Those madcap galoots, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), are trying to escape a band of chalk-faced aboriginals on the Class-M planet Nibiru. Having broken a Starfleet rule by intervening in a prehistoric civilization, they run for their lives, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hightailing it out of Zanzibar after one of their schemes went kaflooey. Reaching a cliff, with the natives in angry pursuit, Jim and Bones leap desperately toward the water far below. Now they’re Butch and Sundance, in every way except for yelling, “S—!” as they plummet to safety. They’re just one Enterprise crew member short of being the Three Stooges.
Actually, Moe — Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) — is trapped nearby in an erupting volcano, its spewing lava reminiscent of the kitsch special effects from the 1940 One Million B.C., but in 3-D and gaudy color. Kirk, back on the Enterprise, ignores another Starfleet dictum and flies into the inferno to rescue Spock; the primitive Nibirians gape at the spacecraft with the same perplexed wonder as the apes at the 2001 monolith. When the Enterprise returns to Earth, Rear Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) demotes Kirk to Starfleet Academy and separates him from Spock. Pike might be an exasperated homeroom teacher forced to keep two troublemakers apart — or a father regretting that he gave his reckless teen son the keys to the starship.
Any prequel series to a movie franchise is obliged to imagine younger versions of famous characters. We know from the Star Trek TV series, spawned in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry, and from the six subsequent feature films starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, that Kirk is the man of action, Spock the half-Vulcan half-man of thought. J.J. Abrams applied that dichotomy to his 2009 Star Trek reboot and now to the first sequel to the prequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. (Abrams has his plate full with revered sci-fi franchises. Disney has entrusted him with reviving Star Wars.)
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek)
The difference between the Roddenberry and Abrams Kirks: This one has a severe case of arrested development. He’s always spoiling for a fight that might endanger his crew, nay, alter the fate of the universe. Not that Into Darkness doesn’t provide bustling fun equal to its modest ambitions or that the script (by the writing duo of Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman and Abrams’ co-creator of Lost, Damon Lindelof) doesn’t find rich plunder in the maleficence of an early Star Trek villain. But with its emphasis on its hero’s adolescent anger, the movie turns this venerable science-fiction series — one that prided itself on addressing complex issues in a nuanced and mature fashion — into its own kids’ version: Star Trek Tiny Toons. At times, the viewer is almost prodded to mutter, “Grow up!”
When catastrophe reunites the crew members for one more mission, we find the rest of them suffering growing pains as well. Spock, who’s hardly on speaking terms with Kirk after the Nibiru caper, endures a puppy-love spat with Communications Officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) has a tiff with Kirk and decides to sit this voyage out, though he’ll prove useful later. That leaves Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin) to keep the Enterprise from exploding midflight — another case of a boy trying to do a man’s job. Ship’s helmsman Sulu (John Cho) is not prominent enough to have a teething problem; he and Bones prowl the craft and work to keep their less stable colleagues out of trouble.
(READ: J.J. Abrams on making Super 8)
The Enterprise also has a stowaway, Carol Marcus (Alice Eve). Security must be lax under Kirk’s command, especially as regarding a pretty blonde. Carol adds the requisite erotic tension — actually sub-erotic, since sexual interest is irrelevant in a boys-in-space epic. There was more sincere budding love in Abrams’ last film, the excellent Super 8, in which four 12-year-old boys teamed with a 14-year-old girl to do battle against an alien invasion and its government cover-up. Those middle schoolers faced their challenges far more sensibly than some of the Enterprise crew members do theirs. They’re like the kids from Glee charged with saving the universe — or getting a third season for Smash. (All right, some missions are impossible.)
** Warning! Spoilers ahead **
A few grownups step into this Darkness. Pike is the mutton-chopped father figure who, in the 2009 Star Trek, saved Kirk from a bar fight with space cadets and recommended him for the academy. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, more than a quarter-century after he starred in RoboCop) is Pike’s superior and Carol’s dad; his galactic trigger finger proves even itchier than Kirk’s. But the real adult supervision comes from a fellow named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison mounts a one-man 9/11-style terrorist assault on Starfleet Central, destroys the archive housing Klingon intel and, in the process, wipes out so many of the senior officers that Kirk and the gang, among the few survivors, are assigned to capture him on Kronos, the Klingon home planet.
(READ: Corliss on the first season of the original Star Trek)
Good luck with that. “He is ruthless, brilliant and will not hesitate to kill every single one of you,” warns Spock Prime (Nimoy, back for another fleeting guest shot). Harrison is also the movie’s one compelling character, and if you want to know his true identity, don’t read the cast list on the Internet Movie Database. We shall say only that he has his origins in the “Space Seed” episode of the TV show’s first season; he later graced one of the best of the feature films. (For teasing purposes, we’ll add that that picture’s title anagrams to What the ho, Frank! and the actor’s name to Drat! Abnormal Icon!) Cumberbatch raises the anxiety level and performance standard whenever he’s onscreen. As the latest Sherlock Holmes on BBC, he has embodied a supersmart hero of the 1890s. Here he is the supersmart villain of the 1990s, teleported to the 23rd century.
** All Clear! You have left the Spoiler Zone **
With high cheekbones and the penetrating stare of a superior automaton — or maybe just a posh Englishman looking pityingly on the other, mostly American actors — Cumberbatch infuses Into Darkness with a creepy class. Everyone else has to make do by looking fabulous. Pike’s face has the blurry handsomeness of James Dean painted on velvet. (When he and Greenwood confront each other, going eyeball to eyeball, the only question is: Whose are bluer?) Saldana, remembered as the Pandoran princess in Avatar, wears eyelashes as long as light-years; and on Kronos, when she speaks Klingon, it sounds like a Sonnet from the Portuguese. Eve, the perfect woman in She’s Out of My League, provides light-dark contrast to Saldana and flashes her panties, perhaps to establish her availability as a Kirk girlfriend in a later episode.
Can a woman ever lasso this wild man? His heroic impulsiveness occasionally translates as the crackpottery of a gung-ho sergeant leading his men into the Big Galactic Muddy. When Pike disciplines Kirk and reminds him that he is meant to be primarily an explorer, not a warrior, it might be the spirit of Gene Roddenberry speaking. The original series didn’t hold to the suspicious, maybe paranoid belief that each new planet (read: the Soviet Union) harbored a doomsday threat to Starfleet (read: America). The show sought accommodation and understanding with distant peoples as much as triumph over alien warlords. That’s why Kirk and Spock had equal dramatic and ethical pull.
(READ: a 1975 story on the earliest Trekkies by subscribing to TIME)
Parables of equanimity suit a TV series more than an action picture; one is essentially liberal, the other conservative. And the ’60s, they were so long ago. Abrams knows that every contemporary sci-fi film is really a war movie and that Star Trek, to be modern, had to grow a tougher skin. Kirk, the rogue warrior, may be heading for the borderline of sociopathy, but he has to be right in his hunches about the predatory nature of the creatures out there. Yet that makes Spock an irrelevancy — the professor type from old sci-fi movies who tried reasoning with the evil or barbarous life forms before they swatted him into unconsciousness. A pacifist who hopes to be Magellan, Spock must stand aside while the cowboy king does his thing.
One aspect of Star Trek, at least, has to be honored in any prequel. Our planet and the universe can be on the brink of annihilation, but most of the Enterprise crew members are immortal; they must survive to populate the 1966 TV show. Into Darkness flirts with the demise of one prominent character, but when he revives, Bones says, “Oh, don’t be melodramatic. You were barely dead.” This series will survive as well, until 2016 — when, you can bet, there will be a third Star Trek to celebrate the TV show’s 50th anniversary. Here’s hoping that those three years will bestow a measure of maturity on all concerned: Kirk and his bright curators too.