J.J. Abrams's original 2009 Star Trek, with its full embracing of high-octane ship battles and space swashbuckling, was well-received by audiences and critics alike. However, some of the diehard fans of the TV series were upset with Abrams for trading in the more philosophical musings of the show for summer blockbuster sheen. Those detractors probably wouldn't be satisfied by Star Trek Into Darkness either, which doesn't have any higher ideas in mind, doubling down on its action-adventure style but losing a little bit of the first installment's magic along the way.
Opening in the middle of the action -- a classic Abrams technique -- Into Darkness immediately establishes itself as the romp that it is. It quickly falls back into its familiar rhythm, delivering fun banter and an exciting mission that sets up the stakes of the film. Much of the fun of the first film was seeing the great cast inhabit these beloved characters and watch them come together, so its comforting to see them back for another go-around. Along the way, new additions are added, as to be expected from any sequel. Alice Eve joins the crew as a previous character from the series, and she's a surprisingly fun addition to the cast, easily blending in with the rest of the Enterprise. Elsewhere, the always awesome Peter Weller gives a commanding performance as Alexander Marcus, Admiral of the Starfleet.
Unfortunately, the problem is that the film is so fussy about constantly shaking up the dynamics of the group. This would be fine, except for the fact that the status quo is returned just as soon as it is broken. There are some interesting set-ups in the beginning that would serve as great places to build the story from, but the script seems so afraid to step out of its comfort zone. One could argue that this continuous jostling within the group is a part of the film's underlying theme, but by resetting things so quickly, there's not any weight given to it. None of these moments happen to have any major bearing on the plot and the characters, so there's no point of even making the choices in the first place. Towards the end, this becomes particularly problematic, where a drastic plot point only serves to temporarily drive the characters forward, before negating everything two scenes later.
What the film lacks in a solid structure, it makes up for in spectacle. J.J. Abrams catches flack for borrowing heavily from Steven Spielberg's playbook, but one of the best qualities that he's taken is the wide-eyed wonder that was in all of Spielberg's early work. Into Darkness is filled with lush colors and vibrant energy and the universe seems endless in its possibilities. Like Spielberg, Abrams understands the nature of the popcorn film. Although these films tend to forget about the exploration aspects of the TV series, they still have a great spirit of adventure to them. J.J.'s fluid camerawork, heavy on the use of spinning and swooping shots, keeps the action dynamic and exhilarating. In his hands, the setpieces are frenetic and chaotic while still having a great geographical consistency.
After a while though, even the action starts to get in the way of things. As the film goes on, the setpieces begin to come much quicker, with fewer moments of downtime in between them. The final action sequence has some pulse-pounding moments, but lasts too long and eventually becomes exhausting. Without any space to breathe, the third act feels like a claustrophobic and clattering experience. What's shameful about the action-heavy conclusion is that the film has some potentially interesting things to say about the nature of authority. Kirk and his crew are constantly wrestling with whether or not to follow the rules and to trust those above them. Yet none of those ideas are able to be fully explored because the film is so overstuffed.
Even still, the whole thing is able to skate by on its charm and great cast. Abrams has toned down his heavy use of lens flare (which never bothered me much) and the film is full of gorgeous spacescapes and whiz-bang special effects. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto offer performances that do well to further the bond between Kirk and Spock that was established in the first film. Overall, Star Trek Into Darkness is the definition of a solid summer blockbuster -- hefty enough to be satisfying, but too light to make any lasting impact.