It took four years for Abrams and his crew to get Star Trek Into Darkness off the ground, which it immediately re-hits, running: we join Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Bones (Karl Urban) on a far-off planet of candy-red vines and cake-y white aliens, in danger of violating the Prime Directive by stopping a volcano from wiping out the race. This opening places Kirk and Spock in familiar instinct-versus-logic conflict, exacerbated when they return to Earth, where Kirk is dressed down and de-captained for his impulsive rule-defying—just before a terrorist bombs a Federation library. From there, the movie hurtles ever forward: resignations are filed, captain's chairs are filled and vacated and re-filled, protocols are broken, photon torpedoes are fired. This is an exciting movie, but also a busy one, with the surfeit of incident and deficit of crystal-clear storytelling that have become trademarks of the screenwriting team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, here assisted by Bad Robot staffer Damon Lindelof. Collectively, they've logged time with Abrams's Bad Robot production company on Alias, Lost, Fringe, Mission: Impossible III and the original Trek.
With so many overlapping and collaborating members of the Bad Robot brain trust, it's hard properly attribute the mixture of good ideas and bad. But it's even harder to ignore the lack of a single Orci-Kurtzman screenplay that doesn't rely on some manner of overexpositioned yet underexplained nonsense (Abrams's Super 8 had some of the same forest-for-the-trees script, but with a more heartfelt center and a terrific ear for dialogue). And it's easy to attribute the movie's rich color palette, gorgeously rendered special effects, and hurtling momentum to Abrams' confident direction (as well as the army of ILM-and-other technicians). He gives the many action sequences a relentless flow, enhanced by the full-IMAX version that includes bits filmed with real IMAX cameras. Actually, his energy extends beyond set pieces: even captain's-deck negotiations feel propulsive and urgent. Even trying to go darker (it's right there in the vaguely dopey and dopily vague title), Abrams gets the can-do optimism of Star Trek right. The new movie flirts with a standard revenge-action template, but does engage, however briefly, with ideas of what Starfleet is supposed to be, and how it might be warped to, well, fit a standard revenge-action template.
Abrams (true to his TV training) also knows how to guide and balance his ensemble through this commotion: Kirk and Spock, as ever, get the strongest workout, and though their dynamic feels familiar twice over from the previous film and their previous Shatner/Nimoy incarnations, Pine and Quinto continue to make the characters their own—and, in the few quiet moments, really quite touching. Even with these two looming over large cast, most of the rest of the crew gets stand-out moments too, particularly Simon Pegg's principled, frantic Scotty. The movie also finds room for two new actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a man who calls himself John Harrison, doesn't say a whole lot, and his dialogue isn't as top-shelf as it is on the BBC Sherlock series, but his coiled physicality is a wonder; he can hold the screen just by glowering. Alice Eve has less to do as the ship's mysterious new science officer—really, her function in the story is almost nil—but her crisp poshness adds to the retro-future vibe.
In addition to pretty new faces, though, the movie has also accumulated influences, rather than zooming off from the first film's promising launchpad. Darkness makes dutiful and saga-rific nods to its predecessor—probably more than necessary—but it doesn't stop there. It also performs some time-travel-assisted cribbing from the earlier Trek movies, slightly more playful than hackneyed but only just, and includes a war-starting plot point copied from roughly 70 percent of the last two decades' worth of supervillainy. Darkness also echoes the Daniel Craig James Bond movies, not in their grit (again: optimism! Shininess!) so much as their willingness to keep on ending with an introduction to the James Bond we know and love; by the end of these two Star Trek movies, we are assured that now the Enterprise is ready to begin that mythical five-year mission, which makes the series more like About to Star Trek.
It's easy to understand why filmmakers keep going after these "and now!" trajectories, as well as the overelaborate tributes to Trek's past—in terms of iconography, they're satisfying and comforting; Star Trek: The New Class performs the hell out of them. But I hope that after Star Trek Into Darkness—a superior bit of summer entertainment, I should stress—Abrams and/or whoever at Bad Robot takes the reins if Abrams gets too busy with his upcoming Star Wars sequel decides to take this still-promising crew on a full-fledged space adventure of their own. To go boldy, in other words, rather than just go.