Thursday, May 16, 2013

'Star Trek' sets its phasers on heavy fun

There's plenty of entertainment in this edition of Star Trek -- right up until a finale that features more destruction than the movie needs.

Watching the abundantly entertaining Star Trek Into Darkness, it sometimes seems as if we're seeing a spot-on replication of the original series -- only one that's been invaded by a new set of actors. Credit a cast led by Chris Pine (as Captain Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock) with working hard to keep their much-loved characters on track.

Made familiar by director J.J. Abrams as younger versions of the characters we knew from the venerated TV series, it's Kirk and Spock who keep the The Enterprise aloft -- with help, of course, from their ever reliable crew mates.

I'm not sure how fanboys will react to this mega-helping of Star Trek -- shown to many critics at 9 p.m. on the Wednesday night the movie was set to debut at a variety of midnight shows -- but it seemed to me that for most the picture, Abrams did a reasonably good job of balancing the fabled Star Trek ethos with lots of boldly conceived action.

Although everything in Into Darkness takes place in the time before the TV series began, the movie keeps the door open for as many prequels as Abrams is willing to make.

Is Into Darkness as good as 2009's Star Trek? Probably not, but Abrams & company can't be accused of hitting the sophomore skids, either. Messy plotting seldom detracts from the proceedings, although it's worth pointing out that the movie owes a major debt to the well-reviewed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, released in 1982.

As is the case with the better Star Trek episodes, this edition places an ethical issue at the story's core: Should Starfleet stick to its mission of exploring space while allowing alien civilizations to develop without interference or should it militarize and prepare for endless battles with threatening civilizations, say the ferocious Klingons?

I'm not saying Star Trek Into Darkness astonishes you with its philosophical depth and thoughtful nuance, but at least it's trying to be about something more than warp speed and explosions.

The screenplay also reprises a reliable Star Trek tension, the perpetual tug of war between emotion and logic, played out in the evolving relationship between an overly impetuous Kirk and an amusingly impassive Spock. Both characters still are feeling their way toward maturity.

Abrams' second Star Trek movie derives significant benefit from its villain, a super strongman played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who projects (boy, does he ever) enough piercing menace to keep him from being overwhelmed by the movie's special effects. How impressive is he? Sometimes, the guy seems even smarter than Spock.

The rest of the Enterprise crew is on board and in decent form: Zoƫ Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Mr. Sulu; Simon Pegg as Mr. Scott, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov. It's of some interest that Uhura and Spock are still lovers, although it takes a while for them to kiss and make-up after a spat. Karl Urban makes a fine Dr. McCoy or more familiarly "Bones," the character responsible for providing home-spun comic relief.

Most audiences probably will forgive Abrams for kicking Star Trek into the kind of action-oriented overdrive that defines summer at the movies -- especially during its finale. Me? I won't describe it here, but I could have done without a destructively indulgent climax that takes a terrorist-like wrecking ball to yet another vulnerable cityscape.

You'd think after 9/11, this kind of devastation would long have fallen into disrepute. Sadly, it hasn't.

Thankfully, though, Abrams' movie has more to offer than late-picture carnage and crumbling concrete. If you're looking for summer enjoyment, Into the Darkness provides it in ample measure through most of its 132-minute running time, and -- just as important -- it leaves you ready to sign on for the Enterprise's next voyage.

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