The future is still bright with color and lens flares in Star Trek Into Darkness, despite that ominous title. Even in moments of great crisis, Simon Pegg's Montgomery Scott can be counted on for a witty quip. Even when the U.S.S. Enterprise is facing immense peril, director J.J. Abrams will keep the action light-footed and graceful, and make generous room for each of his characters to take part. In its best scenes-- and there are plenty of them-- Star Trek Into Darkness is as fluid and energetic as Abrams' 2009 Star Trek, and by bringing in a more powerful villain and deepening the crew's central relationships, it often exceeds the original.
What it lacks, though, is the putting-the-team-together urgency of the first film, and when the darkness of the title comes in to replace it, it bogs the whole thing down instead of adding meaning. The stakes are high in Star Trek Into Darkness, with death and global destruction much realer than they were last time, but the film rarely feels like it has the time to really deal with them, especially when wrapping around yet another needlessly convoluted narrative from Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. When we're watching Kirk and Spock learn to work together and care about each other, or watching Benedict Cumberbatch's Harrison try to manipulate the Enterprise crew, we're golden. But when the story expands broader-- to conspiracies and power-grabs and potential war-- it gets tangled.
And yet, just like last time, Abrams makes the whole thing so fun that you don't even care. The movie is off like a rocket from the opening scene, with the Enterprise crew attempting to halt an exploding volcano on a faraway planet but without violating the prime directive-- that Starfleet members not interfere with the development of alien civilizations. Kirk (Chris Pine)-- still brash and overly confident-- violates it to save Spock (Zachary Quinto), and sets up a conflict between emotional Kirk and logical Spock that's familiar to Trek fans but still touching to see enacted all over again. Kirk is demoted for the violation, with Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) put back in charge of the Enterprise, until an explosion at a Starfleet archive in London is pinned on John Harrison, and everyone's priorities shift accordingly.
Though it takes a while to properly meet him, Cumberbatch's Harrison is exactly what fans have hoped for, deliciously malevolent and cunning and constantly indicating that he's the smartest guy in the room (he probably is). His role in the story has been closely guarded, and with good reason-- it's not just his true intentions that are a surprise, but the role he plays in the narrative, and it's satisfying to be as unclear about him as Kirk and company clearly are. But he's also not the kind of villain who eats up the rest of the movie; every key member of the Enterprise crew gets their major moment in the film, and even Alice Eve's newly added Carol Marcus becomes integral to the story (though the much-promoted moment of her in her underwear remains gratuitous nonsense). For all the knots they twist themselves in to tell the overall story, Abrams and his writers have an excellent ear for everything that happens among the Enterprise crew, and every scene in the film pulses with the same assurance that these beloved characters are once again in good hands.
2009's Star Trek was a wild gamble, a reboot that both wiped the slate clean and paid endless homage to the original, and watching it succeed felt like taking flight. Star Trek Into Darkness inevitably lacks a little of that marvel, and its nods to the original series feel clunkier, like kids insecurely clinging to mom's apron strings. At a time when the series ought to be completely forging its own identity, it instead leans even harder on the past, making parts of the film impossible to discuss without remembering how Shatner and Nimoy did it. Sometimes it even starts feeling nostalgic for its own first film-- when Kirk is about to make a daring leap into space, he reminds his companion of the similar jump he made on to the Vulcan drilling platform in Star Trek. This new series was supposed to be all about breaking away from the past, but large portions of Star Trek Into Darkness feel mired in it.
And yet, those take-flight moments of blockbuster bliss are frequent and consistently spectacular, as Abrams continues to prove his rare gift of combining character, plot, comedy and action into setpiece after setpiece, crafting a film that rushes along but never feels frantic. It takes until the walk out of the theater to start to feel frustrated by the clunky references or the mystifying character motivations, as if Abrams and company have put the audience in a trance-- a superpower that can't go underestimated in a world where blockbusters are longer and more maddening than ever. I'm still waiting for this new Trek series to get a story that feels intuitive, not grindingly complicated. But I'm still happy if this is what we get while we wait.