Director: JJ Abrams; Screenwriter Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof; Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban; Running time: 132 mins; Certificate: 12A
There's something inherently compelling about seeing a repressed, tightly-wound character completely unravelled. It's why bodice-rippers will always be best-sellers in one form or another, and it's also why Zachary Quinto's subtly-calibrated Spock ends up as the unlikely heart of JJ Abrams's ambitious, sprawling sequel. It's character-rich writing across the board that makes Into Darkness the triumph it is but Spock's journey stands out, re-introducing emotional seams from 2009's Star Trek and taking them to their logical (if you will) extreme.
The iconic odd-couple friendship between Spock and Kirk (Chris Pine) is front and center from the off, as Kirk violates the Prime Directive in order to save Spock's life and winds up inadvertently playing God to an impressionable alien race. "You don't respect the chair, because you're not ready for it," a disappointed Pike (Bruce Greenwood) tells Kirk, before stripping him of the Enterprise and his crew.
But it's not long before Starfleet has bigger fish to fry, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison, a physically invulnerable terrorist within their own ranks wreaking revenge-fuelled havoc on Earth and in space alike. His mission remains mysterious for some time and even once it's revealed, the rights and wrongs are murky at best.
It's hard to imagine a starker contrast to Eric Bana's shouty, ineffectual Nero than Harrison, who's all level voice and simmering danger.
Despite how heavily focused on Harrison the film's marketing has been, he's far from the only source of conflict - co-writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci pepper the Enterprise crew's dynamics with smaller, human clashes. Kirk and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are both frustrated by Spock's apparent lack of emotion, which snowballs into beautifully subtle work from Quinto once the unravelling begins. Meanwhile, Scotty's uneasy with the Enterprise's increasingly military role. "I thought we were explorers," he protests to Kirk, echoing a concern many fans have voiced about Abrams's Trek.
Less successful is new recruit Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), whose rebellion against her high-ranking dad (Peter Weller) is half-heartedly drawn at best - and if you're wondering, that underwear shot is just as gratuitous in context as it was in the trailer.
Cast members describing Into Darkness as "relentless" weren't kidding: between urban explosions, chases through enemy space, exhilarating hand-to-hand combat and an escalating body count, you might struggle for breathing room. A tad more calm interspersed with the storm wouldn't have gone amiss, but when those rare quiet beats come, they matter; there's a third-act gut punch that works all the better because of how much in contrast it is with what's come before.
The contrast doesn't always work - some of the heavier-handed humor clunks awkwardly alongside the heightened dramatic stakes, although Spock's eloquent retorts are a consistent joy. So too are the numerous nods and references to original series and movie canon; the only mis-step being a brief reprise of the first film's multiple-timeline shenanigans. It feels like Abrams still not quite trusting his own rebooted universe, where in every other instance he treads the line between new ground and nostalgia with supreme confidence.
Star Trek Into Darkness earns its title, but the dark shades are still primary colors. This is still a hopeful universe in which people are good and bravery is rewarded and friendship is worth fighting for, and Abrams couldn't have made a smarter decision than putting Kirk and Spock's bond at the forefront. It's an exhilarating, emotionally rich and utterly pleasurable journey that wears its love for Trek fans old and new on its sleeve.