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Zoe Saldana is Uhura and Zachary Quinto is Spock in the new J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek: Into Darkness, the 12th installment in the franchise. (Paramount Pictures)

'Into Darkness,' Boldly And With A Few Twists

May 16, 2013 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Before I tell you about J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek film, with its youngish new Starship Enterprise crew, let me say that just because I've seen every episode of the original Star Trek and of The Next Generation, and most of the spinoff series, and every movie, I'm not a Trekkie — meaning someone who goes to conventions or speaks Klingon or greets people with a Vulcan salute.

But hey, even President Obama can give the Vulcan salute; it's mainstream. We live — thanks to the Internet — in a fan culture. We can all get up to speed on anything quickly. We can all appreciate the new Star Trek: Into Darkness not just on its own terms but also as a kind of cinematic dialogue among Star Treks past and present.

The first thing Abrams did in his first Star Trek picture was not so much wipe the slate as alter it. A ship from the future radically changed the early lives of Kirk, Spock and the others. Presto: Kirk and Spock are the same — but different. The fatherless Kirk is a hothead. Spock is having an affair with Uhura. Things change.

Now, in his second Star Trek, Abrams and his screenwriters establish a kind of conversation across time with Nicholas Meyer's 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — the one with an aging Ricardo Montalban chasing an aging William Shatner around the galaxy, declaiming like Ahab. It's the best of all the movies, the one that found the ideal balance between wonky sci-fi and rousing nautical adventure.

Abrams' No. 2 isn't nearly as good. The plotting is clunky, and the action more relentless and violent than I'd like; there are no pauses for ideas. There are too many self-deflating quips. The movie doesn't hold up to post-viewing scrutiny — which matters if you want to see it again.

But I found it so much fun to see its variations on an old theme that I found myself having a good time. I surrendered to the bombardment.

The new cast is still disconcerting. By the end of the original Trek, the actors were a collection of paunches and hairpieces; these guys are so trim and tender-skinned, they're like the Baby Looney Tunes.

But the villain is on a different level. The studio doesn't want me to utter his name, though I'll tell you it's not Voldemort. You probably know who it is. In any case, he's played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who made Sherlock Holmes his own and makes this character his, too.

Even without makeup, Cumberbatch looks alien, ravenlike in repose, with a preternatural stillness, his eyes so wide apart they could have twice the peripheral vision of humans. He's beyond pain, beyond good and evil — a Nietzschean superman.

Midway through, he lets himself be captured by Chris Pine's vengeful Captain Kirk, who confronts him in a jail cell on board the Enterprise. The villain tells Kirk he can offer 72 reasons to convince Kirk to listen to him.

Seventy-two? That's the number of things on board that the villain feels protective of. And you probably don't know what I'm talking about. I have to be circumspect. Too many plot details would provoke what I call the Wrath of Comic-Con, and I'm not like the bad guy here — supernaturally impervious.

I do have quibbles. Chris Pine's Kirk might be too much of a pretty boy. And Zachary Quinto's Spock seems one-quarter Vulcan rather than half, his human emotions too much on the surface. The whole Enterprise is staffed with wiseacres and exhibitionists. At least the women are more present: Zoe Saldana's Uhura kicks some butt, and blond Alice Eve has potential as a character from another Star Trek movie, only younger and hotter.

I went with it — it was, as Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock would deadpan, "Fascinating." Familiar lines have peculiar contexts. Alliances get muddled. The narrative never stops twisting.

It can be thrilling to watch familiar characters be strange — if only so you can return to the originals with fresh eyes. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a mixed enterprise, but hail to the prospect of seeing it boldly go where no Trek has gone before.

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