"Star Trek Into Darkness," bursting at the seams with enemies, wears its politics, its mettle, its moxie and its heart on its ginormous 3-D sleeve. Director J.J. Abrams and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise try to build a better sequel with action spectacles to get lost in, clever asides to amuse, emotional waves to ride and allusions to terrorism in general and 9/11 specifically.
Abrams' first reimagining of the beloved Gene Roddenberry franchise was a stellar surprise in 2009. The casting was spot-on with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto embodying and embellishing the iconic characters of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, respectively. The story, from screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, was highly inventive, not easy for a franchise with 11 movies and four separate TV series under its plot-twisting belt.
There were astute nods to that history — Leonard Nimoy's cameo as Spock in old age was by far the showstopper. The expectations were impossibly high, but Abrams proved to be a cool-hand Luke as he kept the Enterprise moving at warp speed.
A follow-up was risky. And, in fact, "Star Trek Into Darkness" doesn't quite match 2009's blast from the past.
There are times when it feels as if the director has pulled a page out of the Michael Bay playbook, taking some of the action to exhaustive extremes. At other moments, all that bravado collapses into safer-than-necessary choices. But before that whither-Star Trek sigh has time to build, the film does something bold, surprisingly pointed in its treatment of terrorism, for one.
So many things are done right that even with the bombast, "Into Darkness" is the best of this summer's biggies thus far. It's a great deal of brash fun, and it should satisfy all those basic Trekkie cravings.
The movie begins in blinding light. Kirk and Bones (Karl Urban) are making a mad dash through the red fields of Nibiru trying to distract and evade the planet's primitive people — bodies baked in clay, painted faces, spears, superstitious, you know the type. A volcano is about to destroy their world, though they don't know it. Ice bombs and Spock come to the rescue.
Naturally, being dropped into a very hot spot doesn't phase Spock, though I do believe he breaks a slight sweat. He's not the only one in mortal danger, and in short order, Starfleet rules have been broken to save the day.
The icy volcanic ash has barely cleared before Kirk and Spock have that age-old logic-versus-emotion argument. And they are barely back on Earth when they find themselves on the ropes for the Nibiru fiasco — Kirk suspended, Spock reassigned.
Indeed, there is virtually no time to breathe until the credits start rolling. The script by Kurtzman, Orci and Damon Lindelof, the latter of whom has a string of action/drama credits but most significantly created "Lost" with Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber, sets an exceedingly fast pace.
Which means Kirk has only started to grumble about Nibiru when a bomb blows up the Starfleet's main archive in London. Control of the Enterprise is handed over to Kirk's old mentor, the no-longer wheelchair-bound Capt. Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Somehow, before the ship lifts off, Kirk and Spock are back on board along with the rest of the "Star Trek" essentials — Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). As are the top-notch film crew, including director of photography Dan Mindel, production designer Scott Chambliss, costume designer Michael Kaplan and composer Michael Ciacchino.
This time out, "Sherlock's" Benedict Cumberbatch is the major menace to society. He portrays top Starfleet agent John Harrison, who may or may not have gone rogue but is unquestionably indestructible. It makes for some fun fights. The race against time to track him down will have the Enterprise globe- and galaxy-hopping from a futuristic San Francisco and London circa 2259 filled with polished metal and glass spires to the down-and-dirty Kronos, home planet of the Klingons. Just their mention is likely to elicit a cheer. At this point in time, they are still archenemies.
As important as the Klingons and Cumberbatches of the Star Trek world are, villains do not this franchise make. What helps keep the motor humming are the ship's family dynamics, the very familiar squabbles between crew members that all Trekkies and most of the rest of the movie universe know so well.
It is here that "Into Darkness" really shines. One of the movie's major themes is what place, if any, feelings have in guiding actions.
This comes into play in broad strokes as cities are attacked in ways that echo today's terrorists. And, more telling, with a great deal of intimacy as the crew comes to each other's aid.
Pine and especially Quinto expose much deeper layers of the complex bond between Kirk and Spock. So intensely personal does it become, you may find yourself moved in unexpected ways. In this way, "Star Trek Into Darkness" really does boldly go where no man has gone before.
'Star Trek Into Darkness'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release