"Star Trek Into Darkness" is like fan-boy fiction on a $185 million budget. It's reverential, it's faithful, it's steeped in "Trek" mythology.
It's also an excessively derivative what-if rehash of themes and interactions that came before, most of the characters lesser copies and even caricatures of the originals. The scenario's been hijacked and rejiggered from better "Trek" plots of decades ago, the best verbal exchanges lifted nearly verbatim from past adventures.
In short, the new chiefs of Starfleet aren't coming up with much to call their own.
They pile on the spectacle in a way that's never been seen before in "Star Trek," whose old big-screen incarnations were so notoriously underfunded they had to go back and borrow props, miniatures and visual effects from previous installments. The action in "Into Darkness" is top-notch, the visuals grand, though the movie's needless conversion to 3-D muddies the images.
But the heart is, well, halfhearted, as though the people of the 23rd century are there to mouth the standard logic-vs.-emotion, needs-of-the-many-vs.-needs-of-the-few patter of "Star Trek" to count time before the next space battle or ray-gun shootout.
Director J.J. Abrams was most definitely not a fan-boy for this franchise when he made 2009's "Star Trek," which reintroduced Kirk, Spock and the rest of the starship Enterprise gang with a time-travel twist that allowed the William Shatner-Leonard Nimoy original to coexist with an entirely different destiny for the new players.
Abrams grew up a fan of "Star Wars," the next space saga he'll be reviving with the launch of a third trilogy. But his key collaborators, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, are "Trek" fan-boys to their marrow. They know this world, they love this world, and like many fans, they have a particular fixation on 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the best that the franchise has ever had to offer, on the big-screen or TV.
The 2009 reboot replayed and tweaked elements connected to "Wrath of Khan," and "Into Darkness" mines that vein further. Some of that revisitation is cool in an alternate-history way, but the filmmakers remain so closely in orbit around yesteryear's "Star Trek" that they wind up zigzagging fitfully through the Enterprise's greatest hits.
"Into Darkness" opens with a splashy action sequence to again show the cockiness of Capt. James Kirk (Chris Pine) — with his willingness to flaunt the rules — and the icy intellect of half-Vulcan First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), who's willing to sacrifice his life to stick to the Starfleet playbook.
It's clear these two young'uns don't play well together, but just as the space brass is about to split them up, Starfleet is hit by savage terrorist attacks by mysterious desperado John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk, Spock and their Enterprise crew are dispatched to take Harrison out with weapons that could prove the mother of all drone strikes, maintaining the usual see-how-relevant-we-are conceit of the "Trek" cosmos.
But loyalties slip and shift as the Enterprise uncovers the strange history of Harrison and his connections to a hawkish Starfleet admiral (Peter Weller).
Along the way, Spock hits some speed bumps in his romance with Zoe Saldana's beautiful and brilliant Lt. Uhura, while Kirk meets Alice Eve's beautiful and brilliant Dr. Carol Marcus ("Wrath of Khan" fans well know who she is and her importance to "Star Trek").
The rest of the gang keeps up their routines. Curmudgeonly Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) gripes and moans, helmsman Sulu (John Cho) ably steers the ship, navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin) does his precocious shtick and engineer Scott (Simon Pegg) works his technical miracles.
Fine acting has rarely been a cornerstone of "Star Trek," but much of the "Into Darkness" cast seems to have taken ham lessons from Shatner. Urban maintains the same grouchy, stick-up-his-butt expression throughout, while Chekov with his almost incomprehensible Russian accent and Pegg with his "Shrek"-thick Scottish brogue become downright cartoonish.
Though they squabble like bratty teens early on, Pine and Quinto eventually show sparks of the Kirk-Spock fraternal love at the core of "Star Trek."
The big find here is Cumberbatch, who joins Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Plummer and Alice Krige in a fairly limited roster of great "Trek" villains. With his rumbling voice and stony stare, the star of Britain's detective update "Sherlock" is fearsome and relentless, a one-man army who truly seems like more than a match for poor Enterprise, all on his own.
As Abrams moves on to "Star Wars," it falls to some next-generation filmmaker to carry on "Star Trek" should more sequels follow. Abrams hasn't really guided the franchise into deep space, but he leaves it in a good place for successors to tell some rip-roaring sci-fi stories, without relying on reruns of old "Trek" moments.
"Star Trek Into Darkness," a Paramount release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Running time: 132 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for PG-13: Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.