All these things made the 2009 reboot of the "Star Trek" franchise a great deal of fun. They might be the problem with the sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness." This is a well-tooled and smartly made movie, but it's so self-conscious about its place in a pre-existing mythology that I'm afraid there's no there there.
The "origin story" premise of the 2009 film allowed for these references to blossom in a delightful way, especially for fans of the original "Star Trek," which bowed on TV in 1966 and pursued its mission in a series of movies thereafter. It really looked as though the crew, led by the aptly cast Chris Pine as Capt. James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, would take on its own life amidst the iconic outer-space architecture of the show.
J.J. Abrams returns to the director's chair for this one, another promising sign. And the villain is not only a favorite nemesis from the TV series and movies, but he's played by one of the most exciting young actors around these days, Benedict Cumberbatch (from TV's "Sherlock").
The opening reels are a wonderfully fast-moving ride: prologue on a primitive planet, Kirk's demotion after his misbehavior, and a massacre at Star Fleet command that prompts the possibility of war against none other than the Klingons.
All good stuff. It's even all right that the new science officer (Alice Eve) on board the Enterprise is transparently there to give Captain Kirk a potential romantic interest. As long as she doesn't take time away from McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), or Sulu (John Cho).
Even Mr. Spock is engaged in some level of half-Vulcan romance, with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), although this still seems like an awkward fit.
The thing is, Abrams is so skilled at giving fans the beats they expect, the movie turns into a kind of Trekkie-convention highlights reel, occasionally interrupted by plot and action. Fun, but somehow not quite a movie.
When "Star Trek Into Darkness" reaches for its big moments, you can feel how they are meant to resonate. But has the movie itself actually earned these moments, or is it depending on our previous near-half-century of "Star Trek" experience to pull the strings?
The more it went on, the odder it seemed -- a big movie that plays as a giant reference to other things. Maybe the next one could forget the catchphrases and the hyperlinks back to "Star Trek" history, and just get on with creating its own five-year mission to boldly go where no one -- not even previous "Star Trek" installments -- has gone before.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" (3 stars)
A skillfully made sequel to the 2009 reboot, with the Enterprise crew going up against a familiar villain (Benedict Cumberbatch) and bringing the battle back to Earth. Generally good fun, although director J.J. Abrams is so careful about pleasing the diehard fans that the film starts to feel like one big reference to things that have happened before.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, language
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