“Ahead Warp Factor 12!”

“Star Trek Into Darkness”
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by J.J. Abrams

For a TV show that debuted back in 1966 and struggled in the ratings during its 3-year run, there’s no question that “Star Trek” has endured and defied the odds. But in order for it to truly live long and prosper well into the 21st Century (and, hopefully, beyond), it had to change, take risks, think outside the box and appeal to a much bigger audience than just its devoted fan base of Trekkers. Fortunately, that’s exactly what the 2009 big screen reboot directed by J.J. Abrams did, and in a very big way.

In fact, no review for its highly-anticipated sequel – and the 12th installment – “Star Trek Into Darkness” would be complete without first pointing out how its predecessor not only revived the series, but also worked on so many other levels. As a “Star Trek” feature, it reinvigorated the stale franchise with a burst of adrenaline that made it fresh, fun, smart, exciting and sexy. The noble crew members of the Starship Enterprise were perfectly cast, which was no small feat, considering how legendary William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were as Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.

It was also a smart – and dare I say it, logical – move for screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to create an alternate timeline, so that further “Trek” movies (and, hopefully, a new TV series) would not be confined to the dense canon established by five TV shows (or six, if you count the Animated Series) and ten feature films over five decades. “Star Trek” was now free to boldly go further than it had ever gone before, and the final frontier was no longer the limit.

But more importantly (and this is crucial), it wasn’t just a great “Star Trek” movie; it was a great movie, period. It broke away from the “Trekkie-ness” of it all to stand on its own merits, making it the first “Star Trek” for everyone.

But if “Star Trek” raised the bar, then the more ambitious “Star Trek Into Darkness” tries to raise the bar even further. Most of the time, it pays off, and on a grander scale never before seen in a “Star Trek” movie. That’s because returning writers Orci and Kurtzman (along with Damon Lindelof ) have crafted a fun, thrilling and enormously entertaining epic, and returning director Abrams delivers the non-stop, action-packed, $180 million-budgeted goods at warp speed (and in IMAX 3-D – the way to see this movie). When Kirk told Dr. McCoy to “buckle up” at the end of the last movie, he wasn’t kidding.

In addition, the irresistible chemistry between the beloved characters that defined its predecessor still shines through. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto bicker a lot more than Kirk and Spock ever did in the Original Series, but that leads to a different relationship that has its own emotional payoff. Leave it to Karl Urban to directly channel DeForest Kelley’s performance as the irascible Dr. McCoy and get away with it, while Simon Pegg steals the show with his hilarious turn as miracle worker Scotty.

Of course, the true identity of the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch – a Golden Globe nominee for TV’s “Sherlock” – has been much-debated about over the Internet ever since his casting was announced. So while Cumberbatch earns high praise for an excellent performance that puts the Enterprise crew through the ultimate test, that’s as far as this spoiler-free review will go in analyzing his character.

The problem is that the pressure to raise the stakes leads to a movie that’s periodically over-plotted, exhausting and relies more heavily on “Trek” mythology to tell an alternate version of a familiar story. As a result, “Into Darkness,” can be hard to follow, it’s not as playful or risky as the 2009 reboot, and a pro-war subplot feels a bit derivative of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

In addition, the bigger spectacle comes at the cost of character development. Some of the supporting players, like Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana), don’t get as much of a chance to shine like they did the last time around, and new additions, like Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), are nearly lost altogether.

But despite its flaws, “Into Darkness” is like its predecessor to the extent that it’s not just a great “Star Trek” movie; it’s a great movie, period. It’s just not as great, since it’s missing some of that film’s core emotional beats, but it was still worth the four-year wait. And regardless of who will direct the next “Trek” (now that Abrams is trading up to direct “Star Wars: Episode VII”), here’s hoping that it will beam into theaters by at least 2016 – an appropriate stardate that marks the 50th Anniversary of “Star Trek.” Talk about living long and prospering.

-Scott Mantz