Star Trek Into Darkness really should be seen in the full thunderous crush of IMAX projection, with 3D starships and ambient space junk pouring off of a screen that rises above you like the towering wall at Helm's Deep. Techno overkill is a big part of the movie's fun, and nothing overkills quite like IMAX.
Director J.J. Abrams, returning for his second foray in the rebooted franchise, provoked squeals of Trekkie indignation with his recent comment that he was never much of a Trekkie himself. But he simulates a convincing enthusiasm for this never-ending story (now in its 47th year); and while the 3D is a post-production conversion, Abrams appears to have constructed the action with maximum face-flaying detail in mind from the beginning. Returning screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman—joined this time by Damon Lindelof, Abrams' collaborator on the Lost and Alias TV series—have worked up a narrative that, while not fully committed to the principle of making sense, does offer a couple of sly surprises. (Every Trekkie with an Internet connection will already know what these are, but I'll be oblique anyway.)
The movie hits the ground running with a Bondian pre-title sequence that has Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and company fleeing for their lives on an alien planet. Spock (the excellent Zachary Quinto) steps in to save the day by sacrificing his own life. When Kirk revs up the Starship Enterprise to rescue his pointy-eared associate, Spock becomes furious about this violation of the Prime Directive (never interlope in a primitive culture), and back on Earth he turns Kirk in to their boss, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Pike relieves Kirk of his starship command ("You don't respect the chair!"), and the pouty captain slinks off to bury his sorrow in a bed full of lightly-clad alien girls with tails. (A very brief and totally PG-13 interlude.)
This opening spat between Kirk and Spock is quickly forgotten when a renegade nutcase named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) blows up a Starfleet facility in London, and then proceeds to do something even more annoying in San Francisco. When Harrison escapes to the faraway Klingon home planet of Kronos, Starfleet chief Marcus (Peter Weller) reinstalls Kirk on the Enterprise and sends him off in pursuit, armed with a mysterious new line of "photon torpedoes."
Now we're on familiar ground. Spock is back aboard as science officer, joining the peppery engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), ship's doctor "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), and the minimally employed Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho). Also signing up is a new science officer named Carol (Alice Eve), who we soon learn is using a fake name. (Trekkies will immediately know that this woman has to return for a sequel.) Scotty is alarmed by the military-grade photon torpedoes ("I thought we were explorers!"), but the mission proceeds, and after a violent encounter with some nasty Klingons, Harrison is captured. Sure.
The actors bring a welcome human coloring to all of this interplanetary uproar. Pine is still a bit too frat-boy to be all that interesting, but Quinto continues to mine the comic possibilities of Spock's divided nature (he's half Vulcan, half human, you'll recall) with great skill. The love-mumbling between Spock and Uhura is a limp distraction, and I could've done with a little less of Bones' overdrawn whining ("Dammit, man, I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!"). But the movie's most serious flaw is the casting of Cumberbatch, whose character provides the movie's big surprise. Cumberbatch is an actor of riveting intensity on the BBC series Sherlock, but he's too classically accomplished to downshift into flamboyant sci-fi evil—he's just intense, which isn't the same thing. Judging by the movie's conclusion, however, he'll probably be back for a sequel, too, so we'll see what else he can do with the role.
The movie is a study in near-perpetual motion, with Abrams' camera skittering all around and into and up above the action. The 3D processing is admirably unafraid to milk the technology for every cheap thrill available, and the image resolution (parts of the film were shot with IMAX cameras) is so concentrated that in some scenes you can detect the powder-puff trails in Chris Pine's makeup. This is the best kind of summer blockbuster, unashamed of its mass-market intentions, adequately respectful of its source, and enterprising beyond the call of big box office. It wanders into uninspired digital uproar well before refusing to end at the two-hour mark, but up till then there's not a lot to dislike.