Star Trek may be speeding Into Darkness, but the lens flares on the Enterprise are brighter than ever and that can mean only one thing -- J.J. Abrams and company have returned to take us on another journey into the final frontier. A highly polished piece of pop cinema with cliffhanger sensibilities, Star Trek Into Darkness moves at warp speed as it pits Captain Kirk and his crew against a cunning adversary of unparalleled strength and intellect. For as much as screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof focus on action to keep this sequel moving along, they smartly remember that it's the characters and their relationships that keep the fans coming back for more. All the while, Abrams and his ace editing team set their phasers to stun in a series of exciting and slick set pieces.
London: 2259. A mother and father are tearfully bidding farewell to their dying child as a mysterious stranger offers to save her -- for a price. Soon after, a blast rips through a Federation library in the city, resulting in an emergency meeting headed by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) where it's revealed that John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been identified as the man responsible for the attack. Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been demoted for violating the Prime Directive in an effort to save Spock (Zachary Quinto), prepares to track down the villain under the command of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) when Harrison launches a surprise attack that wipes out some of the Federation's top leaders. Thirsting for revenge, Kirk volunteers to take the Enterprise into Klingon territory, where Harrison is hiding out, to terminate him with extreme prejudice. When the mission threatens to result in all-out war between the Klingons and the Federation, however, Kirk follows his instincts and decides to take Harrison prisoner instead so that he may face justice back on Earth. Kirk then discovers the secret identity of his captive as the Enterprise comes under attack, prompting the captain to team up with the very man he was dispatched to kill in an effort to protect the integrity of the Federation and save his crew from certain death.
Despite its spot-on casting, playful chemistry, and eye-popping action, the one factor that seemed to weigh down Abrams' otherwise satisfying 2009 reboot was the lack of a truly memorable villain. For the second installment, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof work to rectify that oversight in a big way. And with Cumberbatch as the antagonist, their noble efforts pay off handsomely. A fast-rising star thanks largely to his memorable turn as the lead in the hit BBC series Sherlock, Cumberbatch is a commanding presence here as he plays with our sympathies while maintaining an imposing air of deep-rooted menace. The writers also have fun with that as an unexpected threat pops up in the midsection of the film. For as much flack as Lindelof gets for raising more questions than he's willing (or able) to answer as a writer, the presence of Kurtzman and Orci as co-scribes seems to bring out the best in him.
That isn't to say that Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't occasionally play things fast and loose when it's convenient (it only takes one stun blast to bring down Cumberbatch's character early on, but six barely slow him during the climactic fight), but honestly at this point anyone seeking perfection in a Star Trek script may consider a trip to sick bay for a brain scan. By maintaining the alternate timeline conceived in the original film, the writers construct a bridge between nostalgia and evolution that's strong enough to appeal to both the hardcore Trekker fanbase and the casual moviegoer. Though observant viewers will note the eerie echoes of 9/11 and its dark legacy woven into the fabric of the plot and its imagery, Abrams smartly (and somewhat ironically) offsets this with a vibrant color palate courtesy of returning director of photography Dan Mindel.
For fans of the 2009 reboot who enjoyed the chemistry and camaraderie of the new Enterprise crew, the good news here is that all of the major players have returned to their roles as well. As before, their comic timing is impeccable, though occasional levity courtesy of Karl Urban's Bones, Simon Pegg's Scotty, and the playful banter between Kirk and Spock never takes precedence over drama when the story calls for it, especially in a heartfelt scene that brilliantly echoes one of the original film series' most memorable moments.
At one point in this sequel, an incensed Scotty hands Kirk his resignation after refusing to sign for 72 torpedoes to be loaded onto the Enterprise, lamenting that they're being dispatched on a military operation rather than a space-exploration mission. "Is that what we are now?" he asks dejectedly. Given the emphasis on action over futuristic philosophy in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek universe, some die-hard Trekkers may ponder the same question. It's a hard one to dismiss, too, but it's even harder to deny that much like Kirk and his crew, Abrams and his team still manage to get the job done despite the criticisms that they've drifted from the Enterprise's original mission.