It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that J.J. Abrams' 2009 "Star Trek" reboot boldly went where no man had gone before. After all, such familiar faces such as Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Uhura were along for the ride (though played by new actors), as was the venerable starship Enterprise (itself sporting a makeover). But thanks to some shrewd time-travel shenanigans, Abrams managed to branch off his own "Star Trek" timeline, allowing his version to draw on the franchise's mythos without having to carry all its baggage. The result was both well-reviewed and a box-office hit.
Now comes the sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness." According to many film critics, it's another lively dose of sci-fi entertainment, even if it falls short of truly breaking new ground.
The Times' own Betsy Sharkey writes that "Into Darkness" "wears its politics, its mettle, its moxie and its heart on its ginormous 3-D sleeve," although it "doesn't quite match 2009's blast from the past." She continues: "There are times when it feels as if the director has pulled a page out of the Michael Bay playbook, taking some of the action to exhaustive extremes. At other moments, all that bravado collapses into safer-than-necessary choices."
On the other hand, "So many things are done right that even with the bombast, 'Into Darkness' is the best of this summer's biggies thus far. It's a great deal of brash fun, and it should satisfy all those basic Trekkie cravings." Among the things done right are the cast — including Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock and Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain John Harrison — and a "top-notch film crew."
Slate's Dana Stevens says that for the second film in a row, Abrams has "caught some of the spark of the first 'Star Trek' without either mimicking or desecrating the original."
Echoing Sharkey, Stevens adds that the film's "cumbersome action plot may not quite track … but Abrams' film succeeds where many recent big-budget ransackings of the pop-culture archive have failed: It takes familiar, beloved characters who are strongly associated with very distinctive actors and somehow makes us not mind imagining them in the body of someone else."
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post says that "with 'Star Trek Into Darkness,' Abrams proves that he's still got the golden touch." Cumberbatch in particular is a "casting coup … who exudes steely resolve and silken savagery as a villain on the cusp of becoming a legendary nemesis."
While the destruction Cumberbatch's character wreaks and the manhunt he inspires have some intriguing real-world parallels, Hornaday says, "the best parts of 'Star Trek Into Darkness' are purely escapist and sensory, from its bright, primary-colored palette and playroom-like production design to the lens flares and blown-out bursts of light that cheerfully belie the film's title."
The Wall Street Journal's John Anderson writes that "Into Darkness" "may lack the existential dread of a bona-fide sci-fi classic," but it's "certainly one lavish pop confection." Anderson characterizes the film as something of an intergalatic bromance. "Noisy, frenetic, grandiose and essentially a soap opera, director J.J. Abrams's second contribution to the franchise has everything, including romance: Never before have Capt. James T. Kirk and his Vulcan antagonist, Mr. Spock, seemed so very much in love."
Not that that's a bad thing, mind you: "The unutterable affection between the two is an indication of why Mr. Abrams's cheeky approach has thus far worked so well." He succeeds by combining "mischief with respect, and spot-on casting."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott also commends the actors, writing, "Mr. Pine and the rest of the cast, with some important new additions, continue to pay sharp and playful tribute to William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and others who first made the voyage from small screen to big." And Cumberbatch's character "cleverly connects the movie to some of the very best episodes from long ago."
That said, Scott finds the film a let-down. He writes, "It's hard to emerge from 'Into Darkness' without a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal. Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of 'Star Trek,' but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Mr. Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it."
In the end, "'Into Darkness' does not quite stand by itself as a satisfying movie," Scott says, "but then again it doesn't need to. It is the leg of a journey that has, remarkably, lasted for nearly half a century."
And it's a safe bet that the journey is still far from over.