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Zade Rosenthal, AP
This undated publicity film image released by Paramount Pictures shows, Zoe Saldana, left, as Uhura and Zachary Quinto as Spock in a scene in the movie, "Star Trek Into Darkness," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Zade Rosenthal)

In 2009, J.J. Abrams reinvented the Star Trek franchise with a prequel that gave us familiar characters, but an altered, anything-can-happen timeline. It was a faster film than previous Trek adventures, but still patient enough to pay homage to the Gene Roddenberry years, as Abrams accepted the hand-off of a legacy-laden baton.

Now in full sprint, “Star Trek Into Darkness” embraces the freedom created by its predecessor, and does so at a pace that makes even the last film feel slow and tired.

Beginning on a primitive planet, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) run from an indigenous species, dodging trees and hurled spears as they make their way back to a hidden starship Enterprise. The scene sets the frantic tempo for the next 120 minutes while also building to the first of many run-ins with one of Kirk’s most formidable adversaries — Starfleet regulations.

When reunited with his crew, Kirk is forced to quickly decide between the safety of his ship and the inevitable death of first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto). His decision, to put others in harm’s way in order to save a good friend and important member of the bridge, ticks off a string of dominoes driving the team through an emotional gauntlet, conspiracy and possibly all-out intergalactic war.

Like many great action films, the seemingly tireless sequence of explosions and close calls serve a purpose as the events tie characters closer together and leave audiences with themes to think about long after an ending credit scroll. “Into Darkness” may be the most visually spectacular Trek film, a comment that will be used by critics as both a compliment and accusation, but it has a mission of its own.

This is the Trek film that defines the celebrated friendship of James T. Kirk and the always logical Mr. Spock. It throws itself into every danger and moral gray area it can collide into, so when these two characters walk out on the other side, broken, bruised and leaning only on each other’s strength, every crazy act they commit in the name of friendship going forward will seem totally reasonable.

The new direction and origin stories defined in this latest, though still set before the first episode of the TV series, adventure will definitely offend a few devout fans of the classic series. But underneath their gritting teeth, even the purists will probably admit this was a really fun ride and otherwise great science-fiction film.

“Into Darkness” earns its PG-13 rating mostly due to a few violent scenes and the continuous stream of sci-fi action. The most disturbing moments aren’t visually graphic, but suggestive and handled with off-camera sound effects. Language and sexual references are present but minimal, and a single scene dealing with an immodest crew member is far less than what the trailers might have you believe.

In the end, “Star Trek Into Darkness” gets 3.5 out of 4 stars, setting a high bar for any science fiction or fantasy film still in the gates for the summer season. Personally, I enjoyed it more than the 2009 film, and might even set it as No. 2 on my list of favorite Trek adventures, behind the still influential “Wrath of Kahn.”

Travis Poppleton has been writing tech and film reviews for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010, and continues to contribute coverage for film festivals and other live events in Utah. You can contact him at [email protected].