The nervy reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise by action impresario J.J. Abrams can be summed up, quite simply, as a triumph of casting. From the moment Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana showed up in Abrams’s “Star Trek” four years ago, it was clear that he had found exactly the right actors to portray captain James Kirk, first officer Spock and communications officer Uhura in their years as Star Fleet rookies. Bright, bold, playful and ingenious, Abrams’s prequel to the classic 1960s television show (and subsequent film series) possessed equal amounts of respect and cheek. But mostly it boasted an ensemble of superb young actors who, with every raised eyebrow and vocal inflection, inhabited their characters with uncanny ease and seamless physical mimicry.
With “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Abrams proves that he’s still got the golden touch. The USS Enterprise crew is back — including ship doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), chief engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho). But the casting coup here is Benedict Cumberbatch, who exudes steely resolve and silken savagery as a villain on the cusp of becoming a legendary nemesis. Familiar to fans of another reboot — “Sherlock” — as well as tony historical productions such as “War Horse” and “Atonement,” here Cumberbatch claims a deserved place front and center in a big, brash popcorn movie. As gratifying as it is to watch Kirk, Spock and their colleagues develop the camaraderie that would so optimistically anticipate a multicultural world, “Star Trek Into Darkness” derives its ballast, and most of its menacing pleasure, from Cumberbatch, who takes tantalizing ownership of a role with near-limitless future prospects for evil mayhem.
It seems like just yesterday we were watching the Mandarin lay waste to Los Angeles in “Iron Man 3.” Now it’s 23rd-century London, where a Star Fleet archive has been sabotaged by a mysterious doctor named Harrison (Cumberbatch). Back at headquarters in San Francisco, Kirk is tomcatting around and getting into trouble for getting cocky during a mission on the planet Nibiru — a risky maneuver involving a volcano and a narrow escape that opens “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Called on the carpet by his mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk is busted back to the Academy. But soon he’ll be back on the Enterprise, heading toward the Klingon home planet of Kronos and apprehending Harrison before his interstellar terrorism goes any further.
In a post-Abbottabad world, it’s easy to see every summer action movie about an attack and a manhunt as a modern-day political allegory. For its part, “Star Trek Into Darkness” contains debates about weaponizing the Enterprise and unilateral assassinations that can’t help but echo current arguments about due process and drone strikes. As intriguing as these parallels are, though, the best parts of “Star Trek Into Darkness” are purely escapist and sensory, from its bright, primary-colored palette and playroom-like production design to the lens flares and blown-out bursts of light that cheerfully belie the film’s title. Filmed in IMAX (yay!) and tweaked for 3-D (boo!), “Star Trek Into Darkness” banishes, at least for the moment, the lugubrious mood and sepulchral look that too many comic-book movies mistake for sophistication. All hail an action film that isn’t ashamed to have fun and to be seen doing it, in the dazzling light of day.
Nor is “Star Trek Into Darkness” afraid to shed a few tears. This is a get-out-your-mankerchief movie, with Spock struggling with his Vulcanized (and thus repressed) feelings, Kirk struggling with his friendship with Spock, and Bones dismissing all of it with his signature gruff fulminations (“I’m a doctor, damn it!”). A distressing climactic moment of physical brutality notwithstanding, “Star Trek Into Darkness” skillfully advances the characters’ emotional arcs, their inner lives and foibles dovetailing with the galactic explorations they’ve embarked on in the wider world. Once again, there’s real acting going on behind those campy outfits and absurd gadgets: One look at Quinto’s face during an early pivotal encounter with Kirk reveals the subtle ripples of expression that can be found in no-expression.
With every element so clearly put in place and the “Star Trek” vernacular so lovingly preserved and elaborated, the biggest challenge facing the filmmakers — especially screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof — is to make sure that subsequent stories deepen what they have built, rather than just pile on more effects and stunts. Thankfully, “Star Trek Into Darkness” leaves the hatch open to countless possibilities, whether brand-new story lines or visits to familiar faces and places from the past. With the franchise now securely underway, it’s reassuring to know that Abrams and his team have the con.
Three stars. (132 minutes, in English and Klingon with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
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