One of the promotional posters for Star Trek Into Darkness depicts a damaged Enterprise free-falling toward the planet below it, but any worries that J.J. Abrams' series reboot will experience a similar tumble with this second installment can immediately be laid to rest. While it doesn't quite reach the giddy heights of its 2009 predecessor, this new picture is terrific popcorn entertainment, the sort of bright, brawny blockbuster that used to define the summer movie season.
What Abrams and his writers (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman on the first picture, Orci, Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof on this one) are accomplishing with Gene Roddenberry's brainchild mirrors a tightrope act performed with exquisite delicacy and balance. They've managed to embrace the Star Trek canon while also expanding it, expertly weaving together elements that will appease the Trekkie faithful while also making the property more friendly toward the uninitiated (the latter point an occasional problem with the 10 original-series and Next Generation flicks). Don't understand the references to Harry Mudd and Tribbles? No matter, since there's more than enough exposition, action and humor to otherwise engage the senses.
Having introduced an alternate-timeline scenario in the previous picture, Abrams and company charge full steam ahead, opening with an Indiana Jones-like sequence that will inform many of the scenarios unfolding throughout the picture. Chief among them is the tension between James Kirk (Chris Pine), who hasn't met a Starfleet regulation he can't break, and Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose adherence to the rules taxes not only Kirk but also Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who's learning that it's not always easy dating a Vulcan.
But personal issues take a back seat once a terrorist attack decimates a London building; the culprit is one John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) orders the Enterprise crew to follow Harrison into the heart of darkness -- his hideout deep in the Klingon zone - and terminate him with extreme prejudice.
From here, the story takes some interesting turns; it also lends an enormous amount of complexity to Harrison, allows the returning cast members individual moments to shine (although I wished Dr. McCoy, perfectly played by Karl Urban, was as integral to these films as he was to the series) and reworks elements from one of the classic Trek films in a highly imaginative manner. And as with the series, there's also a trace of contemporary relevance: The sight of London falling leads Admiral Marcus to exclaim that Harrison means to "end our way of life," a phrase that's been uttered nonstop since 9/11 by Bush, Blair, Obama and others.
Star Trek Into Darkness only flags toward the end, when a careful excision of a few minutes of CGI bombast would not have been unwelcome. In most other regards, though, the film is an unqualified success, and it promises a bright future for this tireless franchise.