they don’t get caught. This is all pretty thin, but okay.

So, they will save the day with a magic anti-volcano device. I say magic because we are given no indication whatever about how it is meant to work, but it seems to be freezing or solidifying the erupting material, which means that the pressure will continue to build up. The Enterprise crew may have only bought the Tribe of Face Paint a day or two. But this preposterously advanced device which can manipulate matter in undreamt of ways, created by a civilisation hundreds of years ahead of our own has to be put there by a bloke and not sent in by a robot? We have pilot-less drones that can drop bombs on autopilot today – did we just forget how to do that in the 23rd century? Okay, fine – who will we send on this unnecessary and incredibly risky mission? How about the second most senior bridge officer? Brilliant!

Oh, and that’s before we come to the Enterprise’s cunning hiding place – under the sea. On the day, this looked so spectacular, I quite forgot to ask how the rubbery fuck it got down there without anyone seeing or hearing it!? Like so much of this damn movie, it sounds good for a second, it looks great for a moment, but it doesn’t really mean anything or make any sense.

I could go on at much, much greater length than this – almost every scene makes this error in one way or another, (Federation top brass doesn’t sit behind bullet proof glass, that wasn’t what you said Trans-Warp was in the last film, sure let’s have these very suspicious torpedoes on board, Bones has cured death etc. etc.), but instead I’d like to touch on just two points. I’m even going to give the movie a pass on the whole villain’s-plan-was-to-get-captured-by-the-good-guys-all-along trope. Well, be fair, I gave Skyfall a pass on that too, and I’d hate to be inconsistent! (I even gave Skyfall a pass on Silva trying to kill James Bond by throwing a tube train at him, because – even on second viewing – I’m having such a good time with the movie, I’d far rather gape in happy stupefaction at the awesome spectacle, than gripe humourlessly about how, and why, one would actually set such a thing up. Suspension of disbelief has its limits, however.)

No, I want to talk about two ways in which JJ’s Trek is very different from Roddenberry’s (or Berman’s or Meyer’s for that matter). The first is that JJ goes to great lengths to make everything in the movie solid, tangible and physical. The bomb which Bones and Marcus (why Bones!?) have to defuse, for example, clamps Bone’s hand inside it; the piece of machinery which Kirk has to fix must be battered into alignment and so on. For a time I thought this was a plus, but it sometimes has the effect of making things which should be extraordinary and amazing, instead feel prosaic and ordinary.

In Stephen J Whitfield’s amazing book Star Trek: The Making of A Television Series, published after the second season of the original series went out, and which goes into fascinating detail about how this landmark show struggled on to the air, Roddenberry is described striding into the offices of the effects team and telling them that whatever method of propulsion the Enterprise used should look hugely powerful, but that he never wanted to see any rockets, plumes of smoke or anything familiar from current Earth technology. He then strode out, leaving the team feeling he had asked for the impossible. But the way the Enterprise moves through space is impossible and so it needed not to look ordinary. The glowing nacelles of the Federation fleet have been modified many times since then, but that wise dictum has always been adhered to.

Until now.

Now, when – following a scene of appalling carnage which gets completely glossed over – the Enterprise pulls out of a near-fatal dive, lots of absurd little rockets are seen firing out of the saucer section to keep the thing aloft. Suddenly, we have to confront the physics of what could possibly keep this colossal ship in the air, and the whole thing starts to seem entirely ridiculous.

To be clear – I’m not saying “Roddenberry said it and so it can never be changed.” Roddenberry said all sorts of nonsense, and TNG in particular improved dramatically when he stepped away. But I am saying that on this occasion he was dead right and JJ was so, so, so wrong.

Worse however is this film’s insistence on homaging Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – probably the best of the Trek movies to date, with its only real competition being First Contact in my opinion (Voyage Home is fun, but it isn’t really a Star Trek movie and Undiscovered Country is hugely flattered by the films either side of it, but pales next to Khan). This trend started in the first JJ film, wherein we actually get to see Kirk’s completion of the Kobyashi Maru test.

A major theme of Khan (see, it’s a proper movie, it has things like themes) is whether or not Kirk can face a no-win situation. The Kobyashi Maru is an unrealistically tough simulation which Star Fleet cadets are put through. Facing a highly unlikely attack by super aggressive Klingon war-birds, rookie captains will have no choice but to abandon ship or be destroyed. Kirk, we learn in the 1982 movie, covertly rewrote the simulation so it was possible to win – for which he was awarded a special prize for initiative but, notes Spock, he thus avoided having to face a no-win situation which was the point of the test.

The 2009 film actually shows this incident, but whereas I had always assumed that the point of Kirk’s deception was to fool the Academy into thinking that their supposedly no-win situation actually did present a perceptive commanding officer with a way to win, here the simulation which Kirk plays out has quite clearly been altered. I had always assumed that he hoped to get away with it, and be thought an astoundingly brilliant commander, not a grubby-handed hacker. How would it help his career in any way at all to cheat in such an obnoxiously obvious way. Chris Pine plays the scene with apple-chomping insouciance which I imagine is supposed to be crowd-pleasing but in fact, since the rewritten simulation could have been beaten by a five-year-old, he just seems like a jerk; and because his deception is instantly obvious to all, it is entirely without reason.

Star Trek Into Darkness continues revisiting and traducing its far worthier progenitor, but here we go one step beyond dramatizing scenes we had previously only heard about (and in the process turning subtle character beats into farcical kids cartoon sequences). Again and again, the new movie repeats scenes from Khan but – wait for it – with a twist. Alas, on a second viewing my reaction shifts from being a happy chuckle of aren’t-I-clever recognition into the slightly seedy cough of a laugh on seeing a familiar scene from a classic movie largely and witlessly reproduced in the service of some ghastly spoof such as Scary Movie or Dracula Dead and Loving It.

Spock giving his life for Kirk was shocking, moving and meant something in 1982. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto’s cross-cast karaoke version of the same scene is unoriginal, unearned, frustratingly impermanent (because Bones has cured death) and frankly laughable. What next? Will the next Pine/Quinto film give us the death of Spock’s son instead of Kirk’s? Then manatees instead of whales? God help us when we get to the fifth film, if we get that far. Must we endure bad photocopies of favourite scenes for movie after movie? What the hell happened to creating original plots?

And the name is still stupid.

JJ is moving on, of course, to Star Wars. We can only wait and see what he makes of that franchise.

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Six more bridge hands