Movies have always reflected the concerns of society. Like “Iron Man 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” (**** OUT OF ****) follows a coldblooded terrorist who conjures up chaos in this intergalactic “Zero Dark Thirty” manhunt melodrama. Mind you, the filmmakers have refrained from identifying any specific ethnic or religious group in this tale set in the 23rd century. “Super 8” director J.J. Abrams’ sensational sequel reassembles virtually the entire cast, including some minor characters from his 2009 “Star Trek” reboot. Remember those cadets who gave Kirk a bloody nose in Iowa? They’re back, too. Similarly, Chris Pine returns as Captain James T. Kirk, along with Zachary Quinto as the pointy-eared Mr. Spock, Zoe Saldana as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Simon Pegg as Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. Unlike the original film franchise with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelly, nobody in Abrams’ “Star Trek” gets cheated out of screen time, particularly peripheral characters like John Cho’s Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Ensign Pavel Chekov. The acting is uniformly top-notch, with Pine relishing Kirk’s action hero impetuosity and Quinto delivering his lines about truth and logic with a straight-faced, impersonality that makes you smile at his subtlety. Incidentally, Mr. Spock learns how to tell a lie without flinching in this outing. Urban gets most of the laughs with his observations about McCoy’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, the traditional “Trek” villains- those diabolical Klingons—are confined to just one scene while the senior Spock (Leonard Nimoy) appears briefly during a televised conversation between his younger counterpart and himself.
Every film franchise requires a treacherous villain who battles the heroes to the brink of annihilation. Happily, “Star Trek Into Darkness” has forged a ferocious foe. Enigmatic Starfleet Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch of the BBC’s “Sherlock”) with his glacial stare and warmly uttered words is so thoroughly malignant that you’d probably pummel the gifted British actor who portrays him. Basically, Harrison possesses several advantages over his adversaries that cannot be revealed without spoiling this exciting saga. Meanwhile, Harrison detonates a bomb in London during the year 2259.55 that galvanizes Starfleet into swift action. Specifically, he blackmails an officer assigned to Section 31 of a Starfleet archive to blow it up inside and then takes credit for the catastrophe. Gimlet-eyed Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller of “RoboCop”) laments the deaths of 42 people in the explosion. As the calculating Harrison, Cumberbatch delivers such a hypnotic performance that he makes you forget anybody else is in the scene. Nonetheless, Weller provides stiff competition during his considerably shorter screen time. Weller emerges as the equivalent of a hawkish, Strategic Air Command general from the 1964, Stanley Kubrick epic “Doctor Strangelove” (1964) who wants to shoot first and forget any questions. Indeed, Admiral Marcus considers the Klingon Empire every bit as evil as most SAC generals considered the Communist Empire. Marcus wants Harrison killed with extreme prejudice, and Kirk wants to follow those orders after Harrison commandeers a helicopter gunship and launches an attack on the war room. This massacre scene reminded me of a similar scene in “The Godfather 3.” Afterwards, Harrison goes gallivanting off into forbidden Klingon territory where Starfleet has no jurisdiction. Kirk resumes command of the Enterprise after violating a prime directive and pursues Harrison with an array of 72, new, photon torpedoes. Neither Mr. Spock nor Scotty approve of the idea of killing Harrison without the due process of a trial.
Despite its ominous title, this Paramount Pictures release doesn’t hide in the shadows of its stellar predecessor. Actually, Abrams and “Transformers” scenarists Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, abetted by “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof have taken the franchise farther than the first. Watching “Star Trek Into Darkness” is like—to borrow the cliché—riding a runaway rollercoaster on a disintegrating trestle. Abrams and company give them a little bit of everything to do except travel in time. One scene has our hero and villain decked out like Buck Rodgers. Prepare yourself for surprises galore as the filmmakers, clearly all fans of Gene Roddenberry’s ground-breaking science fiction TV series, show you things that you might never have imagined or perhaps tolerated in earlier incarnations. The special effects look impressive, especially the space junk between the USS Enterprise and the USS Vengeance during a suspenseful stand-off scene. Not only does the narrative take place on the Enterprise bridge but also on Earth in San Francisco as well as on a Class M Planet called Nimbus. Technically, although it is sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a sequel to a prequel, making it a prequel, too. You’ll understand the significance of this during the final moments when the crew of the USS Enterprise embark on their upcoming five-year mission. If you’re a hardcore “Star Trek” who can handle the liberties that Abrams and company have wrought, you’ll probably want to see “Star Trek Into Darkness” more than once. I grew up watching the original NBC-TV series on Thursday nights, followed the Enterprise crew onto the silver screen, and have thoroughly enjoyed the adventurous Abrams’ prequels. The casting is as close to perfect as you can imagine. This review covers the 2-D, not the 3-D version. For the record, I’ve seen “Star Trek Into Darkness” three times, and I’m eagerly awaiting its release on home video.