1. I've never gotten the sense that J.J. Abrams really cares all that much about the Star Trek franchise. Abrams has said that he was far more into Star Wars—as any reasonable person would be—and that his first, well-received Star Trek was more about rebooting a franchise than any particular passion he had for the original brand. The first film, thusly, has a shake-it-up quality that's sort of irresistible, sci-fi nerds both adhering to and upending the expectations of fanboys. (They even make a "Beam Me Up, Scotty" joke.) It was fun, if ultimately a bit empty. But I'm not sure you can pull off an improved sequel—almost an expectation, in the world of The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2—without some real, deep affection for the material. Abrams is going to direct one of the upcoming Star Wars films, and in Star Trek Into Darkness, you can almost feel him rushing through this to get to something he really cares about. Abrams is too natural an entertainer to let anything get boring, but this one, in many ways, feels like everyone just going through the paces.
2. All the characters from the first film are back, with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto, who always stands out) and Zoe Saldana's Uhura taking the Enterprise into new and strange places. This time, they're out to find a deadly terrorist named James Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet commander obsessed with taking down the regime of Starfleet Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) for reasons that are not initially clear. Kirk and the crew head into Klingon airspace to take Harrison in, and, well, the predictable hell breaks predictably loose. The plot is surprisingly simple: The first hour is all windup, and for the next hour, all our characters are in the same place, with a broken-down Enterprise and a ton of exposition.
3. What's most disappointing about Star Trek Into Darkness is the almost total lack of wonder or awe or invention in any of the set pieces. None of the action sequences is particularly mind-blowing, even on a basic summer-movie level, and they lack the spatial logic of the fun drill-fight sequences from the first film. (The opening sequence, set on an alien planet while a volcano is exploding, is unnecessarily busy and cluttered.) A lot of the director's little tricks—the smash zoom, the lens flares—feel more like gimmicks than they did last time, Abrams fidgeting with nothing really to say. Even the big explosions, like a scene in which a spaceship crashes into San Francisco, aren't particularly inspired; you'll be surprised at how small-scale the action scenes feel, like they were done in a hurry.
4. The smartest move Abrams and company made—after attempting to cut the cord with Star Trek universe continuity in the first movie—was to tie the film back to the franchise history, specifically to the second (and most beloved) of the original Star Trek films. (There are also nods to the fourth film, also beloved, with the setting of San Francisco.) Kirk and Spock's friendship has always been the centerpiece of the great Star Trek films, and it comes through strongly here, with an ongoing theme of personal affection versus profession responsibility. The movie even makes sure to provide some handy bits of fan service, not just with those two, but with the Harrison character, leading to a particular moment that'll make even the most cynical non-Trekkie, who might have seen the moment coming, grin in recognition. But unlike that second film, Abrams isn't willing to let this one end with a moment of sadness and reflection: He has to keep the ride going.
5. There will be far more incompetent summer films released in the coming months. (I glance warily in M. Night Shyamalan's direction.) And I wonder if this franchise will improve once Abrams is away from it; his heart is just not quite in this one. He's biding his time to expand and deepen Star Wars. (He is truly the perfect guy for that job. One wonders if he ever would have touched a Star Trek film had he known Star Wars would become available.) These are still such well-cast, well-constructed films that they'll never truly be a disappointment; having such strong polar opposites as Pine and Cumberbatch—with Quinto intriguingly in the middle—will always keep them watchable. But if the action scenes aren't up to par, and the passion isn't in evidence, then what is there? This movie is fine, and dull.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.