Star Trek into Darkness poses a challenge to review without spoilers. So much of what makes it worth talking about, as a Trek fan, is bound up in the interplay between the mythology of Star Trek and the requirements of a summer blockbuster. Nevertheless, it's possible to talk about the first third of movie without getting into too much trouble so I'll start there.
J.J. Abrams' second movie opens on the planet Nibiru with James T. Kirk (again played by the very versatile and energetic Chris Pine) fleeing through a scarlet forest away from some sort of wicker ziggurant. He holds a scroll in his hand, which he informs Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban who at this point owns Bones' folksy snark) he saw the natives of the planet prostrating themselves in worship over. Overhead we see the roiling smoke of the volcano where Spock, Sulu, and Uhura (Zachary Quinto, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana) are getting ready to drop a 'cold fusion device' into an active volcano, freezing it before it destroys Nibiru (you have to smile that even with all of the lens flare embellishment, the reboot still hews to certain technobabble traditions).
None of this, the chase scenes, threatening volcano, strange alien races gets in the way of the reason why I watch Star Trek. The characters. What's pulled me into Trek since I was a kid is the vision of exploring the galaxy alongside your best friends and despite Abrams' love of twists and turns, it never loses touch with Roddenberry's youthful insistence the future could be like leaving college and joining the Peace Corps.
Not that this vision isn't challenged the second Kirk returns to Earth. Of course Kirk rescues Spock from the volcano, and manages to save the inhabitants of Nibiru. And if the Nibiru people did see the Enterprise rising out of their ocean, Kirk has no trouble saying: "who cares?" Pine's take on Kirk is absorbing and fun without really being Shatner's Kirk. As +Matthew McComb pointed out, this is Kirk as played by someone who can act. This might be a mixed blessing. Pine is able to give his Kirk a more interior life than Shatner, but that subtle reflectiveness undermines his aura of command and destiny. It would be laughable to imagine an Admiral demoting Shatner's Kirk and all-too-inevitable happening to Pine's Captain.
Fortunately Star Trek is an ensemble work, no character works alone to save the movie and here is where it can be safely said the strongest decision the reboot ever made was in casting. Zachary Quinto's Spock is an ideal foil for this more defensive and vulnerable Kirk. Where Leonard Nemoy was always able to project a certain campy dignity to Spock, Quinto shoots for a more painfully sincere, comedy straight man take on the character. This works just perfectly. Quinto's less self-aware Spock requires Pine's more self-aware Kirk, the two balance like an equation.
One of the themes of this movie appears to be consequences. Kirk's actions on Nibiru have an impact on his career and relationships. Vulcan's destruction in the last movie has darkened the mood of Star Fleet. The admirals have become more inflexible, more regulation obsessed, and yet simultaneously more resigned to conflict and militarism. We're informed the Klingons are testing the Federation, taking over worlds on the alliance's periphery.
Just as we're adjusting to this dour tone, an explosion rips through the chrome towers of London. A figure quickly identified as a Star Fleet officer John Harrison (a utterly chilling Benedict Cumberbatch) claims responsibility although his motives are at first unclear. Star Fleet assembles to address the attack according to regulations and as Kirk quickly realizes, made themselves a convenient target. A jump ship piloted by John Harrison rakes the conference room with phaser fire, causing a great deal of mayhem and death.
Even in the first few glimpses of Harrison, I had a sense of a great potential villain. Cumberbatch, probably best known for his role on BBC's Sherlock, has an icy baritone voice matched with a psychotic's 1000-yard-stare.
Enraged by the cowardly attack, Kirk volunteers to follow Harrison to his refuge on Kronos, the Klingon homeworld. At this point the movie begins to take on the guise of a revenge film, certainly a well-established trope for summer action movies.
Which is where I got nervous. A few of the trailers made it seem as though the franchise had lost it's way. They emphasized the 'cop who doesn't care about the rules,' aspect of the story without offering a single scrap of Trek's trademark humanism. Star Trek can go dark, but it very rarely allows itself to wallow in depravity or atavism.
One of the best parts about this movie is how that revenge flick mask is constantly tugged askew. Harrison is probably the best villain in the franchise since First Contact, but he's a complicated menace with very clear motivations. In addition, Spock never let's Kirk slip into easy vengeance. Star Fleet gives the Enterprise a few guided missiles for a surgical strike on the killer. If this was any other franchise, I would've assumed that would be that. But Star Trek remains different and I found myself gratified that an action movie can still find ways to point out obvious examples of the right thing to do.
Maybe it's just my unfortunate viewing choices recently, but I have seen entirely too many Jack Bowers. On The Following it's gotten to the point where the first and last interrogation technique is the shooting the bad guy in the knee cap. I appreciate a movie that can look at evil in the face and still decide to show people taking the ethical and moral path.
Star Trek into Darkness is not the best action movie ever or even the best Trek movie, but it is very good. And maybe, just maybe, timely.