It's lame and sort of geeky to compare franchise apples to oranges. Oh, well. "Star Trek Into Darkness" does everything "Iron Man 3" tries to do, in the realm of global terrorism imagery reprocessed for popcorn kicks, but with a little more style, a dash more brio and invention.
Yes, the film culminates in a vicious fistfight that goes on slightly longer than forever. Yes, it's brazenly dependent on our collective (and justified) fond memories of the best of the first-round "Star Trek" movies, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." We won't say how, exactly, but it is. But the new film works. It's rousing. The human element, and the Vulcan element, to say nothing of various other species, are present, accounted for and taken seriously enough to matter.
Director J.J. Abrams' film arrives four years after his successful 2009 "Star Trek" reboot. The opening is straight out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark": Bam, we're on the ground of a Class M planet, with Cmdr. James T. Kirk, once again played by Chris Pine, on the run from the locals while the digital volcano in the background threatens trouble.
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Life on Earth in the 23rd century involves much of the same peril as life outside the multiplex or Imax auditorium in the early 21st. A massively destructive act of terrorism sets into motion a tale that leads, early on, to an attack on Starfleet, apparently from within; a test of leadership for Kirk; the introduction of a formidable adversary (Benedict Cumberbatch as the terror-monger with the plummy English vowel sounds); and a series of crises one might describe as "relentless" and "scarcely unceasing" if they weren't generally effective.
Abrams has a real knack for the cliffhanger; most action movies offer a series of insane life-and-death scrapes, and in that regard "Star Trek Into Darkness" resembles most action movies. Yet Abrams varies the game. The various "10 seconds to destruction!" scenarios generate real suspense. An ultrafast space flight, with Kirk zipping through the nothingness trying to avoid getting clocked by orbiting space debris, clearly was designed with the gamer in mind — but the scene is tasty on its own, as is the sequence in which our heroes must crash-land with split-millisecond timing onto a runway without writing themselves out of the next "Star Trek" movie.
Zachary Quinto, as Spock, turns into the rock-'em-sock-'em Vulcan in Abrams' latest. I think it's a mistake; or rather, I think the final 20 minutes or so grind on past their usefulness. But it's not enough to kill the fun, which is often exhilarating. Karl Urban's Bones McCoy; Zoe Saldana as Uhura; Anton Yelchin as Chekhov: The 2009 gang's all here, plus Alice Eve as a special guest passenger on the redesigned Enterprise (heavy on the reds). The ship looks like a trillion bucks.
Abrams favors the extreme eyebrow-to-chin close-up in simple two-person dialogue scenes, yet his camera has an unfashionable mobility in its favor, which makes the entire thing breathe more easily. I liked the 2009 outing; I liked this one a tick more.
Postscript: Cumberbatch's way with ... a precise ... yet unexpected ... pause rivals that of Alan Rickman in the "Harry Potter" series. There is no higher compliment in the pause department. Those pauses, when experienced in the Imax screen format, really are pips.
'Star Trek Into Darkness' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)
Running time: 2:12
Opens: Wednesday in Imax; Thursday in all other theaters