The giddiness of Star Trek is gone, but Star Trek Into Darkness maintains its love of character and pathos, the other great selling points of this rebooted sci-fi franchise.
There's action in abundance, and some production design flourishes are as eye-popping as any to hit the screen.
But as our old friend Ricardo Montalban said 30 years ago in The Wrath of Khan, still the best of the Star Trek films: "It is veeery cooold in space." Into Darkness, for all its dense textures and epic scale, left me cold.
Director J.J. Abrams — who has owned up to not having an emotional attachment to the 1960s TV show or the movies it spawned — commissioned his screenwriters to do a riff on Wrath of Khan, an alternate history of the Khan myth. So knowing the classic Trek version — dating from a TV episode in the '60s, updated with the 1982 movie — doesn't help in appreciating the new one or spoil its surprises.
That's good and bad — good in its novelty, bad in the sense it still relies on the original series' back story to draw on. "Remaking" The Wrath of Khan while not actually remaking it muddies the message and robs the villain and the story of its mythic staying power.
In terms of tone, Into Darkness is balanced between the original series and the more pacifist 1980s-90s TV spinoff The Next Generation: an action film with a staggering body count, and characters protesting the morality of combat by remote control.
Abrams is intent on delivering a more democratic Star Trek in which all the principals have big scenes, big moments and serious character development. Thus Lt. Uhura (Zoë Saldana) shows off her linguistic competence and her emotional attachment to the recklessly selfless Spock (Zachary Quinto). Scotty (Simon Pegg) expresses moral objections to the new ways of war.
Everyone has his or her ethics, courage and convictions tested by a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose agenda is a mystery even more puzzling if you remember The Wrath of Khan.
In a bravura intro, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock try to intervene without intervening in a primitive, red-foliage planet whose simple, belligerent natives are about to be wiped out by a volcano. Kirk wants to act, Spock wants to lecture him on "the Prime Directive," which dictates no interference.
Kirk faces demotion, the crew of the Starship Enterprise might be broken up, and then the mysterious terrorist starts blowing stuff up at Starfleet. Is he connected with the Klingons? Can the bad guy be taken out by photon torpedo drone strikes? Can Kirk convince the admiral (Peter Weller of Robocop) that only he can save the day?
The 3-D here is stunning, and that depth of field is put to good use in space battles and on alien worlds. Abrams and his writers toss in scads of offhand references to the Trek universe — Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) shows up, Nurse Chapel is mentioned.
There's plenty of humor leavening all the weighty questions about who is a terrorist and who has the moral high ground. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) kvetches like never before. Scotty has the best lines, especially when he's had a few to drink ("If it isn't Captain James Tiberius Perfect Hair!").
Star Trek is still boldly going its own way, even as it references the classic Trek canon. But somewhere along the way, Abrams got lost in the Galaxy of Not Much Fun.
'Star Trek Into Darkness'
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Paramount release. 2:12. 2D: Frankfort, Kentucky, Winchester, Winchester/Skyvue. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholas ville, Richmond, Woodhill.