In some ways it's tough to talk about J.J. Abrams's Star Trek movies, smooth and sleek as they are. The second film in the reboot franchise, Into Darkness, has plenty of big emotional moments and seat-rattling action scenes, but they're all sort of fused together in a way that's hard to pick apart. Which isn't really a bad thing, obviously! More movies, especially big splashy summertime entertainments like this, should be as crisp and assured as Into Darkness. But there is a slight sense, as I had with Abrams's first Trek picture, of all that tightness and proficiency rendering the movie a little cold. At times these new Star Treks can feel like showy demonstrations of how to make a fresh, snappy update of a classic, without giving us much of an experience in and of itself. It's a strange thing to say about an IMAX 3D space adventure, but there's something almost academic about Into Darkness. Not in a bookish way, really. It's more that Abrams seems so breezily in control of the mechanically structured film that it sometimes feels like we're watching something instructional; it's the ideal model, somehow not the actual thing.
Where there are loose ends in this movie, they can mostly be found in the script, written as it was by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and that master of setup but epic bungler of follow-through, Damon Lindelof. (For more evidence of this particular fault of his, watch all of Lost. Actually don't. Seriously, don't do that to yourself. Just watch the first season and wonder forever.) Into Darkness finds Kirk (Chris Pine) on a mission to track down a rogue agent (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has been terrorizing Starfleet for mysterious reasons. Cumberbatch plays all this guy's focused rage with ferocious intensity, and it's moody fun to watch, Michael Giacchino's rousing score swirling around as we peer into, well, the darkness. And yet this guy is ultimately not that scary, his plan a little muddled, the resolution a little pat. By about three-quarters of the way through, the scope of the movie has proven a lot smaller than it initially seemed, which is a letdown. But that's maybe a problem of my outsized expectations — my viewing partner thought everything fit just right. Still, something tells me that these frequent collaborators need to go on a retreat and figure out how to really deliver on a script's big narrative promises.
Beyond that, though, Into Darkness is a smart and almost elegant blast, Abrams staging fast, limber set pieces with the ease of an old pro. His foundational impulses may be Spielbergian, but he's developing a style recognizably his own, something that marries peak Spielberg-era stateliness with our contemporary tastes for shaky-cam, verite intimacy, all done with a splash of wit and just a breathy hint of bravado. Abrams films dialogue tight on his actors' faces, perhaps trying to avoid the staginess of earlier Star Trek, and his action scenes are drawn in close too, until they pull way, way back and we realize the wowee scale of the thing. The film's opening scene is, for me, the real stunner, involving a primitive alien race, a mad dash through a curious red jungle, a cliff jump into the ocean, and, most spectacularly, a huge raging volcano that threatens to annihilate life on the planet. I loved the faraway mystery of this place, of these alien folks, and the idea that Kirk and his crew were trying to stop their extinction. It's a tease, a glimpse into a whole precarious planetary ecosystem that hints at the unknowableness of the larger universe, how there could be a planet dying right now, at any point really, entire civilizations and cultures destroyed, and we wouldn't know it. It's a lonely thought, but beguiling too, and Abrams poses its questions subtly, breathtakingly. It was my first sense that he really might be the right man for the Star Wars job.
Abrams has also hired a good company of actors. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, as Spock, have nice chemistry, a good thing considering that much of Into Darkness plays like a love story between the two explorers. Pine in particular has settled snugly into the role, letting some of the first film's overplayed cockiness fall away while adding some notes of weariness that hint at a flintier Kirk to come. As Scotty, Simon Pegg is a lot of fun, as Simon Pegg always is, and Abrams generously gives him a lot to do. The women don't fare quite as well here, as is so often the case with these big movies, but Zoe Saldana is as welcome a presence as ever, while franchise newcomer Alice Eve exudes an enticing air of mystery before the script just sorta forgets about her. And, again, Cumberbatch growls effectively and manages to hold the weight of this big movie, though I wish the story did a little more with him. Ah well. Small complaints.
Which brings us back to that feeling of sleekness, of odd remove. I enjoyed watching Into Darkness but nothing much stuck with me a few hours later. The same could be said of the first film, the details of which I can hardly remember. Ultimately Abrams's Star Trek films are cool technical wonders that don't connect in any real visceral way. My guess is that that's owed to the fact that Abrams, as he's said in interviews, wasn't much of a Star Trek guy before he took on this task. I think he's done well by the franchise, very well in fact, but his heart seems elsewhere. Which is why I suddenly can't wait to see him get out of the classroom and go do his own space travel. You know, out there. In that galaxy. The one that's far, far away.