By MICHAEL SMITH
From the opening scene of "Star Trek Into Darkness," we are off and running.
Chris Pine and Karl Urban, so perfectly redefining the roles of Capt. Kirk and Dr. McCoy for a new generation, are literally fleeing for their lives from natives on a primitive planet before they must make a Butch-and-Sundance escape.
Zachary Quinto, embodying a young Mr. Spock, has been dropped inside an erupting volcano.
The venerable starship, the USS Enterprise, is cloaked like never before, concealing itself at the bottom of an ocean before emerging, majestically, to take flight.
Set phasers for fun with this blockbuster.
Director J.J. Abrams, the auteur/entertainer who revived the "Star Trek" movie series and who will now move on to attempt the same with the "Star Wars" franchise, is making a statement: We're glad you like how we reintroduced these iconic characters in the first film; now, with the sequel, you better buckle up.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" is a dynamic combination of action and humor, and we may not see another picture this summer that can match it in these respects. The terms "intelligent" and "thrill-ride" rarely make it into the same critique.
The film is in that class of sequels that not only measures up to the original in almost every way, but it improves upon the one element - the villain - that I saw as the only weakness of 2009's "Star Trek."
Not only is this edition's bad guy written more cleverly as a man of mystery - and I love how the story keeps his intentions cryptic for so long - but he is elevated through an expertly rendered performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, the BBC's "Sherlock" and who plays an important role in Oklahoma's own hotly anticipated movie, "August: Osage County," later this year.
His character's name is John Harrison, and he has some type of connection to Starfleet, the circa 2255 government entity overlording Earth's space relations. This is what we know about this terrorist who has just masterminded a deadly London bombing, and whose knowledge of Starfleet protocols is allowing him to use its rules against them and target its vulnerabilities.
But Harrison is a cover for his real identity, and he is no simplistic, power-hungry madman. Rather, he is the embodiment of the film's deepest themes: What actions are you prepared to take when those you care about have been harmed? What sacrifices are you willing to make?
The crew of the USS Enterprise - Kirk (Chris Pine, left), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) - face off with the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in "Star Trek Into Darkness." Paramount; Tulsa World illustration/COURTESY
This quandary not only makes our villain more than one- dimensional, but the questions also prove pertinent to Capt. Kirk in many forms: in his own cowboy-style maneuvers that often save the day but endanger others, in his attempted capture and perhaps assassination of a terrorist, and in his learning that revenge does not equate to justice.
This dense plot unfolds with Kirk front-and-center, but this picture trumps most other "Star Trek" movies in integrating the crew into the captain's tale.
This is an ensemble adventure and achieves high marks for rapid- fire, humorous dialogue (very "Avengers"-like), along with moment- to-shine scenes for so many.
These spotlights make communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) part of the action, give Scotty (Simon Pegg) a spy mission, allow Sulu (John Cho) to lead the crew and offer Urban numerous opportunities to form McCoy's legendary cranky disposition.
"Into Darkness" is a film that frequently rewards longtime fans with drive-by references and sight gags from "Star Trek's" rich lore. But while Abrams and scripters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof embrace the magic of the past, this team used time- travel in the first film to install an alternate timeline for a reason.
They aren't bound by the past, but free to hint at it and turn the tables, which happens here multiple times. In short: Anything can happen.
The picture works marvelously as a morality play with few simple answers and multiple twists, but it also deeply satisfies from the standpoint of inspiring awe.
About 30 minutes of the movie was shot with the massive IMAX cameras, and when these moments fill the giant screen, the experience is five-story powerful.
Awe also exists in the use of special effects and 3-D filmmaking (both immersive and with frequent 3-D bonus shots), whether that be in delivering the grand scale of the massive starships or close-ups of the incredible detail of the set pieces.
The explosive action in the last hour can be overwhelming, in ways both thrilling and unending. This would be the film's key weakness, despite expectations of such frantic summer-movie frenzy.
It's hardly enough to keep me from preparing to see "Star Trek Into Darkness" a second time, or to keep me from thinking that with Abrams staying on as producer of a future edition, this series will live long and prosper.
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
Originally published by MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer.
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