Make sure to have your Gallagher style ponchos ready folks, because I can guarantee that after this review, the first three rows will be covered in nerd.
I am a Star Trek fan, and have been for all of my life. Though admittedly my first introduction to the franchise was the spin-off era in the 80's that started with The Next Generation, I am nonetheless somewhat obsessive in my love and attention to this entire fictional universe now being spearheaded by J.J. Abrams. I wasn't reviewing movies regularly at the time the first Abrams Star Trek came out, but as a fan, my reaction was somewhat ambivalent. It's flaws, though many and easily picked apart, were somewhat mitigated by its embrace of a fun adventurous tone that the original franchise itself had seemed to lose at some point before it petered out with Enterprise and Nemesis. As much as I lamented the fact that this new Trek would most likely mean the original timeline stories I loved would never be picked up again, the truth is that was probably the case anyway, and I've been content to treat this alternate universe as just that, and try to enjoy whatever Trek I can get, much in the same way as I can enjoy an Elseworlds tale or a What If story in comics.
My biggest problem with the original Abrams film was that as much as it took great pains to establish itself as being set in a parallel universe not intersecting with the original save the inclusion of an elderly Spock, it nonetheless had consequences for the original universe that any ensuing property set within would have to address. Most notably, any future Star Trek show or movie would have to deal with the fact that Romulus has been destroyed, and was destroyed off screen in the first five minutes of a movie that is otherwise non-canonical. This second film, being a sequel off and running in this new timeline, is far away from that problem, but as a result of it being off and running it finds itself with a few other problems. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Star Trek Into Darkness finds Kirk and his crew on a mission to track down an ex-Starfleet officer and terrorist named John Harrison, unraveling a series of secret plots within secret plots as enemies old and new converge on the Enterprise in the heart of hostile Klingon space. Its hard for me to talk about this movie at all without spoiling it, because so much of it hinges on a series of twists that build upon one another, and whether or not they succeed determines the ultimate success of the film. Perhaps more importantly, I'm not sure which fans I should be more concerned about in terms of specifics. For example, an offhand reference to Section 31 made in the film clearly carries with it a spoiler heavy association if you know what it means, but even if you're a fan of the shows there's a good chance you might not know what it means, and if you only know the movies or maybe one of the series, its not a spoiler at all. The fan in me and the guy who just wants to settle in and watch a good movie are once again at war.
This is a common occurrence. Recently I reviewed Iron Man 3, whereupon I reacted to the treatment of the Mandarin with nothing short of apoplexy, despite still finding the movie to be entertaining in many other respects. I have a similar problem here, though not quite to the same extent, as I am more able to forgive this series for at least trying to set itself apart from the Trek I know and love. This isn't the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which expects fans to pay money to watch them wipe their asses with their fond memories and then pretend to respect them. And yet, I want to just shut up and enjoy the Klingon wrasslin', tense pacing, excellent fight choreography, and often genuinely funny dialogue, but then I also want to scream at the movie for bringing back the stupid Transwarp Equation! This notion that Scotty invented a way to transport a person from one planet to another, or onto a ship traveling at warp speed, a technology that doesn't even exist in the present Trek universe outside of the Borg Collective, would render routine spaceship travel unnecessary, and thus negate the premise of the entire franchise, without telling anybody, should have been a convenient plot device that was ignored and forgotten, not brought back and made a major plot point in the first twenty minutes! Nerd!
I won't spoil the twist concerning the secret identity of the film's main villain, except to say that the only reason I didn't expect it going in was because I mistakenly gave the writers too much credit in assuming they would not be so obvious and pandering. Then again, perhaps that is a spoiler, but in any case, if you know anything about Star Trek and don't overthink it, you should see the reveal coming as soon as you first see the mysterious John Harrison in action, and if you don't know anything about Trek, the reveal won't matter anyway. I can't really say that its bad, if only because at the end of the day, its Benedict Cumberbatch, and I'd pay to watch that man read the phone book, but once his true role in the movie is established, it opens up a can of worms that in retrospect I think might have been better left closed.
Despite this being a tangent universe created by time travel, the fact is that the differences between it and the main universe are relatively minor, the most notable one being the destruction of Vulcan in the previous movie. Now that we are far enough away from the initial point of divergence, the extent to which ensuing events would differ from what we know based on the Original Series is still extremely nebulous. This might seem like another nerdy point of esoterica, but it really isn't, because even if you don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Trek and only know, say, the movies, then the problem that arises will be obvious even to you. Specifically, though the set up is different, this movie eventually evolves into an homage to one of the most famous events in Star Trek that is so blatant I would almost call it a remake, at which point I must question the reason for doing it at all.
Again, its difficult to explain appropriately without spoiling it, but Star Trek Into Darkness skates just up to the edge of tribute, slipping off maybe one time too many into an outright retread. Some of the specifics play out differently, though most are cleverly subverted purely for the purpose of evoking the original moments for dramatic effect, culminating in a repeat of one of the most famous lines perhaps in all of Trek history. Its well done and pulled off much better than I would have thought, but not well enough that I still wouldn't rather go back and just watch the thing it spends the last half of the movie referencing. I was legitimately surprised by how much I enjoyed one very spoilery example of this considering it unapologetically tries to recreate a classic element of the series, but in the end, I don't know if it was entirely worth not telling a more original story, or at least re-telling a more obscure one with more room to explore its minutiae
One of the things that I've always felt was the ultimate saving grace of the first Abrams Trek film was the casting, and in particular the way in which these actors were able to capture the essences of the characters they were portraying while honoring the original series actors without succumbing to outright imitation. Here, they all seemed to have taken a big step backwards on this score, which is both inexplicable and heartbreaking. There are times, too many in fact, where they come off like they're in a Saturday Night Live sketch satirizing their roles in the original film, practically winking at the camera as what were once very subtle and nuanced performances give way to unnecessarily broad comedy. The wacky “run for your life” mission gone awry that opens the film sets this tone right away, and it only gets worse as the movie trots out little fanservice tweaks here and there, Gorn jokes, Tribbles, “I'm a doctor not a (blank)” quips, and so on. Its a fine line, but they were able to walk it last time, and this time unfortunately they don't.
All of this being said, just on a basic popcorn level, I'd say the movie is very well made and probably just a touch more entertaining than the first one, even if it isn't altogether better, if you can wrap your head around that distinction. Its suspenseful and the story is structured in a way that makes it a little easier to ignore its faults, at least while watching, though don't be surprised if your positive opinion of the film begins to unravel a bit as you begin to talk through it coming out of the theater. That is, if your enough of an old school Trek fan to even care about these kind of things. If you don't know or care enough, you will probably have no problem at all getting into it. That the standard I apply to Star Trek as a fan goes beyond good popcorn fodder is somewhat beside the point, especially considering that the great Trek that made me a fan stopped being produced long before this movie came about. For the record, as far as I'm concerned Captain Janeway killed my Star Trek, Scott Bakula made a valiant though misguided attempt to resuscitate it, and now Abrams is just playing pantomime with the corpse. Okay, that metaphor kinda got away from me there, but you know what I'm saying. Or maybe you have no idea what I'm saying, in which case you probably have a life, and might just be at the right level of intellectual and emotional engagement to unambiguously enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness.