J.J. Abrams gets it. The director and his star fleet of writers and actors proved that with 2009's rousing, humorous "Star Trek." That adventure breathed relevant but not too hagiographic life into a beloved (to put it mildly) 1960s television sci-fi adventure series.

"Star Trek Into Darkness," penned by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, continues to honor the deep tug of Gene Roddenberry's iconic collection of characters: Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Chekov, Sulu, Bones and Scotty (Simon Pegg in fine, surly form) — and Zoe Saldana's astute and foxy Uhura.

If the 2009 film reintroduced audiences to a crew in the making, this outing plunges them — and us — into the greatly amped action.

Amid terrible explosions and fierce fire fights, friendship, loyalty, personal ethics and Starfleet protocol will be tested. There continues to be something touching in the ideal of divergent personalities uniting in — and quibbling throughout — adventures in discovery, of new worlds but also of self.

"Into Darkness," which opened Wednesday, begins on a planet on the verge of volcanic cataclysm. The prime directive of not getting mixed up in another world's beeswax is being ignored — as it was throughout Kirk's service to Starfleet. The white-painted natives of Nibiru will get an eyeful when the Enterprise bursts from watery depths and high-tails it toward space. (This isn't the last time the Enterprise will crest magnificently out of the elements. )


Advertisement

Kirk is as headstrong as ever. Though Pine does an able job showing fissures in the good captain's certainty. When Kirk ignores rules for the slightly more tricky value of loyalty, he takes a hit. Returning as Adm. Christopher Pike, Bruce Greenwood defends but also chastises the cocksure officer. And Spock, ever the rationalist, has a hand in his comeuppance.

Spock and Kirk's still-evolving relationship and the tensions between fealty and code provide a worthy set-up to the story of what happens when one of Starfleet's own attacks it.

What an intelligent foe the movie has in John Harrison. Played with brooding intensity by Benedict Cumberbatch, his superlative smarts and commensurate strength make him more than formidable. The British actor brings an intelligent authority and seductive reasoning to the character, which makes Kirk's prickly alliance with him believable.

The 3-D here feels more a matter of studio bottom lines and moviegoers' tastes than essential to the experience. More interesting, visually, is the fact that after Christopher Nolan showed Abrams IMAX images from "The Dark Knight Rises," Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel decided to shoot portions of "Into Darkness" in that bold format. I'll see it again on that ride alone.

"Into Darkness" is not as winkingly fun as its Abrams predecessor. How could it be? Harrison is too deft and devastating an adversary for that. He's a disarming monster with perfect, frosty diction and a superior stare.

For all its reckoning with mass destruction, this franchise's vision of a future Earth remains optimistic. The film mixes the iconically familiar with the futuristic. A San Francisco trolley car shares the frame with an advanced powered vehicle.

Arguably nothing is more beautifully quaint than human emotion. "Into Darkness" argues that while friendship on paper might seem illogical, it is possibly the deepest, most sustaining bond we make as humans, or in the case of one pointy-eared science officer, a half-human Vulcan.

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, lkennedy@denverpost.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy