NB This review boldly goes into plot spoilerific territory (as surely as it splits infinitives)
If I haven't written much about the Star Trek movies so far (only a brief response to the first one here) it's partly because I felt responses were hard-coded. It just came down to have much of a classic Trek fan you were. Hardcore fans of the original series hated the reboot with a vengeance, whereas I... well I was never that much of a fan, so was more amenable to change. Which suggests at different perspectives, rather than different analysis. Which would make any debate purposeless.
It's true, for example, that the the original series was powered by the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle. But that seemed effective because of the chemistry between the three actors, the way some bands can only work with a classic line-up, making it something of a fool's errand to try and reproduce. Better to vary from it. Admittedly, they strayed too far, and made films too much about Kirk and his supporting cast. But it's better to go in the right direction and overshoot than the wrong.
This time the script conspires to divide the crew into twos, but is only interested in the effect of this on Spock and Bones. And it's actually handled reasonably well, Spock suddenly finding a joke funny and Bones worrying he's become delirious, Spock attempting to say he'd always assumed their relationship to be based on an underlying respect and Bones firmly insisting it doesn't need saying. It's reminiscent enough to work, without being trapped inside imitative.
And when Kirk's two-hander with Chekov yields nothing similar that's probably just as telling. Kirk's job is to move the plot along, and anyone with him is an audience or sounding board. There's some feints to give him one of those 'atonement-with-the-father journeys' out of Scriptwriter's Basic, but that tends to lurk around the film trying to find some sort of purchase. And, surprise, his 'arc' is his considering giving up being a starship Captain only deciding to stay one after all – meaning he comes out of the film just the way he was on the way in. Phew, that was close!
We're clearly intended to connect to him by him being coded as connected to our era. So much so you half wonder if there's a director's cut scene where he wakes up in the future, Buck Rogers style. Perhaps what's significant is how this is played. He's a rock'n'roll Starship captain, riding a motorbike round an ancient planet to distract the enemy, and later seizing victory by blasting the Beastie Boys at them.
If these moments are annoying, rather than goofily charming as they seem intended, it's most likely because they're so absolutely unearned. At the close he tells another character, now enlisted with Starfleet, she doesn't have to obey all the rules. Because, you know, he said so. There may well have been eras before ours which had lower levels of personal freedom. But the gap between perception and reality, the idea of how free we are compared to the way our lives really function, that must be unprecedented. Short of some truly dystopian turn in history, nobody is going to look back on us and say that was the time you didn't have to obey all the rules. And consequently our heroes have become coping strategies, ways by which we can lie to ourselves.
And the flashy, frenetic direction of the film (by Justin Li, who's previously directed things like 'Fast and Furious' sequels) makes the perfect accompaniment for Kirk. As it leaps, giddyingly and unrelentingly from one set-piece to the next, its almost a trailer extended to film length. At times the flash-cutting is so unfollowable you end up just guessing what must have just happened, and you're normally right.
That said, the set-piece scene where the swarm attack the Enterprise, effectively slipping under the radar of its mighty weapons to literally dismember it, is genuinely effective. It's almost like the opposite to the classic opening of 'Star Wars', where a great big spaceship is shown to be chased by an even bigger one – this is death by an army of minnows. The scene's even given a neat fillip later, when it's revealed that their peer-to-peer inter-ship communications jammed the Enterprises' in themselves rather than through a deliberate plot, like they attacked us with their very unlikeness.
It's one of those classic moments where you can watch a Hollywood movie and root for the bad guys without having to rewrite much in your head. In fact it's virtually Negri and Hardt's theory of multitude versus empire, laid out on the screen. (Not, it must be said, a theory that's particularly convincing. In fact it's quite possibly no more than rock'n'roll autonomism the same way Kirk's a rock'n'roll Captain. But for all that it's fun to see it on the screen.)
And of course at the very same time the film seems cheerily innocent even of the concept that the 'bad guys' might portray positive features. In the standard clash-of-values conversation with the villain Kraal, he snarlingly mocks their “unity” as a “weakness”. Yet not only are his crew as unified in purpose as Kirk's, they are defeated precisely by having this unity disrupted.
Even if we weren't already expecting a plot twist over Kraal, Uhura is given a line to tip us off that one's incoming. And the way it's delivered is effectively handled, suddenly fixing on a clue which has been hiding in plain slight just as we've been looking elsewhere.
Yet it's this twist which truly scuppers the film. It turns out... I said there'd be plot spoilers, didn't I?... it turns out Kraal was himself a Starfleet captain, who wound up marooned on a distant planet, became convinced he was dumped there and consequently got a little embittered. And okay, aliens in science fiction are never going to be truly alien. That would make them beyond imagining, and then no-one would be able to imagine them. They're always going to be our shadow selves in some form, us at our worst so our best can get in a fistfight with them.
But there's a question of degree. Making them our literal shadow selves and no more turns them from disturbing shapes into mere reflections. It's taking those shadows and wringing the darkness from them, it robs them of any element of alienness. Historically as the Earth became delineated to the inch by spoilsport cartographers, the edge of the map was pushed further out and finally space became the place for the weird and inexplicable. This is more less what lies behind the rise of science fiction as a popular medium. It's where the strange can still be strange, where the unknown rears up at us. If you don't honour this then the science fiction becomes just a setting, a desktop background interchangeable with any other.
And this fault line is blown wide open by the ending. In'Into Darkness' we returned to Earth for a final battle with a terrorist bad guy intent on blowing up stuff. And here... okay, it's the futuristic city of a space station, but that's pretty much the same thing. And it's worse than repetition, it's even worse than the nagging sense we never really went anywhere, it runs counter to the most basic premise of 'Star Trek' – the bit spelt out up front about boldly going. Significantly that fabled opening monologue is now relegated to the end of the film, like the franchise is permanently being thrown off course and trying to get back on track. This film should really be called 'Star Trek Back Again'.
Because Star Trek is inherently about frontiers not home bases. Roddenberry's well-known original pitch for the show was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Starfleet can be referenced, but needs to be kept in the background of a story. Kirk should land on an alien planet like a Marshall bringing law to Dodge City, explorer and policemen simultaneously. In short, this film is not without it's moments. But it's reached the point where they made Star Trek so unlike itself, that even a non-fan like me thought of throwing in the towel.