After an auspicious blastoff in 2009, J.J. Abrams keeps the success of his Star Trek reboot burning strong with Star Trek Into Darkness, a slick summer actioner that takes off at warp speed and rarely lets up.
All the cast members from the original are back in fine form (including Abrams' nettlesome blue lens flares): Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as 'Bones' McCoy, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and Bruce Greenwood as Cpt. Pike. All of them excelled in 2009's origin story, but with their characters now firmly established, the writing team of Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman devote more time to developing the spiky but loving Kirk-Spock dynamic that is very much the heart of the franchise. Personifying the conflicting philosophies between logic and instinct, these two foils make this one of the more thematically compelling popcorn flicks you're likely to see this summer, at least whenever it takes the time to stop and breathe.
And there's precious little time to stop and breathe on this spaceship ride. Residual adrenaline from the opening action sequence – an exploration-turned-rescue mission on a primitive planet – has barely dissipated when we run into our story's mysterious villain; resentful terrorist John Harrison played by series newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch. The steely-eyed prettyboy with a voice like Jeremy Irons may not have been the intuitive choice to play an intergalactic baddie, but it proves an ingenious casting decision as Cumberbatch commands then screen with his threatening intellectual demeanor and surprising physicality.
After launching devastating attacks against Star Fleet and its upper brass, Harrison earns the ire of Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), who tasks Kirk with tracking down and killing the murderous fugitive. This is a request the hotheaded Kirk is all too eager to oblige. He and his crew hunt Harrison into hostile Klingon territory, where we eventually learn the true nature of his vendetta against Star Fleet. Turns out he's not the only one who can't be trusted.
Even though the script makes a point of raising ethical questions and moral dilemmas (and bravo for doing so), they don't leave much of an impression against the spectacle on display. By this point, the film is bursting with action at the seams. Abrams flies from set-piece to set-piece at a breakneck pace, often layering multiple crises on top of one another, particularly during a perilous spacewalk and a gravity-defying free fall through Earth's atmosphere.
As smartly written as it is, not all the plot devices work. The third act's gratuitous reverse twist on familiar story elements is probably enough to incur the Wrath of Fans, but causal yet informed followers of Star Trek canon can likely shrug it off as an amusing throwback. Hey, even mainstream audiences deserve to enjoy at least a few recognizable references. Mind you, “amusing throwback” is an incongruous vibe to have when aiming for emotional beats that many can see coming, and those moments consequently come off as either unintentionally funny or annoying (depending on how much you revere the original material). This is especially so regarding the way-too-convenient resolution which is foreshadowed so far in advance it's hard to pay much credence to the crisis it resolves.
A blockbuster this enjoyable is ultimately immune to such criticisms, valid though they may be. For all its CG pizazz, Star Trek Into Darkness is more character-driven than effects-driven, which is why it has such universal appeal. It may not exactly go where no Star Trek has gone before, but it certainly goes there boldly, and therein lies all the fun.
**1/2 out of ****