Star Trek Into Darkness opens, in typical J.J. Abrams style, in medias res, with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) running through a bright red jungle, chased by some natives covered in white war paint. Meanwhile, a volcano nearby is about to blow, and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) races to stop it. We never really find out who these natives are exactly, which isn't the point. The point is that we've been thrust into a story that owes a lot more to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars than to Gulliver's Travels. And there, in a nutshell, is what drives many old-school Trekkers so batty about the new iteration of the classic sci-fi series. It also happens to be why Abrams' 2009 reboot worked so well — and why Into Darkness, for the most part, does too.
The cheap sets, simple characters, and goofy, self-important dialogue of the original Star Trek were in the service of episodic morality tales whose surreal, intergalactic backdrops often helped clarify the issues and ideas at stake. It was only later, after the popularity of Star Wars, that Trek gained a more epic dimension, particularly in the film series. At their best, as with 1982's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the films mixed the allegorical qualities of the show with the imaginative possibilities of new generations of F/X wizardry and just enough soap opera to keep viewers emotionally engaged.
But Abrams basically completed the Star Wars-ification of Trek, with the moral dilemmas taking a backseat to operatic tales of fathers and sons and intergalactic combat. These were no longer fables, but myths. Star Trek Into Darkness continues in that vein, carrying over our heroes and all their character conflicts from the previous movie (chiefly, Kirk the hothead vs. Spock the hyper-rational spoilsport). Such conflicts go out the window, however, when a new threat emerges: A mysterious former Starfleet member named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) blows up the Starfleet Archives in what appears to be a random terror attack. Then, however, he shoots up the high command, a la the helicopter strike on the Five Families in The Godfather, Part III — and shit starts to get real, as the kids say these days.
Kirk and company track Harrison to an uninhabited region of the Klingon planet Kronos — and at this point, your humble critic begins to wonder what constitutes a spoiler and what's not, as Harrison's real identity turns out to be one that doesn't mean much to our heroes, but will mean much to a certain set of Trekkers. (It's also given away on the film's IMDb page.) Anyway, let's forgo the whole name thing and say that our villain is a genetically enhanced, seemingly indestructible genocidal madman hellbent on wiping out races inferior to himself. Sides are taken, alliances forged, and betrayals abound. Meanwhile, the selfish Kirk learns the value of self-sacrifice, while the cerebral and resolutely honest Spock learns the value of sometimes getting really emotional and lying through your teeth. If all that sounds familiar, these were the basic emotional stakes in the previous Star Trek too.
Into Darkness is ambitious, but its ambitions have more to do with size than sweep. The previous film got much of its charge from daring to tell Kirk's and Spock's stories from the beginning: Whatever the gripes of fanboys, the story felt new and allowed us to get to know these characters again. This time out, everything has a certain inevitable familiarity. Still, there are many ground-level pleasures to the film, including a couple of excellent action scenes and some wonderful performances — qualities one didn't associate with Star Trek movies in the past.
As Spock, Quinto has to combine the iconic stiffness of the Spock character with the vulnerability that this new iteration requires; he's magnificent. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch is pure sneering charisma, and the role will surely add to the Sherlock star's rapidly gathering celebrity. As for the blandly handsome Pine, he's effectively likable as the hot-dogging, impulsive Kirk. Do you wish, after Abrams' first outing, that Star Trek Into Darkness were better? Yes. Maybe more momentous, more emotionally resonant, more absorbing. But this'll do.