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Director J.J. Abrams has never, to my knowledge, made any bones about channeling his matinee-popcorn hero, Steven Spielberg — and in the opening moments of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," the protege manages to snare a couple of Spielberg classics in one scene. The crew of the Enterprise is distracting a primitive people on a faraway (and blissfully color-saturated) world while Spock (Zachary Quinto) sneaks into a volcano with a device that will prevent its eruption and spare the alien species. The natives' chase of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) is straight out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," spears and all. When the crew defies the prime directive to steer the Enterprise out of the ocean and over the volcano to rescue Spock, and the natives begin reverently sketching the ship in the soil, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" feels its ears burning.
That juxtaposition may not be Abrams announcing that he's killing his idol, quite. But it helps to frame this sequel to his thrilling 2009 "Star Trek" reboot as somewhere in the happy nook between Indiana Jones and the wonder of deep space. When it finds that groove, "Into Darkness" brings all the adventure and panache of its predecessor. On balance, though, for as sparkly and gripping as it is, "Into Darkness" over-steers into a military-style revenge procedural. Too much of its dialogue belongs to humans. It sounds strange to say, maybe, but it stars too few planets.
Kirk and Spock get disciplined for the volcano stunt, and just as Kirk is coming to grips with a demotion, a suicide bomber attacks a Federation building. The mastermind flees to Kronos, a Klingon stronghold — setting up a situation Kirk and his superior, Adm. Marcus (Peter Weller), diagnose as perilously tetchy. The Klingons have been itching for confrontation, and their so much as detecting the Enterprise could ignite conflict. The ship's mission has always been one of exploration and ambassadorship — new worlds, new civilizations, all that — so when Kirk accepts a payload of experimental torpedoes to drop on an uninhabited slab of an alien world, we recognize this peace-loving people (us!) has been shoved toward war by a terrorist who flees to a forgotten corner of the map.
The allegory isn't hard to find here, and is only underscored when the final credits begin with a dedication to "9/11 veterans." The original "Star Trek" series famously engaged the cultural milieu of its day (feminism, race relations, the Cold War) and in this, "Into Darkness" upholds the tradition. As the supervillain in question (giving you his name might spoil a little thrill), Benedict Cumberbatch, of the BBC's "Sherlock," radiates a savage menace; if the Federation is going to be creeping up to forbidden borders to rain missiles on the future's equivalent of Waziristan, it might as well be to vaporize this fiend.
Ignoring those pretensions, this is still a candy-coated space romp. Every shot inside the Enterprise glistens with psychedelic lens-flares, as though it were filmed inside a Christmas tree, through a frosted windowpane. The visual effects are bold and seamless. The action is reckless and innovative. This series could benefit from some more aliens already. Until that day (in 2016, when the next sequel arrives), these humans will tide us over.