How quickly a steady starship can veer off-course. JJ Abrams’ brainy, ballsy 2009 reboot of Trek has given way to a shallow, shrill, all-action sequel that reduces the characters to parodies. The camaraderie between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) now makes no sense: one is a risk-taking, rule-breaking rascal, the other’s a whiny geek; their dynamic brings to mind a socially inept schoolkid who thinks his bully is his friend. Scotty, Chekov and McCoy are just silly voices in uniforms, and beyond demonstrating her fluent Klingon, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura gets little to do except wonder why her pointy-eared boyfriend is bad at discussing his feelings (d’uh!). The young Kirk’s impetuosity gave the previous film a likeable verve but we were led to believe he’d matured into a thoughtful leader. Not so: on the trail of a superhuman havoc-monger (Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch) he leads the crew into certain peril again and again – Abrams and his writers have to employ deus ex machina with numbing regularity to save his sorry ass.
The plot moves forward on warp drive, pausing only to give Cumberbatch a rousing monologue in his Richard Burtonesque lion's purr; this scene fires the imagination like nothing in the remaining two hours of visual wizardry (his dragon voice already seems like reason enough to sit through the second Hobbit). Hard-core Trekkies will wet their jumpsuits at the return of friends and foes from the series’ distant past but there’s a sense of been-there, done-that about the proceedings. Exploring the universe with an open mind will have to wait for the next film; this one's just another playback of America’s obsession with domestic terrorism. Do 2013 audiences really want Trek to show them London bombings or star cruisers levelling half of downtown San Francisco? Does every tentpole movie have to come with a side of apocalypse?