‘Into Darkness’ takes a pleasing ‘Trek’ to a familiar place

Director J.J. Abrams’ decision to remain faithful to existing “Star Trek” mythology has turned out to be both a joy and a jail sentence.

It’s a joy for audiences, who get to watch Kirk and Spock and Scott and Uhuru mature into the people we know they’re going to be. He has developed them through two films with good humor and a deep understanding of their characters, and he hasn’t set a foot wrong there.

Yet it’s a jail sentence for Abrams and his writers, who remain confined by convention. None of the leads can be seriously damaged physically or psychologically. So if a story places one of them in peril, we need not invest any emotion in the outcome.

“Star Trek Into Darkness,” so satisfying as a well-shot adventure with well-structured plot twists, can go only in one direction. That’s why the climax, which exposes significant characters to mortal jeopardy, falls flat: We simply wait for someone to figure out a novel way to get them out of danger and back onto the bridge of the Enterprise.

If you saw Abrams’ reboot of the franchise in 2009, you know what to expect. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) still wrestle with the intuitive-intellectual decision-making process. (The half-human Spock has a long and touching explanation of why it’s sometimes better for him to suppress emotions.) Spock and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) are still in love, though tempestuously.

The wild card in this well-shuffled deck is John Harrison (charismatic Benedict Cumberbatch), whose actions brand him first as a hero, then a villain, then a hero, then a villain again. The late revelation of his true motives makes sense, though his final fate – defined, like so much in this picture by adherence to that rigid old “Trek” narrative – does not.

Abrams realizes he can’t do much to redefine the story line, so he goes happily wild with technology. He uses 3-D in the old-fashioned in-your-face vein, hurling everything from spears to spaceships directly at us. Explosions and chases dominate the movie, as if Abrams wanted to replicate the rhythm of the first two “Star Trek” movies of 1979 and 1982 30 years later. Like those films, Abrams’ first one was conceptual, while his second is more of a straightforward shoot-’em-up.

He does introduce a political theme briefly: A militaristic Starfleet admiral, tired of pussyfooting around the Klingons, wants to provoke war with them by any means possible. (That’s only a very mild spoiler, as the admiral is initially depicted as peaceful. But he’s portrayed by Peter Weller, and Peter Weller is never up to any good.) Harrison and Kirk get caught up in that impending war in different ways, with Carol, the admiral’s daughter (the underused Alice Eve) on Kirk’s side.

The humor in the dialogue, always droll and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, relies mostly on Quinto’s ability to give deadpan line readings. Kirk proposes an alliance with an untrustworthy helper, insisting, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Spock lifts an eyebrow and replies, “An Arab proverb, attributed to a prince who was later decapitated by his subjects.” Yet there’s a strong emotional bond between these two brothers-in-arms.

Unfortunately, Abrams falls back on the same action-movie nonsense lesser directors use when they run out of ideas. It’s one thing for Harrison, a genetically altered superman, to fall three stories and land on a moving spacecraft without injury; it’s another for the physically ordinary Spock to match him. The method by which the crew of the Enterprise works its way out of a deadly dilemma is embarrassingly silly, not to mention impossible.

Abrams plants many seeds for a sequel, from the rededication of the Enterprise as an exploratory vessel to the goo-goo eyes passed between Kirk and Carol. Is it too much to ask that he take a risk next time and kill somebody off, however much we’re used to having them in the “Trek” universe?

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