Director J.J. Abrams’ second venture into the cosmos on-board the USS Enterprise, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a smoother, more engaging experience than its predecessor, and it shows that there’s still plenty of mileage left in the decades-old franchise. This is a follow-up that lives up to and surpasses the movie that spawned it, retaining the 2009 film’s sense of energy and excitement but upping the ante with a stronger villain and a more interesting narrative. Most impressive about Into Darkness, though, is that it’s a blockbuster both for Star Trek fans as well as the uninitiated. Indeed, there’s fan service aplenty, and Trek fans should find the film to be an absolute godsend. Non-Trekkies, meanwhile, will find this sequel to be an exhilarating, involving sci-fi action extravaganza. You can’t ask for much more than that.

After a Starfleet mission goes awry and Spock (Zachary Quinto) reports the wrongdoings, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is relieved of his command, but the expulsion does not last long. Rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins staging devastating terrorist attacks around London, resulting in the deaths of civilians as well as several Starfleet employees. Reinstated as captain of the USS Enterprise, Kirk and his crew are tasked with seeking out and killing Harrison, which takes them to the Klingon world of Kronos. However, the mission provokes unease amongst the crew. Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) doesn’t trust the torpedos supplied by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), while a mysterious new crew member (Alice Eve) piques the interest of Spock.

Written by Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Into Darkness is smarter than the average summer blockbuster, showing a keen interest in sophisticated dialogue and themes. While the mechanics of the plot are sometimes too vague and more explication would be appreciated, this is only a mild hindrance. Pretty much everything else about Into Darkness is a raging success: it’s a relentless action-adventure, filled with bombings, chases, hand-to-hand combat, space battles and shootouts. Yet, the in-between stuff is strong as well, and there’s a particularly notable heartfelt scene in the third act that packs so much of a punch directly because of how intense the past two hours have been. This is a surprisingly character-rich film, giving the central characters a distinguished presence and purpose, though Alice Eve’s role is a tad underwritten (and her underwear scene is every bit as gratuitous as the trailer suggests). Furthermore, the dialogue is a consistent joy, with sharp one-liners and moments of satisfying humour that feel surprisingly organic amid the heavy drama and excitement.

Abrams inserts an unusual sense of genuine peril into the proceedings, with unexpected character deaths and a lingering sense that some of the protagonists might not survive. It gives the movie an added edge, and makes the action sequences all the more stimulating. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a handsome picture as well, full of well-staged set-pieces, and set to a brisk pace that keeps the film entertaining from start to end. Daniel Mindel’s cinematography is lavish and competent, while the score by Michael Giacchino amplifies the sense of intensity during the thrilling action scenes. As to be expected from a big-budget blockbuster, the production values are astonishing, and the CGI borders dangerously close to photorealism from time to time. As a matter of fact, especially during the finale, it’s hard to tell what’s live-action and what’s digital. That said, though, Abrams cannot overcome one of the primary missteps of the last movie: his directorial tendencies – with frenetic cinematography, a hyper-polished look and the goddamn lens flares – are too much at times, which can be distracting.

All the main players from the 2009 film return for duty here, but it’s newcomer Cumberbatch who steals the show as John Harrison, the tale’s antagonist. He’s truly terrifying here, but the brilliance of Cumberbatch’s performance is how multi-layered and manipulative he is. At times Harrison does not even seem like a villain due to how placid and charming he is. When he strikes, though, he’s one of the most menacing bad guys you’ll ever see. Meanwhile, the returning faces are great as well, with Pine upping his game and with Quinto continuing to be a superb Spock. The two are a great screen pair, and their interactions are frequently compelling. Also standing out is Pegg who handles the comic relief extremely well, while Karl Urban makes for a scene-stealing Bones. Another notable newcomer is former RoboCop star Peter Weller (who was actually in a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise), turning in an engaging performance as Admiral Marcus.

Into Darkness is presented in 3D, a decision made by the studio heads at Paramount rather than Abrams. Hence, the choice to go 3D was motivated by money rather than artistry. The last film was fine in plain old 2D, which automatically makes the extra dimension seem redundant here. Nevertheless, the conversion is a solid one, with a number of impressive-looking shots and scenes that look natively 3D. Still, the experience plays more smoothly in 2D, especially due to Abrams’ shaky-cam trademark that makes the glasses tough on the eyes at times.

Ultimately, Star Trek: Into Darkness solidifies a franchise reborn. 2009’s Star Trek instilled a lot of promise for the future, and this sequel does not disappoint. It’s been four years since the last film, and Into Darkness was initially slated for a summer 2012 release date, hence it’s marvellous to finally see this new adventure come to fruition. It’s a hugely appealing and thrilling action film, which should reel in a new generation of Trek fans and appease the veteran Trekkies as well.