As Harrison, Cumberbatch is a huge improvement over Eric Bana’s Nero, the gale-force banshee villain of 2009’s “Star Trek.” Harrison is a daunting foe, possessing icy intellect, superhuman physical prowess and a psychologist’s eye for his adversaries’ weak spots, as well as a menacing, theatrically trained baritone. He taunts Kirk with his glacial disdain until the hothead snaps. When he discovers that Harrison isn’t an opponent who can be defeated by a punch, or three, or 10, Kirk must rethink his strategy. He struggles to adapt to a murky moral dimension where evil deeds spring from understandable impulses and where the enemies of your enemies are possibly, but not reliably, your friends.
As in last summer’s “Avengers,” the main business of “Into Darkness” is to teach the series’ familiar characters a few lessons. Kirk, the brash cadet who landed in the captain’s chair almost by accident, is obliged to learn the qualities of leadership. Spock must understand that rule-bound robot logic doesn’t cover every nuance of context-sensitive human life. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) must recognize that having a tongue as sharp as her beloved Spock’s ears does not make her more persuasive. The romantic byplay of Spock and Uhura compliments the bickering bromance between Spock and Kirk, which reaches a surprisingly affecting payoff.
Without feeling over-packed, the film contains a multiplex worth of standout action scenes, all of which advance the story while boggling the mind. My favorite answers the question “How do you travel a great distance between spacecraft without a shuttle or transporter beam?” The sequence, a callback to a bravura passage in the earlier “Star Trek,” is hair-raising.
Abrams and ace cinematographer Dan Mindel handle the special effects with a sure hand, shooting as many of the sequences as possible with minimal computer trickery. A fistfight sequence aboard a speeding garbage scow attains a level of realism rarely seen, thanks to most of it being filmed with real actors in real sunlight.