The giddiness of "Star Trek" is gone, but "Star Trek Into Darkness" maintains its love of character and pathos, the other great selling points of this re-booted sci-fi franchise. There's action in abundance and some production design flourishes that are as eye-popping as any science fiction ever to hit the screen.
But as our old friend Ricardo Montalban said 30 years ago in "The Wrath of Khan," still the best of the "Star Treks": "It is veeery coooooold in space." "Into Darkness," for all its dense textures and epic scale, left me cold.
Director J.J. Abrams, who has owned up to not having an emotional attachment to the TV show or the movies it spawned, commissioned his screenwriters to do a riff on "Wrath of Khan," an alternate history of the Khan myth. So knowing the classic "Trek" version — dating from a TV episode in the '60s, updated with the '80s movie — doesn't help in appreciating the new one, or spoil its surprises.
That's both good and bad — good in its novelty, bad in the sense that it still relies on the original series' back story to draw on. "Remaking" "The Wrath of Khan" while not actually actually remaking it muddies the message and robs the villain and the story of its mythic staying power.
In terms of tone, "Darkness" is balanced between the original series and the more pacifist "Next Generation" — an action film with a staggering body count, and characters protesting the morality of combat by remote control.
Abrams is intent on delivering a more democratic "Trek" in which all of the principals have big scenes, big moments and serious character development. Thus Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) shows off her linguistic competence, and her emotional attachment to the recklessly selfless Spock (Zachary Quinto). Scotty (Simon Pegg) expresses moral objections to the new ways of war.
And everyone has his or her ethics, courage and convictions tested by a new villain, a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose agenda is a mystery even more puzzling if you remember "The Wrath of Khan."
In a bravura intro, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock try to intervene without intervening in a primitive, red-foliage planet whose simple, belligerent natives are about to be wiped out by a volcano. Kirk wants to act, Spock wants to lecture him on "the Prime Directive" (no interference).
Kirk faces demotion, the crew of the Enterprise may be broken up, and then the mysterious terrorist starts blowing stuff up at Starfleet. Is he connected with the "sworn enemy" Klingons? Can the bad guy be taken out by photon torpedo drone strikes? Can Kirk convince the admiral (Peter Weller of "Robocop") that only he can save the day?
The 3-D here is stunning and that depth of field is put to good use in space battles and on alien worlds. Abrams and his writers toss in scads of offhand references to the "Trek" universe — Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) shows up, Nurse Chapel is mentioned,
There's plenty of humor leavening all the weighty questions about who is a terrorist and who has the moral high ground. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) kvetches like never before. Scotty has the best lines, especially when he's had a few to drink. ("If it isn't Captain James Tiberius Perfect Hair!")
But the movie's a muddle, a piece that Abrams seems to want to turn into a "Lost" puzzle that makes more sense in his head than on the screen. The confusing conflation of past films and alternate universe story is burdensome. And Cumberbatch makes a decent villain but a much better TV Sherlock Holmes.
"Star Trek" is still boldly going its own way, even as it references the classic "Trek" canon. But somewhere along the way, Abrams got lost in the Galaxy of Not Much Fun.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
2.5 stars (Grade: C-plus)
Cast: Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Alice Eve, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin
Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:12
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence