TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is the 12th motion picture based on Gene Roddenberry's 1960s science fiction TV series. But it's the second to star a new group of actors in the roles of Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and their crew. J.J. Abrams returns as director, and Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of "Sherlock," plays a villain to be named later. Critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: 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 "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 Barack 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 as a kind of cinematic dialogue between "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 aging Ricardo Montalban chasing 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 nautical adventure.
Abrams' number two isn't nearly as good. The plotting is clunky, 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 the variations on an old theme that I had 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, while 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, raven-like 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS")
CHRIS PINE: (as Captain Kirk) Let me explain what's happening here. You are a criminal. I watched you murder innocent men and women. I was authorized to end you. And the only reason why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So shut your mouth.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: Captain, are you going to punch me again over and over until your arm weakens? Clearly, you want to. So, tell me, why did you allow me to live?
PINE: (as Captain Kirk) We all make mistakes.
CUMBERBATCH: No. I surrendered to you because, despite your attempt to convince me otherwise, you seem to have a conscience, Mr. Kirk. If you did not, then it would be impossible for me to convince you of the truth. Two-three-one-seven-four-six-one-one - coordinates not far from Earth. If you want to know why I did what I did, go and take a look.
PINE: (as Captain Kirk) Give me one reason why I should listen to you.
CUMBERBATCH: I can give you 72. And they're onboard your ship, Captain. They have been all along.
EDELSTEIN: Seventy-two? That's the number of bodies onboard in suspended animation 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, rather than half Vulcan, 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 blonde 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 are muddled. The narrative never stops twisting. It can be thrilling to watch familiar characters be strange - if only to let you 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.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.