“Star Trek Into Darkness” looks at this point like the best action fantasy movie of the summer. I can say that with confidence, even this early, because anything that comes after it will have to work hard to measure up.
The reasons are all the same as they were for the 2009 “Star Trek,” a franchise reboot that gave us the back stories of all the characters made famous by Gene Roddenberry's 1960s television series.
Once again the action sequences are plentiful and hair-raising, and the digital effects are fantastic without overwhelming character and story. An ensemble script gives all the characters depth and emotion to chew on, all of it infused by comic relief. The wisecracking attitude is never more than a minute or two away, and the way this movie builds on all that has come before in the franchise is flawless.
In other words, the reasons once again are director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
The movie opens with a heart-stopping action sequence. Bones (Karl Urban) and Kirk (Chris Pine) flee through a bright-red jungle on some strange planet, pursued by spear-chucking tribesmen painted white. This while Spock (Zachary Quinto) awaits rescue from the crater of a volcano about to erupt.
As usual, Kirk the hothead breaks Starfleet rules, against Spock's advice, to get out of a tight spot. He loses command of the Enterprise as a result and is sent back to the Academy.
But not for long. A terrorist bomber named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) means every able officer will be needed. He's a formidable foe, with superhuman strength and great intellect, which he uses to manipulate hotheaded Kirk. The fleet admiral (Peter Weller) sends Kirk to Kronos, of all places — the home planet of the warring Klingons — to kill Harrison with some new missiles. The movie resonates with the present-day moral issue of drone technology.
Spock, naturally, objects. Summary execution is against the rules. And Scotty (Simon Pegg) objects to bringing the missiles on board the Enterprise, causing Kirk to fire him.
But nothing in this movie is what it seems. The twists and turns and secret reveals pile up as Spock spars with Kirk over improvised action plans and with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) over how risk-taking affects their romance.
The real thrust of the movie is teaching these young crew members lessons they'll need — Kirk on the importance of rules, Spock on looking beyond logic, Uhura on understanding the Vulcan mind, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) on growing into new responsibilities. Learning is rarely this fun to watch.
For fans of the franchise, it's enough to say that Klingons are back in the picture, both Spock and Kirk are put in several life-threatening situations, the wrath of Khan is called to mind and the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has a cameo.
What they don't know is just how good a villain (or is he?) Cumberbatch makes, combining ferocity, intelligence and physical strength. Funny how often futuristic tales still turn to old-fashioned brawling to settle things — though the backdrops for the brawls here are hardly old-fashioned.
Regular readers know sci-fi and fantasy are not my favorites because I struggle to care about unreality. Abrams removes that problem, focusing on personal relationships, ensemble playing and skillful suspense to keep you caring.
And a smart-aleck sense of humor. Never underestimate that in balancing those forays into darkness and keeping you entertained.
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