"Star Trek Into Darkness," the second entry in the revived franchise is a note-perfect blend of escapist fun and thought-provoking commentary, ensemble drama, comic relief, daredevil action and senses-shattering spectacle.
Director J.J. Abrams opens with a stupendous chase sequence that out-Spielbergs "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) hot-foot it through a weird/gorgeous scarlet forest. A primitive race of chalk-white primitives barrel after them, flinging spears. Piling emergency atop crisis, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is trapped inside that ready-to-blow volcano on the horizon, the second hand ticking toward its planet-obliterating explosion.
Here in a nutshell is the Abrams approach to blockbuster filmmaking. The sequence is a series of cleverly engineered "What next?" moments, with a surprising, perfectly apt payoff. It is storytelling, always the "Star Trek" tradition's strongest attribute.
Abrams and ace cinematographer Dan Mindel handle the special effects with a sure hand, shooting as many of the sequences as possible with minimal computer trickery.
As in last summer's "Avengers," the main business of "Into Darkness" is to teach the series' familiar characters a few lessons. Kirk, the brash cadet who landed in the captain's chair almost by accident, is obliged to learn the qualities of leadership. Spock must understand that rule-bound robot logic doesn't cover every nuance of context-sensitive human life. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) must recognize that having a tongue as sharp as her beloved Spock's ears does not make her more persuasive. The romantic byplay of Spock and Uhura complements the bickering bromance between Spock and Kirk, which reaches a surprisingly affecting payoff.
As Harrison, Benedict Cumberbatch is a daunting foe, possessing icy intellect, superhuman physical prowess and a psychologist's eye for his adversaries' weak spots.
The film isn't perfect, but I was captivated every moment. While building in myriad references to earlier "Star Trek" adventures, "Into Darkness" feels like a summation of all the previous chapters.