“Star Trek Into Darkness” has a lot less to prove than 2009’s “Star Trek.” That earlier movie — a high-stakes franchise reboot on which hung the corporate and cultural health of a beloved pop property — was a triumph of nostalgia and blockbuster engineering alike. It was a great time at the movies that reminded audiences of all the other great times they’d had with James T. Kirk and crew.
The new film just has to convince us that the first one wasn’t a fluke, and that the reconstituted crew of Gene Roddenberry’s USS Starship Enterprise has the iconic heft to go the distance. That it does so — expertly, exhilaratingly — is a mark of director J.J. Abrams’s uncanny ease with modern Hollywood formulas. You don’t have to be a Trekker (or a Trekkie, Trekster, or Trekophiliac) to enjoy “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and in fact the purists may have a harder time with this movie than casual fans. Abrams and his writing team (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof) throw elements of the canon — characters, events, chronology — into the mix at whim, but they win you over through sheer confidence.
Which is to say that there’s a villain who shares the name of a legendary “Star Trek” character from past incarnations but who otherwise seems to have little in common with his forebear. (“Star Trek Into Darkness” is spring-loaded with twists and surprises — Paramount held off press screenings until the last moment, presumably to stem the horde of fanboy spoiler tweets — and a responsible critic is forced to contort himself into an M.C. Escher pretzel to avoid giving the goods away.) Janet Marcus (Alice Eve), a character from the earlier “Star Trek” movie cycle, pops up as, well, not as a love interest for Kirk (Chris Pine) — maybe we’ll get to that in part III — but as a crew member with family ties critical to the plot.
There is a plot, and it involves a superhuman named John Harrison, portrayed by the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch with the sneer of a mad genius forced to play with toddlers. First, though, “Star Trek Into Darkness” whets our appetite with an opening sequence set on the Planet of Primary Colors, where primitive yellow aliens chase our blue-robed heroes across a psychedelic red landscape. At issue is both Starfleet’s Prime Directive — whether the Enterprise crew can save this civilization without revealing themselves — and Kirk’s inability to play by the rules. It’s a rip-roaring palate cleanser, the hallmark of filmmakers so assured they can start a movie with one of their heroes suspended over boiling lava.
Back on Earth, Kirk is called on the carpet by his mentor, Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and relieved of his command. The “Star Trek” regulars look briefly glum at the prospect of disbanding: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are having a lovers’ spat (he’s not emotionally available, or maybe you hadn’t heard), Scotty (Simon Pegg) goes off with his troll (Deep Roy) to get drunk, and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) stand around nervously, as if waiting for someone to start handing out the red shirts.
And then there’s a bombing in downtown London, and for the second time this year (“Iron Man 3” being the first), we’re asked to contemplate civic terror as part of our entertainment diet. (Unsettling echoes include Kirk searching surveillance footage for the perpetrator in much the same way the FBI combed photos and videos of the Boston Marathon. This isn’t a criticism so much as slightly creeped-out acknowledgment of the ways pop culture mirrors, prefigures, simplifies, explains, and exploits the violence that is now our lot.)
The chess game gets more complicated, with a remobilized Enterprise headed to a sketchy Klingon neighborhood where Harrison is holed up, daring the good guys to come after him. Does he want to start an interstellar war? Is he foe or friend? What’s really in those 72 torpedoes the Enterprise is carrying at the behest of Starfleet’s top admiral (Peter Weller)?
Valid questions all, I suppose, but they take a back seat to the absurd energy of “Star Trek Into Darkness” — the way it presses forward with a wit and sense of purpose that makes other action extravaganzas look vaguely backward. There are very few “down-time” scenes where characters discuss motivations and such, and there don’t need to be: After four decades, we know these people. The usual blockbuster detonations and cataclysms feel organic to the story rather than isolated orgies of CGI strung together by wisps of narrative. Even the postproduction 3-D conversion doesn’t get in the way. Much.
That said, Abrams can pull off an action sequence with rare brio. There’s nothing quite as jaw-dropping in “Into Darkness” as the free-fall ballet Kirk and Sulu shared in the 2009 “Star Trek,” but one late sequence comes close: Kirk and Harrison bulleting across a field of space-debris in vulnerable rocket-suits while Scotty races like crazy to open the hatchway that will keep them from hitting the side of the ship with a splat. The “big scenes” here have a clarity and internal logic most modern blockbusters fumble after, and Abrams has figured out the trick of balancing light and serious tones where other films toggle between snark and bombast. (If nothing else, “Star Trek Into Darkness” raises hopes that Abrams’s “Star Wars: Episode VII,” slated for release in 2015, will restore some of the luster that George Lucas slowly beat out of the franchise.)
The downsides? Some members of the Enterprise simply don’t have enough to do. Urban’s Bones, in particular, looks disgusted over cooling his heels until the film’s final moments, when he’s called on to deal with the script’s most over-the-top twist. (Actually, the twist itself is believable enough, but its un-twisting feels awfully far-fetched. Oh, never mind, you’ll understand when you see it.)
More to the point, the pop high that the 2009 “Star Trek” delivered came largely from its sense of reunion and rejuvenation — from our joy in seeing familiar characters made new without their essences being betrayed. By definition, that’s the first thing to get tossed in a sequel. We’re back to business as usual, boldly going where no man has etc., etc.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a delight, in large part because it shows what mainstream “event” entertainment could be with a little less cynicism and a little more craft. In a pop landscape in which noisy, overproduced, under-conceived summer blockbusters sweat money and pixels to convince us we’re having fun, the ongoing miracle is that Abrams and company make it look so easy.