"Star Trek: Into Darkness" bursts onto the screen with a frantic chase scene amid a colorful alien landscape, sends two characters hurtling over a cliff and continues at warp speed for the duration. Whole populations and beloved characters are imperiled, and morality goes to murky places in a story plucked from "Trek" lore, turned inside out and gilded in action and explosions.
At its best, the second entry in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek 2.0" series plunges moviegoers into a visually stunning 23rd century and spends ample time on bro bonding between the brash James T. Kirk and the reticent half-Vulcan known as Spock.
If the first of Mr. Abrams' prequels existed to reintroduce the crew of the USS Enterprise as Starfleet neophytes, "Into Darkness" comes along to establish bonds of friendship and set the crew on a course to becoming the heroes we know from the 1960s television series. It's slick filmmaking by a smart director, among the reasons he's been tapped to bring "Star Wars" back to the big screen.
With that in mind, the dizzying pace recalls another second movie in a popular series, "The Empire Strikes Back." In the rare moments when the action does slow, Chris Pine's Kirk faces down a menace to life as we will know it in 2259 and gains insights into his self-destructive nature.
3 stars = Good
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Soladana, Benedict Cumberbatch.
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
He's a bad boy, young Kirk. He beds green aliens with pointy tails and thumbs his nose at authority, and, yet, he's been given a starship and asked to lead the crew that saved Earth in the 2009 movie that rebooted the series.
Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, Anton Yelchin as Chekhov and Simon Pegg as Scotty nail the spirit of the actors who created the roles back in the day, and Zachary Quinto has made this conflicted version of young Spock his own, a half-alien fighting his emotions but not always succeeding.
A spat with the lovely Uhura (Zoe Saldana) at an inopportune time ends with an insightful declaration by Spock, but there's no time to savor the significance. It comes while Klingons are giving chase and Kirk is steering their clamshell-shaped shuttle into a space that may remind "Star Wars" fans of a Millennium Falcon tight squeeze.
While "Into Darkness" pours on the action, it also makes bold moves in character development that may rankle ardent fans. I'm talking to any of you Trekkers who were left aghast by the Spock-Uhura hook-up in the first film - get set to calculate the many ways this movie goes topsy-turvy on what you thought you knew. An early-on example is the character of Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who follows a different course from the ill-fated captain many of us met in "The Menagerie," a two-parter from the original TV series. Back in the 1960s, Spock had a strong allegiance to Pike, but in the 21st-century reboot, the character is Kirk's mentor and champion.
Pike becomes a victim of a terrorist who turns out to be one of Starfleet's own, and that's when the dark times hit hard for Kirk & Co.
The nemesis is John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has become Hollywood's "it boy" since winning a fleet of fans in BBC's "Sherlock." His deep voice and intelligent delivery mark him as a villain to be reckoned with. Harrison is a lean, mean human weapon with a huge and perhaps justified chip on his shoulder.
An alliance with Kirk suits Harrison's purpose, and his motivations may even have some merit, although Starfleet Command has other ideas. That puts Kirk in a position of following his gut or following orders, and we know what usually wins when those are the captain's choices.
As seen in the trailers, lots of things go boom, and some scenes of destruction seem horrifyingly possible, even in a futuristic setting. Technology and weaponry, and the humanity involved in how they are deployed, are key components to "Into Darkness." Saying more would give too much away.
The filmmakers and stars have been promoting the film and selling its accessibility to one and all, and there's enough action and dazzling effects to placate newcomers, I suppose. But writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof have planted the movie with a minefield of Easter eggs and overt references to earlier shows and films - one goes off every few minutes, or so it seems. Note, for example, a casual reference to a nurse named Christine Chapel by a character named Carol Marcus (Alice Eve). The names will mean nothing to newcomers, yet conjure waves of memories for fans.
By the time I had finished patting myself on the back for recognizing a reverent reference, it seemed another one would appear. I'd like to think that the moments for self-congratulations were less a distraction and more a wink directly at "Star Trek" fans, insider to insider.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" opens on IMAX screens on Wednesday night, May 15, and everywhere on May 16.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com, 412-263-1960 or @SEberson_pg. First Published May 15, 2013 3:30 PM