"Star Trek Into Darkness," the second installment of the rebooted series - depicting the early careers of Kirk, Spock and the whole Enterprise crew - has the self-consciousness of a sequel. It's written and conceived in full awareness of everything people liked about the previous movie and with a determination to make everything even bigger and better this time. Here and there, that becomes bigger and worse.
The last film had an amazing opening sequence, showing the birth of Captain Kirk and the death of his father. And so, in "Star Trek Into Darkness" they try to top it, by beginning the movie with Kirk on the run from the primitive, makeup-wearing natives of a doomed planet. The entire episode is so tangential that, with the slightest tinkering, it could be excised from the story. Likewise, in response to the appealing emotion of the last film, this time Kirk and Spock don't just like each other. The love is so palpable that Spock might have to turn in his ears.
Yet every time "Star Trek Into Darkness" looks as though it's about to retreat behind the wall of silly, something happens that surprises, or delights, or demonstrates the filmmaker's genuine knowledge of and affection for these characters. The film is, for whatever else it might be, one of the funniest of the "Star Trek" entries. The wisecracks are grounded in character, with some flashes that are welcome and unexpected, and others that are totally expected and necessary: You're not allowed to make a "Star Trek" movie without McCoy insisting, "I am a doctor!" at least once.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" also is a movie that clearly reflects its time - that is, our time - with story elements that are directly in response to events taking place in our world. In this way, the movie stands beside the original TV show, which was often as much about the concerns of the late 1960s as it was about the distant future.
So once again we find the ultimate team, a marriage of complementary strengths and temperaments. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a young hotshot who trusts his instincts and has disdain for the rules, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is strictly by the book and trusts only logic. In these early incarnations, they are too much like themselves - and not enough like each other - but they will learn to be their best by toning down yet retaining their original natures.
It's a partnership tested under pressure. An interplanetary terrorist organization, run by John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), detonates a bomb at the Federation's London archive. Later, the villain has the colossal effrontery to attack Federation leaders at their main headquarters in San Francisco.
The comparison to today's terrorism can't be missed. More subtle, yet equally clear, is the moral analogue between Peter Weller, as a Starfleet officer who wants to kill everybody, irrespective of interplanetary law, and today's hard-liners. At one point, the Enterprise crew is assigned to launch some futuristic version of a drone strike, and the morality of that mode of attack is explored.
"Star Trek" is a straight-up summer action movie, and so it's interesting and surprising to see how willing director J.J. Abrams and the screenwriters are to go beyond the good guy-bad guy thing and look at some gray areas. Indeed, at one point, the Enterprise is the one locus of light in a sea of gray: There are no clear-cut choices, and their opponents and allies are just as good as they are bad.
Spock, that is Spock Prime, as in Leonard Nimoy, makes another appearance, giving young Spock subtle hints about the future.
Once again, the futuristic conceptions of major Earth cities are satisfying, with London looking like London - can you believe they actually fly down the wrong side of the street in that country? - and with the TransAmerica Pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz still embodying 20th century San Francisco.