Making a Star Trek movie must be hard. A movie like Star Trek Into Darkness has to simultaneously treat its source material with acknowledgement, if not respect, and make itself feel new and original. There are a lot of ways to do that, but JJ Abrams seemed to choose, “Just make it fun and figure the rest out.” He chose wisely.
Some light spoilers ahead, obviously. Including NOT the villain. (Changed our minds on that.)
Let’s be clear up front: I'm by no means a Trekkie. I’ve only seen a few of the original series episodes, and none of the older movies. Enough of TNG, Deep Space 9, and Voyager sunk in on Saturday afternoons that I'm familiar with those worlds, but not much beyond understanding internet pop culture jokes. This seems important, since Into Darkness feels like it was made exactly for me.
Star Trek exists in this weird, long-running common knowledge pool where even a lax science fiction fan is familiar enough with the tropes and story pillars to understand a large amount of references. It’s almost like Greek mythology in that way. You might see a tribble on the screen, and not remember exactly what it’s called or what it does, but know it was in that one episode or something. And that’s enough. For some more hardcore fans, the references might be excessive or even hand-holdy. But for casuals, they suggest a deeper, only slightly offscreen history to nice effect. We know there was a different timeline. We know Spock and Kirk ought to be best friends. We know who the villain is.
Oh, right. Benedict Cumberbatch is a well known Star Trek villain, whose reputation to fans is wielded to set tone as much as his commanding performance. And he’s marvelous, mostly, as a Terminator force of hyper-intelligent, amoral nature. You never feel like anyone around him is remotely safe while he’s on screen. But while he’s set up as a grand villain, attacking highly visible Federation targets, he’s never given a very big stage to play on.
The rest of the performances are generally strong without really standing out; Kirk and Scotty get some good turns (Simon Pegg squeezes out a ton of genuine concern and fun into his limited role), but everyone else mostly goes where the next explosion or threat of an explosion demands they do. Zachary Quinto's Spock is especially trapped in this loop, as his predictable I’m-feeling-more-emotions thread has to be played out, largely, in action scenes.
What makes character development difficult, though, also keeps the film humming along at a brisk pace. Abrams’ ability to do two or even three things at once without making a scene feel like a noisy mess keeps the storytelling clear. Even when Kirk is fighting off an impromptu checkup from Bones while debating Federation law with Spock and ambushed by a brand new member of the crew—all at once—you always have a clear sense of what’s going on and why.
That Abrams is such an adept juggler makes it even more flummoxing that the stakes never seem very high. The worst potential outcome, it seems, is that one (or two) crews might eliminated and an Admiral could start a war with the Klingons. That would be bad, of course, but it’s not the same as the threat of literally exploding the Earth in the first movie, and worse, you get the sense that everyone in the theater would probably rather see a Klingon war anyway.
Instead, we get an intricately plotted story whose second half resembles a hostage movie—set almost entirely on a disabled Enterprise and another ship—more than the action-packed first Star Trek. That’s not entirely bad! But if you’re going to set up a claustrophobic atmosphere, it would be nice to take a breath and have some quieter character moments, not just cram the (still fun) action set pieces into the smaller space.
There are a lot of places Into Darkness could have gone, or decisions it could have made, that would have made it a more impactful film. It’s no The Dark Knight, for sure. But every last second of it is enjoyable, even if it doesn’t seem to be aiming for much more than that. And frankly, why would it?