STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS really ups the emotional ante and strikes back with a thrilling and dynamic sequel.

Watching STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS I was reminded on more than one occasion of another great sequel in its tone, excitement, and emotional depth – The Empire Strikes Back.

“I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.”

James T. Kirk has returned with his own kind of reckless heroism that leaves you and his fellow crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise shaken and stirred in equal measure. But the sequel to the dazzlingly enjoyable STAR TREK reboot from 2009 is a somewhat different beast – here director J.J. Abrams pulls us back into the future universe and shows a world not all that different from our own present, where an act of terrorism can destroy the people that you hold dear and spur you on to avenge their memory.

Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison

Starting with the glorious, pounding score from Michael Giacchino, that since the first film gives me goosebumps, we’re off at breakneck pace with Chris Pine‘s Kirk and Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy being chased by a lot of pretty annoyed natives, having failed to adhere to the Starfleet’s Prime Directive of no intervention on alien planets. And whilst Zachary Quinto’s Spock is lowered into a nearby volcano to hopefully prevent it from exploding, you feel on familiar thrilling territory from the first film.

Although by the end of this prologue, events ultimately work out, that’s only a brief moment for everyone to catch their breath because all too soon Kirk has lost command of the Enterprise, Spock has been assigned to another ship and a rogue Starfleet officer John Harrison has committed two unspeakable acts of terrorism and left tragedy in his wake. As Harrison (or perhaps he’s really someone else?) is played by the extraordinary Benedict Cumberbatch, you know that there’s more to him than meets the eye and when he eventually encounters Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew, we’ll have a hell of a battle on our hands all the way to the hard-fought conclusion.

Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness

Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock

And so the new movie begins to explore weightier issues, harder choices and more emotional decisions in its pursuit of Harrison and a kind of vengeance for his actions. “Let’s go get this son of a bitch” says Kirk with an even harder than usual forthrightness and through Chris Pine’s nuanced performance, we see a man struggling to keep his emotion in check. This is counter-balanced fantastically with Zachary Quinto’s quite beautiful portrayal of Spock – someone who is discovering the true cost of what it’s like to feel. These two performances drive the picture and their ever-changing relationship (or bromance as some people have called it) is built on very effectively from the first movie.

Cumberbatch is totally their equal and a brilliant casting choice by Abrams. He shows not only Harrison’s devilish cruelty but then his poignant motive for what he’s done and that duality is gripping to watch. The rest of the cast are on top form – Simon Pegg has a larger role this time as the ever-inventive engineer Scotty, Zoe Saldana displays a grit and fragility as Uhura whenever she’s on screen and John Cho steps temporarily into the Captain’s chair with a very commanding presence. Alice Eve is a bright, new addition to the series, along with the steely Peter Weller as the Head of Starfleet and although Anton Yelchin’s sparky Chekov wasn’t given more to do, I was glad to see the father-figure for Kirk return in the shape of Bruce Greenwood’s estimable Captain Pike.

What I also loved was how detailed Abrams made the film – some blink and you may miss them moments but I caught a lovely background shot of the ‘Kelvin Memorial Library’ early on and the return of Officer “Cupcake” and some other familiar faces on the Enterprise crew – nice touches. Dan Mindel’s cinematography once again sees the glorious lens reflection in evidence (nice flare!) and Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof’s script balances the wit from the first movie with a darker, grittier edge signified by Kirk’s declaration at pursuing Harrison that I mentioned earlier.

But it’s ultimately Abrams who shows what a truly gifted storyteller he is once again with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS – he cleverly didn’t try to repeat the dizzying excitement of the first film but as Empire followed Star Wars, he’s chosen to take the characters in another, deeper direction and I applaud him for that. I’ve admired his work since the TV show Alias and although I watched the previous STAR TREK films not as a fan but as just a viewer, now he’s made me a fan of this version – of the actors he’s brought to inhabit these famous characters and the fresh and exciting vision he’s shown for this voyage to new worlds and new civilisations.

I so look forward to the next instalment of this (and his) five-year mission.