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 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 find out who these natives are, exactly, but that 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 old-school Trekkers so batty about Abrams' new iteration of the classic sci-fi series. It also happens to be why the director's 2009 reboot worked so well — and why Into Darkness, for the most part, does, too.
The cheap sets, simple characters, and goofily self-important dialogue of the original Star Trek worked 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 The Wrath of Khan, those films mixed the allegorical qualities of the show with the imaginative possibilities that had come with next-generation FX wizardry. And there remained just enough soap opera to keep viewers emotionally engaged.
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 versus Spock the hyper-rational spoilsport). Such conflicts go out the window, however, when a new threat emerges: mysterious former Starfleet member named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison blows up the Starfleet Archives in what appears to be a random terror attack. Then, however, he shoots up the high command, à la the helicopter strike on the Five Families in The Godfather, Part III — and shit starts to get real.
Kirk and company track Harrison to an uninhabited region of the Klingon planet Kronos ... which is as far as your humble critic can go without wondering what constitutes a spoiler. For one thing, Harrison's real identity means way less to this movie's heroes than it will to a certain set of Trekkers. (I won't say more, but keep away from the film's IMDB page.)
Anyway, let's just say our villain is a seemingly indestructible genocidal madman hellbent on wiping out his inferiors. Sides are taken, alliances are forged and betrayals abound. 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 his teeth. Sound familiar? These were the basic emotional stakes in Abrams' first Trek, and they're replayed here.
But if everything has a certain inevitable familiarity, there are still many ground-level pleasures here, including a couple of excellent action scenes and some wonderful performances — qualities one hasn't associated with Star Trek movies in the past. The previous film got much of its charge from daring to tell Kirk's and Spock's stories from the beginning, a move that drew gripes from some quarters but allowed us to get to know these characters again. This time, the ambition centers not on reinvention but on sweep.
As Spock, Quinto has to combine the iconic stiffness of the Spock character with the vulnerability that this new iteration requires. He does, and he's magnificent. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch is pure sneering charisma, and the role seems certain to boost the Sherlock star's rapidly gathering celebrity. Even blandly handsome Pine is 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.