Star Trek Into Darkness gives you an exhilarating, tingle-inducing rush — that rare feeling that comes when a gigantic entertainment is firing on all fronts, exceeding your expectations. Having dutifully built a foundation that honored the past but left the future wide open in 2009’s Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams makes Gene Roddenberry’s original creation his own, sending these iconic characters on a breakneck-paced adventure that delivers the goods on both narrative and razzle-dazzle action levels.
Working with his frequent stable of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, Abrams pushes Star Trek into new territory while keeping a nostalgic eye trained on what has come before. The set-up is simple: A terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former Starfleet member, detonates a bomb in London that kills hundreds. Although the USS Enterprise is supposed to be used primarily for scientific exploration, Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the rest of his crew are ordered to perform a military mission: Track down Harrison on the planet Kronos even if it means invading Klingon airspace, which could be considered an act of war.
That’s all the plot you’ll get here: One of the things that distinguishes Star Trek Into Darkness from most of the previous movies in the franchise is the number of big surprises the story springs. Although Abrams never allows the picture to get too heavy or allegorical (this is also probably the funniest Trek movie ever), the story raises the kind of moral and ethical quandaries that would have made Roddenberry proud. If the fate of a dear friend is in the balance, should you risk altering the natural destiny of a primitive planet by giving them a glimpse of future technology? If you suspect someone is planning to attack you, do you have the right to a pre-emptive strike, even though you could be wrong? Is it ever proper to break the law, or even commit murder, for the sake of maintaining the greater peace?
Kirk and his logic-bound first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) spend a lot of time debating these issues, sometimes with dire consequences. Spock also has trouble with girlfriend Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who doesn’t think he gives their relationship enough weight. Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets in trouble when he disobeys a direct order, but he is later rewarded with a critical role in one of the movie’s most exciting setpieces. Lt. Sulu (John Cho) gets a chance to sit in the captain’s chair, and medical officer Bones (Karl Urban), used mostly for comic relief, continues to go around spouting “Dammit, Jim!.” Only Chekov (Anton Yelchin) seems wasted this time, spending much of the movie running around the bowels of the ship, making repairs.
The attention to characters and their overlapping relationships is what gives Star Trek Into Darkness its heart (and the movie contains some unexpectedly moving moments; bring tissues). The cast, having bonded over the first film, work together as well as a troupe of trapeze artists: This is a true ensemble. But it is Abrams, who has brought all his previous experience (Mission: Impossible III, Super 8, TV’s Alias) to bear on the picture, who is the real star here. He has the enthusiasm of a fan, a thorough grasp of storytelling and a superb command of craftsmanship and style (he also throws in so many of his beloved lens flares, you could play a drinking game every time one shows up – in 3D, too).
The film’s 15-minute prologue, set on a planet covered with red trees, gives you a taste of what Abrams’ take on the next Star Wars (due in 2015) will feel like. The rest of Star Trek Into Darkness (which was shot with IMAX cameras and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible) is Trek through and through, doling out a seemingly unresolvable cliffhanger every 20 minutes, inserting fresh wrinkles into familiar tactics (a chase through warp speed!) and paying homage, both subtle and overt, to previous Star Trek lore. Diehard fans may be a bit rankled by how Abrams dares to tinker with canon, but the end result is worth it. Forget Iron Man 3: The summer’s first true thrill ride has arrived.
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve.
Director: J.J. Abrams.
Screenwriters: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof.
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 132 minutes. Intense sci-fi action, violence. Opens Wednesday at IMAX theaters and everywhere else Thursday.