Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a thrilling set piece on Nibiru, a primitive planet, where Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Bones (the sly, loose-limbed Karl Urban) are on the run from a tribe of angry natives on the planet. Meanwhile, a raging volcano, in mid-eruption, that threatens to destroy Nibiru and its inhabitants, traps First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) around a boiling ocean of lava. Naturally, the Vulcan stays cool as a cucumber, ready to die to save his crew — an impeccably logical decision, but also building to a classic “Trek” standoff between Vulcan logic and impulsive human emotion. But Capt. Kirk has other plans. He’ll rescue Spock, even if that means violating a Federation rule that says the Enterprise can’t be exposed to the planet’s uncivilized hordes. Kirk, who never met a regulation he couldn’t trash or care for, guides the starship up into the air and over to where his comrade is about to perish, and the warriors, decked out in head stare at the ship as if it were a god. It’s a sensation that the movie transmits to the audience, since the Enterprise, emitting an awesome thrummm, never looked quite so massive.
Like Abrams‘ first Trek movie, this one is positioned as a prequel to the original TV series and subsequent films, though it also lifts (and twists) elements from that sacred text, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock, each following his own nature (hothead, detached logical brainiac), are usually at loggerheads, but even when they wind up coming to the same conclusion, they can’t stop arguing about how they got there. The film builds particularly well on their burgeoning friendship and that’s part of the movie’s texture of cocky one-upmanship. The whole Enterprise crew has become a collection of colliding egos. Zoë Saldana’s badass Uhura, who’s in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel with Spock; John Cho as the so-stoic-he’s-cool Sulu; Simon Pegg’s frantically funny and resourceful Scotty. But make no mistake — these characters pop out at us with a new dynamism. Plus, they all confront a villain who has been brilliantly retrofitted to throw everyone, including the audience, off guard.
This dastardly dude is a boyish-looking rogue Starfleet officer named John Harrison, who starts off by striking a note of urban chaos. He’s played by rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch in a totally original way, with the physicality of a dancer and an eager, slippery, yet puckish sincerity, when given the chance, ingeniously disguises his vengeful mission. Once Harrison’s been captured and placed in a cell, Kirk has to listen to his own hunches about who this man is and what he wants. That’s the real ”darkness” the film’s title is referring to: the place where you’re no longer certain what the right thing to do is and that’s a place of genuine excitement. Into Darkness is a sleek, thrilling, beautifully modulated and sustained epic that’s also a triumphantly witty popcorn morality play. It’s everything you could want in a Star Trek movie.