J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot franchise performs several admirable balancing acts. Among them:

  • It adheres to traditional, if not conservative values, such as the importance of intelligence, the power of teamwork, the virtue in staying covered up (those Starfleet uniforms reveal nothing!) without seeming stuffy.
  • It does that sci-fi thing of explaining a lot about the universe that it's introducing you through dialogue without any of the exposition seeming like it's been piped in from a Wikipedia page. Don't know what Prime Directive is? It's OK, the charaters in Star Trek Into Darkness gradually explain it. Don't remember that Spock is only half Vulcan? Don't worry, you'll get a gentle reminder.
  • It is a big masquerade ball where familiar faces like Zachary Quinto don appearance-altering aesthetics and symbolize giant concepts/personality types (Kirk is spontaneity; Spock is logic), yet the acting is so good that this rarely feels over-the-top, if at all. Everyone in Darkness is in top form and utterly charming — Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Karl Urban, especially. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan is a tremendous addition to the cast, as he brings an elegance to the kind of diabolical, impossible-to-defeat villain type that he's playing.
  • It behaves like a superhero franchise in that its characters pull off humanly impossible feats of strength and agility without falling into the trappings of the modern superhero movie and having to be either overly meditative or sneer at itself.
  • It acts like an action franchise but it's actually capable of pulling off excitement. My heart rate increased during a scene where Kirk must fly from one ship to another, zooming through outer space and dodging space junk as a hairline fracture in his helmet threatens to cause his head to explode. All the while, the person in his target destination is being distracted from opening the hatch.
  • Its one-liners are truly weird. "Sometimes I wanna rip the bangs off his head," Kirk smarts when frustrated with Spock. "Damn it, man, I'm a doctor not a torpedo technician!" says Bones.

I have no deep association with what came before 2009's reboot. I can't say whether or not Star Trek Into Darkness will satisfy diehard fans of the series, but I suspect that for many of them, very little would at this point. However, I have seen virtually every big budget action movie that has been released in recent memory, and Into Darkness, like its predecessor, is among my very favorites. This is the only remaining action franchise that I care about it, the only one that moves nimbly enough to consistently entertain. It has no lofty goals but it is sharply written and acted enough to avoid feeling mindless.

If anything, Star Trek Into Darkness seems too eager to please. It winds down with a three-part climax, during which new members of its multi-ethnic, multi-species crew—a real rolling pan-universe Benetton ad—is constantly and politely flashing on screen. I don't need to tell you what the image of a spacecraft at skyline-level aimed at a building evokes, but the film apologizes for itself in a dedication to 9/11 veterans that flashes onscreen during the credits. Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't always go boldly, but its momentum is thrilling all the same.