Never let it be said that J.J. Abrams doesn’t have nerves of steel.
Based on what goes down in his “Star Trek Into Darkness” (and wow, that title just isn’t getting any less clunky, huh?), his moxie could hold up bridges.
The second movie in Abrams ongoing reboot of the beloved science-fiction franchise is the summer’s nerviest blockbuster, a dazzlingly kinetic, genuinely jaw-dropping hunk of sci-fi adventure that will thrill some fans, have others shaking their fists at the screen and generate the sort of fan buzz ’n’ chatter that movie studios live for in the age of social media.
Don’t think for a Vulcan second that Abrams has come around at all on exploring the utopianism that made the original “Star Trek” TV shows iconic. Nor has the audience (or the actors) had the time with these new iterations to give their relationships the depth that made movies such as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (the one with Ricardo Montalban) or “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (the one with the whales) geek-culture 101.
If anything, “Into Darkness” shoves a Klingon dagger right between hard-core Trekkers shoulder blades. But those folks were never Abrams’ target market, obviously. Everyone else may very well have a warp-speed blast.
Like the last movie, we open in mid-adventure, as Kirk, McCoy and Spock try to save a primitive civilization from extinction. The colors are enjoyably garish, the action constant and life-threatening, the 3-D completely unnecessary. (Seriously, old-fashioned 2-D is fine for this thing.)
A few snap decisions later and the ever-brash Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, figuring out how to make the gold shirt work for him) has saved his crew but stomped all over the Prime Directive, which forbids Starfleet from interfering with primitive worlds. Actions have consequences, as Kirk finds out at the hands of his mentor/father figure Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, still casually gravitas-ing all over the place).
A disaster-pornish attack on London from a mysterious terrorist calling himself John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch — and you better believe Mr. Sherlock Holmes 2.0 can do action) and some aggressive military maneuvering by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, in a performance that plays as pure paycheck) soon lead the Enterprise’s crew where they have never gone before. Um, sort of.
The plot too often seems as if it’s jury-rigged to get from action-sequence to action-sequence and there is some genuinely terrible dialogue in spots. (There’s nothing as wipe-away-a-manly-tear moving as Pike’s brilliant “your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better” from the first outing; that is a shame.)
Whatever thematic heat “Into Darkness” generates revolves around what we do when we don’t know what to do. Kirk’s daddy-baggage doesn’t exactly fit in the overhead compartment, and when touched by tragedy, he starts making some bad decisions, including looking up to someone everyone else knows in their hearts he shouldn’t trust.
The proverbial gang is all here, from Zachary Quinto’s revisionist Spock (Zoe Saldana as Uhuru is his girlfriend and all) to Simon Pegg’s Scotty and poor Karl Urban as McCoy, whose genuinely moving characterization in the last film is reduced to a series of tics here. Too bad. And let’s just say Alice Eve as Carol (redacted) is proof that English actors are human, too.
But Cumberbatch is the straw that stirs the Romulan ale. With all of his role’s who-is-he-playing, pre-release hype, the man had the very definition of impossible expectations. He handles it brilliantly, balancing menace, cool intelligence and physical savagery equally. Put it this way: Whatever doesn’t entirely work about “Into Darkness” sure isn’t his fault.
If the preceding has seemed a little tentative for a movie that really, no kidding, is as popcorn-enjoyable as any actioner you will see this summer, it’s just that a) this is a tough movie to write about without spoiling the farm and b) in a time when all of the original Star Trek TV shows are just a Netflix queue away, it’s hard to see a few sacred cows dispatched with the glee that Abrams displays here.
The biggest lesson in “Into Darkness” is that we all have to grow up sometime. Clearly, this includes those of us who hold on to fictional characters a bit too tightly.
Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 132 min. Theaters: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, AMC Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Stone Hill, City Lights, Flix Brewhouse, Galaxy Highland, Gateway, Lakeline, Southpark Meadows, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Tinseltown South, Starplex, Westgate 3-D: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Hill Country, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Stone Hill, Galaxy Highland, Gateway, Lakeline, Southpark Meadows, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Tinseltown South, Westgate. IMAX: AMC Barton Creek, Bob Bullock Museum, Gateway.