The story of Into Darkness is really pretty simple story of revenge that attempts to seem more complicated than it really is by throwing in references to crew as family and trying to protect that family. After a quick action sequence that involves James Kirk (Chris Pine) revealing the existence of flying ships (in a gorgeous Enterprise rising from water sequence) to a civilization that had not yet invented the wheel. Kirk gets demoted from Captain to the Academy (so cadet?). It really doesn't matter because John Harrison (acting master Benedict Cumberbatch) chooses to attack but after a Harrison attack takes someone close to Kirk, all is restored as if the demotion had not occurred. Kirk, now seeking revenge while simultaneous trying to be a better
There are a few twists in the story that non-Trek fans will enjoy (or not notice) and Trek fans will get immediately. There are frequent Trek Easter eggs peppered throughout the film but failing to see them or not knowing them will take nothing away from following the action. A problem does arise when the writers decided to take on some very big classic Trek story beats that have become fully part of pop culture. To be more specific would introduce spoilers but you will know it when you see it, even if never watched any Star Trek before. While I applaud the attempt (while questioning the need) the writers, director and actors (except Cumberbatch) are simply not up to the task. If anything, the pale copy of a superior version just reminds me of how effective William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, writers and directors of then did a whole lot more, with a whole lot less.
This story pattern of action, brief exposition, action repeated over and over is a major flaw of the story. While an attempt is made to create some emotional gravitas to the story, everything moves so fast that none of it resonates nor is earned by the story. The one emotional beat that works only does so because of the history established from the previous movie and carried over into the second. Technically Kirk has his own arc to explain how he "earns" the Captain's chair but really except for a vague example or two, there is nothing of the kind on display as there simply isn't time as everyone has to move on to the next big action sequence.
Since the story is really the Kirk-Spock-Harrison show, the other characters really don't do much but the actors do their best with what little screen time they have. Scotty (Simon Pegg) has a brief arc of disagreeing with the Captain which is really just an excuse to setup a later action sequence, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) suggests problems in the relationship with Spock but little comes of it, McCoy is tiny beats of comedy relief but sadly an opportunity to start creating the Trek triumvirate with Spock and Kirk is not event attempted, while Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) really have nothing to do but look serious and pretend their roles are important when they could have easily been handed off to an nameless extra. As for new addition to the crew Carol Marcus (Alice Eve)...well she is pretty. All this is without me even getting into specific plot and logic holes.
As for those action sequences, they are spectacular. While it seems JJ Abrams doesn't really get Star Trek and likely never will (making his moving on to Star Wars more of a blessing for Trekkies), he does know how to do action. Even at their most chaotic, you have a steady hand at the helm as he does not rely on the nonsense shaky cam that weaker action directors abuse, establishes the geography well and he knows when a quick cut is or isn't required. The special effects are the best yet for a Star Trek movie. The USS Enterprise look fantastic as she is given those moments to shine, reminding you of the space exploration and curiosity mandate that Star Trek stories thrived on while simultaneously reminding you that the movie could care less about them as it has action beats to get to. As always composer Michael Giacchino brings his A-game to the score using classic Trek cues effectively.
Make no mistake, Star Trek Into Darkness is a very entertaining two hours but like most action movies, the story is likely to be forgotten shortly after the credits start. There are Star Trek moments in the film but to its not really a Star Trek story. Now if only those that follow JJ Abrams and company can figure out how to do a Star Trek story that is also a big budget action movie.