'Star Trek Into Darkness': Warp-speed nostalgic fun
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Despite all the rebooting; despite the overwhelming hugeness of the IMAX screen; despite the up-to-the-minute 3-D and digital effects, "Star Trek Into Darkness" has a pretty, well, cozy feel for a blockbuster. The reason for this is pretty simple, and was established in the first installment of the new franchise: In conceiving and casting the 21st-century "Trek," director J.J. Abrams and various writers and producers maintain the spirit of the original and keep the archetypal characters of Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew more or less intact. I say "spirit" rather than letter because, as with the 2009 "Star Trek," this movie takes some pretty deliberate liberties with what some longtime fans might consider canon law. Already complaints of sacrilege are bubbling up from the deepest and most truculent pits of the nerdosphere. Whatever. For this viewer, the script-flippings of "Into Darkness" are part of what makes it fun. I'll try to convey this without spoiling too much.
The movie opens by taking a page from the James Bond franchise, with an action prologue that reintroduces the characters and offers some big blockbuster-y thrills without having much to do with the action that's to follow. Only it does, because the tensions between the impulsive, gut-instinct M.O. of Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) and ultra-logical First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) come to a head right off the bat, and once Kirk's stripped of his command on account of his actions, the relationship between the Starfleet officers is back to square one. "You think you're infallible" a superior officer lectures Kirk, and the viewer at this point might settle in for a long cinematic lesson in leadership for our favorite rogueish yellow-shirted space explorer.
Well, yes and no. What the story ends up serving is a Starfleet parable in which Spock learns something about the arguable advantage of his human (that is, emotional) side, and Kirk finds out about the value of sacrifice. All the learning is, of course, couched in a pretty action-packed and reasonably convoluted narrative involving a cold-eyed genetically enhanced supervillain, a rogue war-mongering Starfleet officer, and the Enterprise itself secretly voyaging into hostile Klingon territory. For a while Kirk and company -- and said company includes the fresh new versions of Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Scotty and Bones -- are cat's paws in an intergalactic game beyond their ken, and, as plot points clarify, viewers learn that they're in vintage "Star Trek" territory.
What this movie does with a not-unfamiliar-to-some story is pretty clever, and the incarnation of a classic villain by British cheekbone virtuoso Benedict Cumberbatch is vivid and engaging. Also welcome is stalwart Peter Weller's presence as a no-nonsense senior Starfleet shot-caller. Familiar catchphrases are reiterated, the ship's warp drive is predictably fallible, and the ensuing suspense sequences related to said failure are pretty hairy and loud. For all the new perspectives Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof bring to the franchise (and, yes, many of the shots here feature Abrams' beloved lens flares, which really pop in rainbow fashion in the 3-D version), this is still a "Star Trek" movie, which, among other things, means even if you don't know how it's going to end, you know how it's going to end. But getting there is most of the fun, even if the fact that the movie piles climax upon climax in the last 40 minutes or so may irritate traditionalists who prefer their movies finish only once. Purists may carp, largely because they've almost literally got nothing better to do, but most of the base for summer blockbusters will likely find "Star Trek Into Darkness" big fun.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.