When director J.J. Abrams revitalized "Star Trek" four years ago, the reboot was such a clever re-imagining of the moribund franchise that it caught Trekkers and casual fans alike by surprise. The result was a film that, in hindsight, was a touch overpraised.
Abrams' sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness," is not going to sneak up on anyone, arriving in theaters with the baggage of high expectations. Without that element of gleeful surprise, "Darkness" may end up a movie that is underpraised -- even though it may be a better piece of filmmaking than Abrams' first venture into creator Gene Roddenberry's world. The actors are now more comfortable with their characters, the film is beautifully crafted and there's a much stronger villain for the crew of the Enterprise to battle. At the same time, it retains the first movie's affection for the conventions of the "Star Trek" mythology -- without taking itself too seriously.
The story cooked up this time around by Abrams and writers Damon Lindelof ("Lost") and Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Fringe") will be familiar to "Trek" devotees while still feeling original. The plot, which Abrams plunges into without much setup, involves a one-man terrorist attack on Starfleet, beginning with an explosion that rips apart a top-secret war room in London dedicated to preparation for a possible war with the Klingon Empire.
The one-man wrecking machine is a rogue Starfleet agent named "John Harrison" (Benedict Cumberbatch of TV's "Sherlock"). The worst-kept secret about the film is just who Harrison really is. I won't spoil it, although anyone who can use a browser can easily find out.
When things get started, the Enterprise is on a mission to the world of Nibiru. In a thrilling setpiece, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) manages to violate all kinds of Starfleet regulations, including the Prime Directive -- much to the dismay of first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto).
As a result, Kirk loses command of his ship, although an attack by Harrison on fleet headquarters in San Francisco quickly changes that. On orders from the hawkish Admiral Marcus (sci-fi veteran Peter Weller), Kirk and the Enterprise are soon rocketing off in pursuit of Harrison -- even though it means chasing him into Klingon territory with orders to terminate with extreme prejudice (a moral challenge to more than a few crew members).
The bulk of the film is the running battle between the Enterprise and Harrison, a slippery fellow who at times almost convinces the crew and the audience that he really isn't the bad guy at all. At times, the story doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny, but Abrams keeps up such a ferocious pace that you probably won't notice.
Still, he's smart enough to find room for the small moments involving Kirk, Spock and the other crew members. He is deft at giving each crew member a time to shine. For once, Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets more to do than worry about whether the warp engines will come back online.
Throughout, Abrams treads a very thin line between satisfying Trekkers with inside references to past characters and incidents and making the film accessible to those with just a passing knowledge of "Trek" lore. For the most part, he succeeds and even if you don't have a clue what Mudd's war was all about, you won't feel left out.
Abrams gets considerable help from a cast who go after their roles with great zest. Cumberbatch -- all deadly glare and menace -- is wonderful as Harrison. Quinto gives a performance as Spock that manages to be both subtle and rather amusing. Pegg hijacks every scene he's in as Scotty. If there's a weak link in the cast, it's Pine who is OK as Kirk but never really seems to fully inhabit the character.
Given everything that is on his plate, including a reboot of the other great space opera "Star Wars," it's unlikely Abrams will be back to direct the next "Star Trek." If that's the case, let's hope he'll pick a worthy successor because there still seems to be a lot of life left in the Enterprise's mission to boldly go where no man has gone before.
'STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS'
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi
violence and intense images)
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana and Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: J.J. Abrams
Running time: 2 hours,