The warp drives on the USS Enterprise are, as usual, on the verge of meltdown in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Luckily, the entertainment propulsion system for the sci-fi saga is roaring full throttle.
The second entry in the revived franchise is a note-perfect blend of escapist fun and thought-provoking commentary, ensemble drama, comic relief, daredevil action and senses-shattering spectacle. Director J.J. Abrams, who recently was anointed the new master of the “Star Wars” empire, leaves Gene Roddenberry’s galaxy positioned to live very long and prosper like crazy.
Despite its baleful title, “Into Darkness” is fleet-footed and never far from a jovial wink at the audience. It opens with a stupendous chase sequence that out-Spielbergs “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) hotfoot it through a weird/gorgeous scarlet forest. A primitive race of chalk-white primitives barrel after them, flinging spears (the only use of 3-D that has caused me literally to jump out of my seat.) Piling emergency atop crisis, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is trapped inside that ready-to-blow volcano on the horizon, the second hand ticking toward its planet-obliterating explosion. Topside, the sprinting duo hit the deadest of all possible dead ends. The multi-cliffhanger ends with multiple surprises and a sly punch line about the origins of fanboy culture.
Here in a nutshell is the Abrams approach to blockbuster filmmaking. The sequence isn’t a handful of undifferentiated characters amid a crushing concatenation of pyrotechnics. It’s a series of cleverly engineered “What next?” moments, with a surprising, perfectly apt payoff. It is storytelling, always the strongest attribute of the “Star Trek” tradition.
Back on a 23rd-century Earth, Kirk is in hot water. His crew’s heroic but forbidden interference with an alien culture earns him a suspension. His mentor, Adm. Pike (Bruce Greenwood) strips the cocky beginner of his command and sends him back to the academy. But soon the service is in need of every able-bodied man. Starfleet’s London data archive is vaporized (or is it?) by a nefarious rogue officer (or was he?) named John Harrison (or is he?). English star Benedict Cumberbatch, bringing the mandatory Old World pomposity to the villain’s role, flees to the Klingon homeworld Kronos. Since a boots-on-the-ground strike force would turn the Federation’s Klingon cold war hot, Adm. Marcus (Peter Weller) orders the Enterprise to launch missiles from a safe distance. The allusions to domestic terrorism and drone warfare add real-world resonance to the drama.
As Harrison, Cumberbatch is a huge improvement over Eric Bana’s Nero, the gale-force banshee villain of 2009’s “Star Trek.” Harrison is a daunting foe, possessing icy intellect, superhuman physical prowess and a psychologist’s eye for his adversaries’ weak spots, as well as a menacing, theatrically trained baritone. He taunts Kirk with his glacial disdain until the hothead snaps. When he discovers that Harrison isn’t an opponent who can be defeated by a punch, or three, or 10, Kirk must rethink his strategy. He struggles to adapt to a murky moral dimension where evil deeds spring from understandable impulses and where the enemies of your enemies are possibly, but not reliably, your friends.
As in last summer’s “Avengers,” the main business of “Into Darkness” is to teach the series’ familiar characters a few lessons. Kirk, the brash cadet who landed in the captain’s chair almost by accident, is obliged to learn the qualities of leadership. Spock must understand that rule-bound robot logic doesn’t cover every nuance of context-sensitive human life. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) must recognize that having a tongue as sharp as her beloved Spock’s ears does not make her more persuasive. The romantic byplay of Spock and Uhura complements the bickering bromance between Spock and Kirk, which reaches a surprisingly affecting payoff.
Without feeling overpacked, the film contains a multiplex worth of standout action scenes, all of which advance the story while boggling the mind. My favorite answers the question “How do you travel a great distance between spacecraft without a shuttle or transporter beam?” The sequence, a callback to a bravura passage in the earlier “Star Trek,” is hair-raising.
Abrams and ace cinematographer Dan Mindel handle the special effects with a sure hand, shooting as many of the sequences as possible with minimal computer trickery. A fistfight sequence aboard a speeding garbage scow attains a level of realism rarely seen, thanks to most of it being filmed with real actors in real sunlight.
The film isn’t perfect. The score works overtime to let us know that Harrison is eeeeevil. New Enterprise science officer Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) strips down to her underwear in one brazenly gratuitous scene simply because she looks really good that way. Some might quibble about including a Tribble. I was captivated every moment. While building in myriad references to earlier “Star Trek” adventures, “Into Darkness” feels like a summation of all the previous chapters.