Star Trek Into Darkness opens on a primitive planet, where the natives are restless and a volcano, in mid-eruption, traps First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) over a boiling ocean of lava. Naturally, the Vulcan stays cool as a cucumber, ready to die to save his crew an impeccably logical decision that also happens to be the compassionate one. But Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise, has other ideas. He'll rescue Spock, even if that means violating a Federation rule that says the Enterprise can't be exposed to the planet's uncivilized hordes. Kirk, who never met a regulation he couldn't trash, guides the starship up into the air and over to where his comrade is about to perish, and the white-mud-caked warriors stare at the ship as if it were a god. It's a sensation that the movie transmits to the audience, since the Enterprise, emitting an awesome thrummm, never looked quite so massive or looming.
Four years ago, director J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with great swagger by treating the launch film as a unique pop culture origin story. The movie was all about how the Enterprise crew first came together, but really it was about how Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto rose up to become those superheroes of yore, Kirk and Spock, by echoing the looks, voices, and personalities of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy just enough, while still making the roles their own. The two actors now really have a chance to get their Kirk and Spock on. Pine, with ice blue eyes and lips that dance on the edge of a smirk, does something marvelously clever: He evokes Shatner's hamminess by underplaying it. And Quinto makes the glowering, dagger-browed Spock almost fiercely withholding. Into Darkness provides room for these actors to deepen their interplay. The movie has an often sinister grandeur, but the images never overpower the human (or Vulcan) factor.
Like Abrams' first Trek movie, this one is positioned as a prequel to the original TV series and subsequent films, though it also lifts (and twists) elements from that sacred text, 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock, each following his own nature (hothead, detached brainiac), are usually at loggerheads, but even when they wind up coming to the same conclusion, they can't stop arguing about how they got there, and that's part of the movie's texture of cocky one-upmanship. The whole Enterprise crew has become a collection of colliding egos. Zoë Saldana's badass Uhura, who's in the middle of a lovers' quarrel with Spock; John Cho as the so-stoic-he's-cool Sulu; Simon Pegg's frantically funny and resourceful Scotty these characters pop out at us with a new dynamism. And they all confront a villain who has been brilliantly retrofitted to throw everyone, including the audience, off guard.
This dastardly dude is a boyish-looking terrorist named John Harrison, who starts off by striking a note of urban chaos. But it's not long before he's revealed to be how can I say this? a foe familiar to Trekkies, with a concealed agenda and 70 of his comrades cryogenically frozen in photon-torpedo capsules. He's played by rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch in a totally original way, with the physicality of a dancer and an eager, puckish sincerity that ingeniously disguises his vengeful mission. Once Harrison's been captured and placed in a cell, Kirk has to listen to his own hunches about who this man is and what he wants. That's the real ''darkness'' the film's title is referring to: the place where you're no longer certain what the right thing to do is. And that's a place of genuine excitement. Into Darkness is a sleek, thrilling epic that's also a triumphantly witty popcorn morality play. It's everything you could want in a Star Trek movie. A