In J.J. Abrams's latest Star Trek film – "Star Trek: Into Darkness" – the darkness in the title isn't referring to the recesses of space. It's referring to the shadows cast by an apparent militarization of the benevolent Starfleet, the purveyor of anthropological and diplomatic explorations for the Federation. In its original incarnation, Starfleet, in its "prime directive," is almost hippocratic: First, do no harm. Yet the powers that be would like to weaponize the Federation's version of the Peace Corps, which is a fitting metaphor for what Abrams has done to the cult series.
Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are back in Abrams's second installment of the franchise reboot. Kirk is still the swaggering, blue-eyed commander of the beloved USS Enterprise and Spock, his first officer, the stoic, rule-following Vulcan-human hybrid. Spock's inability to let go of the rules and embrace his gut feelings – or at least Kirk's gut feelings – has not only frustrated his commander, but also the ship's communications officer, Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who doubles as Spock's love interest.
The trio can only spend so much time resenting one another. A single agent, going by the name of James Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a two-pronged attack on the heart of Starfleet's human and technological infrastructure. He then retreats to a destitute planet in the Klingon Empire, the Federation's opposition in an intergalactic Cold War.
Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) asks Kirk to chase down and kill the terrorist under the cover of darkness, lest the Klingon Empire notice and a intergalactic war erupt. At this point, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" asks its heroes interesting questions about their role as Starfleet officers, and even poses pertinent political concerns about extrajudicial killing and the use of drones circa 2259. But once the Enterprise reaches Klingon and the meat of the action begins to unfold, those themes fall by the way side. Marcus's war hawk agenda proves worrisome, but more to the immediate fate of the Enterprise than to the legacy of the Starfleet as a whole.
Abrams has the challenge of paying homage to the old series while entertaining Trekkie philistines. He tries at little harder to do the former than he did in his first Star Trek film, reintroducing classic characters, revisiting favorite lines and, at least at first, reexamining the old series's underlying themes (on which Matthew Yglesias wrote an excellent essay). Once they are introduced, however, Abrams turns his attention to the latter portion of his audience, seeking to entertain rather than explore. As it builds momentum, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" grows into the mold of your typical, action-packed sci-fi flick – a genre in which Abrams excels – with the Star Trek motif serving primarily as a vehicle for your usual summer blockbuster fodder.
Scotty (Simon Pegg), Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) return as Kirk's loyal crew. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), a weapons specialist and daughter of the Admiral Marcus, also joins, offering an extra dose of eye candy as well as know-how and a special connection to the admiral. The reveal of Harrison's true identity is also a tribute to Star Trek lore that will delight fans of the old franchise. However, all these sly references are crushed under the weight of Abrams's big action flick, no matter how polished and sleek his interpretation is. It's entertaining to be sure, but even those not familiar with the Star Trek of old will sense that Abrams departed from something special in efforts to make the franchise more mainstream. Those who love two hours of thrilling 3-D action laced with clever quips delivered by beefy actors may appreciate Abrams's desire to wow with fancy CGI and snappy one-liners. But don't expect it to go where no man – or movie – has gone before.