Cast your mind back four years or so, to stardate early May 2009, and remember a time when J.J Abrams wasn't yet the anointed savior of Hollywood. He had an ever-growing fanbase, and had already been behind at least one bona-fide small screen pop culture phenomenon. But his influence on the big-screen up to that point only extended to a few screenwriting credits, mostly forgotten, a producing credit on disposable sleeper hit "Cloverfield," and directing "Mission: Impossible III," an enjoyable, but somewhat interchangeable entry to the Tom Cruise spy franchise.
Now, he's a genuine household name, anointed by Spielberg, the subject of not just magazine covers, but entire magazines, and the man charged with reviving the fortunes of arguably the most beloved geek franchise, as the chosen director for "Star Wars: Episode VII." And much of this was down to "Star Trek," his reboot of the space-going franchise that had lain dormant. The series had been increasingly tired both on TV and in the movies, but despite a writers strike which rushed the script, Abrams (with the help of an ingenious time-travel conceit that meant he could throw out the bathwater but keep the baby) delivered something fresh, fun and energetic, where excellent casting and his increasingly strong directorial skills managed to get the film past whatever difficulties it had on the page. Now, Abrams is back on the Enterprise, and while much of what made the original so entertaining remains intact, it's all a little more hollow the second time around.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" picks up an indeterminate amount of time after the original, kicking off with the crew of the Enterprise on a mission to stop a volcano from wiping out a primitive race. They pull it off, but Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive (which states that less-than-advanced civilizations shouldn't be exposed to technology beyond their means) in the process of saving the life of his first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), who thanks him by reporting him to Starfleet Command, with Kirk relieved of his ship as a result. But disciplinary measures take the backseat after Starfleet are attacked by one of their own, the shadowy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). And so Kirk, Spock, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are reunited to bring him down.
And for much of the first half of the movie (running the requisite two hours plus, though never coming close to dragging), it seems like it might be a fitting sequel to the previous movie. The cast step back into their roles like they just hung up their uniforms the day before, with Pine and Quinto again proving to be strong co-leads, and displaying excellent, sometimes even moving chemistry (the decision to center these movies so heavily on their bromance continues to perhaps be the masterstroke, when it comes to engaging audiences who weren't fans of the original incarnation). The film is as attractive and lens-flare-y as before (though the color palette's gone the requisite orange and teal, which makes the film feel less visually distinctive this time around). There's a veneer of seriousness, but also still a sense of lightness and fun, and Abrams continues to impress as a director; the pace rattles along, the action's crisp and clear and the tone generally nicely modulated.
There are new elements to like, as well. Abrams (and writers Damon Lindelof, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman) take the opportunity to expand the universe further, both in space and at home, and the worlds feel lived in, imaginative, and true to classic 'Trek' while still being updated for the actual 21st century. And among the (relatively few) cast additions, Alice Eve fits right at home as the Enterprise's new science officer, bringing plenty of texture to a role that didn't necessarily need it (she arguably makes more of an impression than Zoe Saldana, who gets short shrift this time out), while genre veteran Peter Weller has fun with a meaty supporting part too.
And yet the film's biggest downfall turns out to be with the element that's been the focus of the advance marketing, in the shape of Benedict Cumberbatch's shadowy villain. The actor is as commanding a presence as he ever is, and proves to be surprisingly adept at the badassery too. But he's kept at the fringes of the film for the first half, and by the time he comes to the forefront, there's less to him than promised. Frankly, the part's underwritten and undermotivated, the writers hoping that fans will fill in the blanks from earlier movies and only loosely sketching out his backstory, at least for newcomers to the franchise, and never making it especially clear what he actually wants to achieve. Cumberbatch does his best to add a level of nuance, and even empathy, to Harrison, but the script shies away from the more interesting paths, and end up making him a motiveless maniac (if it sounds like we're being vague, we are a little, in an attempt to avoid spoilers).
And the result, ultimately, is a film that feels, if anything, smaller in scope and scale than the original. And while focusing in on the characters in what's essentially a stripped-down revenge story is in theory admirable, it's less successful in practice if it fails to take those characters to particularly new places, and while Pine and Quinto do strong work, their arcs are fairly similar to what we saw in the first installment. (Simon Pegg perhaps fares the best among the original second-string crew, his role much expanded this time out, while Anton Yelchin comes off worst, the filmmakers continuing to give the impression that they forgot about his character, and tacked him on as an afterthought).
As you might expect from Abrams, the action sequences (barring the climax) are thrilling, especially an "Inception"-indebted freefall sequence that sees the crew negotiating gravity-shifting practical sets. And for the first hour or so, it's just as enjoyable as the original, but by the time the credits roll, there's a sense that you're undernourished and unsatisfied; you've been on a decent ride, but not one that really adds up to anything by the time you're done. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a long, long way from a disaster, but it's hard not to feel that Abrams' mystery box turned out to be a bit empty this time out. [C+]