Star Trek Into Darkness answers a burning question for fans of the franchise: What does James Tiberius Kirk do in his off-hours?
How about frolicking in bed with alien twin sisters - sisters with long, devilish tails?
If you blink, you'll miss the moment, but it's part of the reason J.J. Abrams' sequel to his 2009 Star Trek reboot is so much fun. Sure, intergalactic doom is imminent, and sure, the USS Enterprise's bulkhead will be breached, its warp-control crippled, its snappy crew tossed this way and that in the face of Klingon assaults, but the guy at the helm, Captain Kirk - and Captain Abrams, back as director and producer - knows how to have a good time.
It says something about Star Trek's place in the pop-cult firmament that after just one feature this new cast of Starfleet officers seems so familiar, their return to the big screen (and even bigger IMAX screens) so welcome. Chris Pine, blue-eyes beaming insubordinantly, fits comfortably into the role of Kirk, who finds himself in a bad place (no, not that menage a trois) as Into Darkness gets rolling. He's lied on an official Starfleet report, violating a "prime directive." The admiralty has no choice but to relieve Kirk of his command.
And so, for a time, Kirk is in the doghouse - a 23rd century doghouse. Earth looks like it does now, if you happen to live in downtown Dubai. Towering spires shoot above the cityscapes. And terrorism is still rampant: In a scene remindful of the latest Bond film, Skyfall, in which MI6 headquarters becomes the site of an embarrassing, explosive siege, Starfleet's shimmering skycraper is seriously compromised by bombs and gunships.
In fact, civilization hasn't advanced all that much. The military is still using drones - and people are still debating the ethics of killing people (and other life forms) by remote control.
But there's nothing remotely controlled about Star Trek Into Darkness' screenplay, and the way Abrams and his team deliver it. From the breakneck prologue, situated on a "class M" volcanic planet inhabited by a primitive, chalk-faced tribe, to the third-act space walk that finds Kirk rocketing through the blackness in a streamlined silver suit, the action is exhilarating, the visual effects spectacular - and spectacularly realized.
Inevitably, there must be a power-mad villain (or two), but unlike Iron Man 3's bad guys and most other movie malevolents this one (or two) is accorded some respect. Benedict Cumberbatch, the British thespian with the name out of Dickens, is John Harrison, a man with an agenda - and an arsenal of mysterious 300-year-old torpedos. The actor brings his theater-trained gravitas to the proceedings. Also new to Abrams' Star Trek: Alice Eve as the Enterprise's visiting Science Officer Carol Marcus, and Peter Weller as Robocop, I mean, as a top Starfleet commander, bent on putting those hoary old enemy Klingons in their place, no matter the price.
And running around the bridge - and the engine room, the transport room, the medical bay - are the rebooted incarnations of Bones, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov, played respectively by Karl Urban (with urgency), Simon Pegg (with comic urgency), John Cho (with helmsman-like efficiency) and Anton Yeltsin (with boyish pluck).
Zachary Quinto is back as Spock, the half-human/half-Vulcan First Officer. Ruled by logic, he's the cool, analytical opposite to Kirk's hotheaded frat boy. And he's apparently reached a crisis point in his relationship with the ship's beautiful communications officer, Uhura (Zoe Saldana).
"Oh my God, are you guys fighting?" Kirk says to the brooding duo. "What is that even like?"
And so Star Trek Into Darkness is about old friends flying off into the final frontier, bickering and bruised but still boldly going where no man has gone before.
And no Vulcan, no tribble (the little furballs are back), and no alien twin sisters with devil tails, either.
Star Trek Into Darkness
***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by J.J. Abrams. With Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, interspecies sex, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies