Upon exiting the theater after my first viewing of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I was fairly certain that there would be absolutely no point in seeing any other movie for the rest of the summer, convinced I had already seen the best one. While purists of the original series might be experiencing mental short-circuits at some of the turns Into Darkness dared to make, as a sci-fi piece Into Darkness is one of the finest that the genre has produced in recent years, with or without the Star Trek title. Purist readers (you know who you are): remember what alternative universe means. Things can be different. Moving on.
Into Darkness moves seamlessly and rhythmically from mood to mood, gliding from comical to heart-pounding to melancholy. Kirk's violation of the Prime Directive leaves a primitive tribe in a state of comical confusion, and then, with no transition or explanation, we're shown how far into darkness and depravity a man will go to save his dying daughter. This is where the story really takes off and sets up the theme of the movie: the needs of many vs. the needs of the few, and the true meaning of sacrifice.
With all the main characters already well-established, Into Darkness doesn't waste too much time with expository cutscenes or dialogue except with the antagonist Harrison. Otherwise the audience is thrown right into the story with familiar knowledge of all the returning characters. Although some of Spock's decisions might surprise Kirk, they're not really surprising to the audience, and likewise with Spock's surprise at some of Kirk's decisions. The friendship between the two is still young and developing, but at least at the start of the movie they like each other, which is an improvement.
Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Dr. McCoy, Chekhov, and the rest of the Enterprise crew are all as good as they were last time, but the real show-stealer here is John Harrison, ingeniously played by Benedict Cumberbatch. While it's certainly no spoiler to reveal that he is in fact the villain (shocking!), that knowledge somehow didn't prevent me from occasionally wondering if he might be just misunderstood. This is especially impressive when one considers that he enters the movie as a terrorist who first manipulates a desperate man into setting off an explosive, and then flies a small aircraft right up to Starfleet Headquarters and proceeds to fire upon a gathering of officers, taking the life of one in particular. And yet despite these introductions, his mysterious demeanor demands investigation and intrigue, maybe even fleeting sympathy. He has believable motives that almost justify his heartless extremism, and the course of the story reveals that he is not the only heartless villain at play; the Enterprise is merely caught in the middle.
Harrison's manner is regal, edgy, and cold. He seems both tigerish and serpentine, yet undeniably admirable. Whether supremely evil or just driven to extreme measures by strong loyalty, he commands respect but also, caution. While his motives can be guessed at, they are not fully revealed until the movie's third and most heart-racing act, where momentum has built to warp-speed, and the victory or defeat of the Enterprise is at a breaking point. And someone's head is at breaking point.
Paramount to a great movie is a great villain, and Into Darkness has a great villain. Although his origins are based on a previous Star Trek nemesis, Cumberbatch takes the character in an entirely new direction, leaving only a few basic elements of his history to resemble the previous portrayal of the character. Truthfully, the moment when "Harrison" reveals his true identity, there was a sharp intake of breath all across the theater, and I applaud the writers for not giving it away too early or giving too many hints to spoil that surprise.
One of the most delightful things about Into Darkness besides its compelling plot, is how it pays homage to the original series and gives allusions to some of the most famous moments of the vintage Star Trek movies, without being too obvious. For example, Dr. McCoy casually mentions a Gorn, tossing a bone to a classic moment in the original series. Dr. Marcus mentions Nurse Chapell, who never features onscreen, but would be well-known to a real Trekkie. As would the mention of a tribble, the true identity of officer Carol, and so on. Other moments deliberately play off of well-known scenes, but steer in an opposite direction. This is a parallel universe after all, so no one is bound by needing to remake anything-- things can play out in any variety of ways. For that reason, I toyed back and forth with how I felt about the appearance of Nimoy-Spock. In some ways it seemed to be just a memo to the Trekkies that this is still Star Trek. In other ways it seemed to serve as a brief reminder of what happened in that Spock's universe when they were in a similar situation, so as to prep the audience for what occurs shortly thereafter to the current Enterprise.
With a sterling plot, excellent twists, well-timed comic levity, sweeping cinematography and solid performances throughout, it can be honestly stated that the only flaws to this film are the overuse of solar flare effects, and the superfluous shot of Carol in her underwear. Apparently a lot of Trekkies took issue with the latter, and everyone else with the former. These are minor flaws in an otherwise shining piece of science fiction entertainment. Star Trek Into Darkness does justice to its genre and its legacy, at least as good if not better than The Wrath of Khan.