“Star Trek Into Darkness” has a great antagonist, a terrorist calling himself John Harrison, played by the increasingly famous British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. His voice drips with pure, theatrical villainy, but Cumberbatch plays him believably, like a real person. The movie’s worst enemy, though, may be its own zealous, clumsy intentions.
In case you missed that the movie was an allegory about 9/11 and the war on terror, it ends with a title card dedicating the film to “our post-9/11 veterans” — an awkwardly out-of-place touch. Fans of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” will be delighted or annoyed by the overt references and parallels to that film, including one over-the-top nod that is so forcefully wedged into the story that it’s unintentionally funny. You can feel director J.J. Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, working strenuously to appeal to longtime Trekkers as well as newbies, AND deliver a summer blockbuster, AND present a futuristic sci-fi story rooted in present-day concerns. The film never stops to catch its breath, so eager is it to dazzle and entertain us, push our nostalgia buttons, and continue rebooting the franchise — all at once. It’s generally a lot of fun, but it’s exhausting, and the busyness only somewhat disguises the fact that the story doesn’t entirely make sense.
Not long after the events in 2009’s “Star Trek,” the bombing of a Federation building puts Starfleet — normally devoted to peaceful things like exploration and sex with hot aliens — in the position of becoming more militaristic. Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), under the tutelage first of Adm. Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and then the more bellicose Adm. Marcus (Peter Weller), indulges his cowboy impulses and takes the Enterprise on a risky mission to kill the perpetrator of the attack, the sinister and otter-faced John Harrison. Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical counterpart to Kirk’s gut-instinct methods, advises caution, not just for tactical reasons but ethical.
The relationship between Kirk and Spock has emerged as the key component of this version of the “Star Trek” franchise. Their interactions provide the emotional connection that keeps the films tied to reality even when the stories take us to the far corners of space. The film is at its most satisfying when these characters and their fellow crew members — McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) — are working together: talking, arguing, cooperating, rolling their eyes at each other, and having adventures.
By the time “Star Trek Into Darkness” is over, all the elements are in place for any number of further episodes. It doesn’t matter much what the specific crises are. We just enjoy traveling with this group. Which is why Abrams and company ought to have eased up a little here, rather than breathlessly emphasizing go! go! go! action at all costs. Their eagerness to please becomes a detriment when it outgrows their ability to actually keep up with all the balls they’re juggling. Give these likable characters something interesting to do, with a worthy opponent, and most of us will be content.
B- (2 hrs., 12 min.; )