Science fiction's job, one that demands as much attention as the genre's other duties to extremely important stuff like lasers, space monsters and dodging asteroids, is to tell stories about Right Now from a vantage point of The Future -- or the past if you're talking about, say, Mad Men. So it makes sense that this latest cinematic installment of the alternate timeline incarnation of the Star Trek saga would be full of ambivalent/contemporary feelings about war, specifically war with an enemy whose identity and motives are hidden and whose ASS WE MUST KICK TO DEATH.
This time around the USS Enterprise crew (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin) meets its enemy in Benedict Cumberbatch, as John Harrison, a Starfleet officer on a "9/11 was an inside job"-style mission to boldly make chaos so that he can wreck everything and prevail. I'm glossing over details, obviously; this is a film built on several levels of somewhat unsurprising surprise and occasionally not-making-any-sense plot details and you should experience them for yourself. But you can know that it involves ideas about wars started over vendettas, political assassination without due process, preemptive attacks and the swallowing up of peaceful entities into the hungry-hungry piehole of militarism. This then begs the question: what do you want from Star Trek?
If your answer is you want old-school talky Star Trek and you hate anything that isn't old-school talky Star Trek, then you're never going to be satisfied. You'll probably also never be as angry as a Star Wars fan, though, so you can at least feel good about that.
If your answer is that you want a blast of a summer movie, then congratulations, you win in a way. As exhilarating gut-level boomboomBOOM objects go, it's a big, exciting success. It noisily rumbles and explodes and shoots and soars with the kind of action sequences you remember long afterward and want to see happen again. It also delivers terrific performances from the ensemble, notably Quinto as Spock and Cumberbatch, who seems to love his own evil in just the right measure. There are story problems, though, those moments you think about after the most recent satisfying crunch or crash, or maybe after the credits roll and you're talking it over with friends. Those problems create questions that start with, "Hey, what about ______ and the ______?" They're the kind that make you wonder if what you saw was actually any good or not.
But Star Trek Into Darkness isn't just a mechanical plot or a collection of awesome action sequences. In spite of the dark themes of conflict and the Enterprise's appropriate role in that conflict, there's also a lightness and playfulness thanks to director J.J. Abrams, working from a script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Abrams incorporates the doom with a less heavy hand than you'd expect because the whole of the thing relies on more than a grim battle mentality. It relies on community. Star Trek has always been a kind of workplace drama about the dynamics of human (and Vulcan and Klingon and Tribble and sexy green lady) interaction, the How-To of all of us just getting the heck along. This automatically makes it more personal, about a kind of longing rather than about the nuts-and-bolts of technical plausibility. So one of the things we want from Star Trek is what Abrams wants, too -- a model for teamwork and sacrifice, friendship and connection.
Superheroes in film are often functionally post-human. We can love them but we can never be them. But the Enterprise crew is something else. Called into superhero-style conflict, they're also clearly people in the non-superpower-having sense, regardless of what planet they come from. They evoke empathy much more quickly than Iron Man or The Hulk because they're easier to recognize. And what makes Abrams' vision for these characters memorable and lovable is that living, breathing, feeling stuff. It gives the space monsters (and villains with secret identities) something to fight against, something noble to balance their tragedy. The Enterprise crew is in this with you, fighting the good (and occasionally thoroughly head-scratch-making) fight. Now if they'd just get on with that five-year mission already.