In 2009, the "Star Trek" franchise was put in the hands of J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Mission Impossible 3"), who confessed to never having been much of a Trekkie. This, of course, sent the dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies into a tizzy, but it turned out to be exactly what was needed. Abrams managed to pull off one of the trickiest reboots imaginable: The original cast had played their characters on TV and film for 25 years; and no one else had attempted those roles for 43 years.
It's too soon to judge whether Abrams' new "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a little better or a little worse, but it's definitely in the same league. The story this time around opens with a pre-title-card "splash panel" sequence — reminiscent of the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — in which Kirk (Chris Pine) risks his life to rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto), only to be severely criticized by the latter for both violating the Prime Directive and acting illogically.
As a result, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and Starfleet Command take the Enterprise away from Kirk and give it back to Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Circumstances, however, put Kirk back in charge of the ship on an urgent mission to capture renegade intelligence officer Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, of the current "Sherlock Holmes" series), who has launched a devastating attack on Starfleet Headquarters.
Before the mission even starts, Kirk shockingly fires Scotty (Simon Pegg) for basically doing the right thing. Conveniently there is another science officer handy (Alice Eve) — allegedly to serve as Scotty's stand-in, but mostly to serve as eye candy and a plot device.
The central conflict really kicks in after Harrison is captured and brought aboard: Suddenly it's not so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
The many action sequences are well-conceived and executed, but in grand "Star Trek" tradition, the themes are played out between the characters and within their souls. For one brief moment, those conflicts touch on real current events: Spock condemns the idea of targeting a villain for assassination without any form of due process. Sounds kinda familiar.
Abrams' "Star Trek" features would be terrific even if the franchise's history had never existed. Nonetheless, it's hard not be extra impressed by how he handles the film's relationship to the original iteration. Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy is his own variation on DeForest Kelley's beloved original, without omitting the catchphrases and personality we expect. Pegg's Scotty resembles James Doohan's version in name and nationality and not much else. Pegg is a wonderful comic actor who provides much of the humor; the only letdown from the previous film is that his role is smaller this time.
These movies can entertain even those who have no idea what "Star Trek" is — if any such people exist outside of the Amazonian rain forests and Papua New Guinea. Viewers don't need to recognize the return of one of the best-remembered "Star Trek" villains or to understand why our first sight of a particular furry animal draws immediate cheers and laughs. But these bits are bonus fun for the other 99 percent of us.
The IMAX 3D is a little less headache-inducing than usual, but the film really didn't need it. The 3D works best in the two least important sequences — the opening logos and the closing credits.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times