Into a Lens Flare: "Star Trek Into Darkness" is what summer tentpoles should be

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
132 min., rated PG-13.

Courtesy of Spielbergian wunderkind J.J. Abrams and crew, 2009's "Star Trek" rejuvenated original creator Gene Roddenberry's franchise out of the cheesy, for-Trekkies-only black hole and into a prequel-cum-reboot that was more accessible to even the uninitiated. Moving at a warp speed with spectacular action set-pieces and first-rate special effects, without forsaking humor and character interactions, it could be taken seriously but not too seriously that it wasn't fun. The franchise couldn't stop its long and prosperous life there after Abrams surpassed expectations, so naturally, four years later, here's the sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness," and it is quite a doozy. You don't have to attend the annual "Star Trek" Convention to be in agreement that this sequel is just as exciting and engaging and even better.

Picking right back up with the alternate timeline of Abrams' reinvention, "Star Trek Into Darkness" immediately plucks us into a visually striking opening set on the civilization of Nibiru with its indigenous people chasing Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and medical-minded Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (Karl Urban). After violating Starfleet Command's principle by exposing the USS Enterprise to Nibiru in order to rescue the rule-abiding Spock (Zachary Quinto) from a volcano, Kirk is demoted to first officer, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reassuming as captain. Then, beginning in London, an ex-Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits an act of terrorism and targets his former headquarters next. Tracking the cold and calculating Harrison on Kronos, who intends to attack the Klingon population, Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) are told by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller of "RoboCop" fame) to hunt and capture him. Could the Enterprise crew (as well as all of mankind) be doomed? Vendettas are sought and sacrifices are made.

Abrams and returning screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, along with producer and Abrams' "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof, boldly go further with the revived series, pushing forward with true vitality, more characterization, and high stakes. The action set-pieces are spectacularly executed with wonder and fluidity, Kirk's helmet-cracking, debris-passing trip through outer space to another spacecraft being a tightly edited thrill. Also, from the overhead shots of futuristic cityscapes to the canted angles aboard the ship, Daniel Mindel's cinematography is both impressively beautiful and weighty, as if no computer enhancement was used in post. Not only that, but not a single character is neglected and the existence of baddie John Harrison brings a darkly relatable 9/11 parallelism to this universe.

The speckless cast reassumes every role position. Pine has fully grown into Kirk; again, he makes the role his own without channeling William Shatner and a deeply felt arc from hotheaded cowboy to responsible, selfless captain. Simply put, Quinto was put on this Earth to don pointy ears and play Spock, bringing forth a transitional resonance to the half-human, half-Vulcan. Their likable supporting crew returns, with Saldana sliding back in with grace and spunk as Uhura, straining to get emotion out of her romantic other half; Urban continues to ham up his funnily short-tempered "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a…" quips and eyebrow-raising as Bones; and Simon Pegg has a more integral part besides lively comic relief as Scotty with his little alien buddy Keenser (Deep Roy) in tow. John Cho and Anton Yelchin as Sulu and Chekov, respectively, may get the least to do but that doesn't mean they don't make their individual moments count, especially when one of them gets his chance to shine as a sub in the captain's chair. Additionally, the comely Alice Eve is a welcome female newcomer as scientist Carol Marcus. As John Harrison, the icy-eyed Cumberbatch doesn't need the Mike Tyson face paint to be deliciously evil, like the preceding film's Nero (Eric Bana), making a villain who's a cunning and menacing force to be reckoned with. At one point, Harrison is imprisoned on the ship behind bulletproof glass, not unlike Hannibal Lecter being interviewed from his cell. Sinister while also tearing up as he relates his motivation, Cumberbatch never plays Harrison for camp nor pigeonholes him as a standard-issue Big Bad.

Canon purists will find plenty to scrutinize in terms of kept-secret plot points that play with the archival mythology of yesteryear, but Abrams and his triad of writers avoid Hollywood convolution (but perhaps not deus ex machinas) with an expertly crafted narrative and a surprising amount of character intimacy. This being the twelfth installment under the moniker and second in its restarted trilogy, it fills one with amazement to find an enterprise that doesn't bottom out. Without being dumb, loud, overstuffed, or all the above, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is already the cream of the crop for this year's summer tentpoles. Bring on another five-year mission!

Grade: A -