Characters, action, humor, surprise fuel 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
J. J. Abrams has figured out the secret to building a better franchise: treat the source material with respect, but not reverence, don't be afraid to tweak its foibles, jazz it up with a lot of youthful energy, and, most of all, have fun with it. This is the policy that made his first Star Trek prequel such a hit in 2009, and Abrams and his team continue to revitalize the series with the fast, punchy, slyly funny, yet surprisingly touching Star Trek Into Darkness.
Working again with the writing team from the first film, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, abetted here by co-scripter Damon Lindeof, Abrams maintains the same balance of irreverence and affection for Gene Roddenberry's beloved characters and the idealized, multi-cultural future they represent. Then he grafts it all onto a kick-ass action narrative that hurtles along at warp-speed and has viewers literally holding on to their seats. True, it's too easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the plot, and some of the gigantic action sequences devolve into silliness, but mostly it's a fresh and satisfying ride.
The film begins in the middle of the action, with brash young starship Captain James Kirk (well-played by Chris Pine) breaking a few Starfleet rules to spring his First Officer, Spock (the excellent Zachary Quinto), out of an erupting volcano on a primitive planet. (Berated for not following the Prime Directive, Kirk shrugs, "Aw, c'mon, Spock, they saw us. What's the big deal?" as awed native people on the ground draw an image of the Starship Enterprise to worship.)
Back home, Kirk is promptly demoted by his Starfleet mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), for risking the lives of his crew to save his friend. But when terrorist explosions rock the very core of Starfleet HQ, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) dispatches Kirk and the Enterprise unofficially to go after the man responsible, called John Harrison (the always marvelous Benedict Cumberbatch), a genetically engineered superman with a particular grudge against Starfleet. Harrison has taken refuge at the edge of Klingon space, and the Enterprise crew must capture their quarry without provoking the hostile Klingons into war.
This is just the set-up; there are many twists and turns in the plot to follow, not all of them comprehensible, but the action unfolds at such a breakneck pace, why quibble? Thematic concerns include a leader's dastardly plot to militarize Starfleet and turn it into a war machine—a dreadful prospect, although the callous way lives are wasted in space and on the ground in some of the big action scenes somewhat undercuts the poignancy of this anti-war stance.
But mostly, Abrams is as attentive to the Trek mythos as any fanboy or fangirl could wish. Not only are there guest appearances by Klingons, a Tribble, Future Spock (a cameo by Leonard Nimoy), and the most celebrated product of genetic engineering in the Trek universe, but all the regular crew members are given their special moments to shine. Sulu (John Cho) gets to sit in "the chair," and display his Samurai warrior nerve. Scotty (the great Simon Pegg), sputtering in his Scots burr all the way, becomes a one-man saboteur in the bowels of an enemy ship. Zoe Saldana's spirited Uhura faces off against Klingons, Harrison, and Spock's maddening impassivity.
A seemingly comic lover's spat between Uhura and Spock at an inappropriate moment—in a shuttle entering Klingon space—morphs into unexpected eloquence as Spock defends his choice not to feel emotions like fear and heartbreak. ("It is not the same as not caring.") Quinto makes the most of Spock's questing intellect, honor, and deadpan Vulcan logic; when the admiral demands, "Are you giving me attitude?" Spock explains, "I am expressing multiple attitudes simultaneously."
The likeable Pine softens Kirk's cocky edge with humor and integrity. His relationship with Spock is at the forefront, as the two young men explore the ramifications of friendship, loyalty and duty—leading to an effective finale that may not leave a dry eye in the house. Abrams is a master craftsman who keeps us in suspense from one minute to the next, despite what we already know about this universe and the future of its characters. There's always room for surprise, and that's what makes Abrams' Trek movies so much fun.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
★★★1/2 (out of four)
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With Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.
Directed by J. J. Abrams. A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.
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