Fifty years ago NBC premiered a new science-fiction series entitled Star Trek. Despite being canceled after three seasons due to low ratings, the show would firmly lodge itself into geek fandom. From there its popularity would grow until it settled comfortably into the prominence among popular culture. Along the way it would add several spin-off shows (the latest debuts in 2017), an animated cartoon series, books and thirteen films, the most recent of which arrived in theaters this past weekend. Star Trek Beyond is the third movie since the franchise was rebooted in 2009 with J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek. In some ways, Beyond is a fresh start with director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung stepping into those roles for the first time. (Pegg, for his part, has been involved with the reboot from the beginning, playing the role of Scotty). While the new creative team do add some of their own flavorings, they also hew strongly to the template that Abrams employed for Star Trek and its sequel Into Darkness. At the same time, though, they avoid many of the mistakes of the latter film. Beyond may not be classic Trek, but, on its own terms, it is an enjoyable ride, whose strongest attribute is some great character work.
The movie opens with a prologue involving Captain Kirk on a diplomatic mission to negotiate a peace treaty. The problems begin, however, when Kirk presents a peace offering from the other party; the aliens he is speaking with seem to have trouble grasping the concept of a gift. (“So, they are giving us their castoffs?” is the general vibe). The sequence is cute and involves a neat visual twist. As far as its importance to the actual plot, it introduces a “doodad” that characters will spend a fair amount of time fighting over once the action picks up. First though there is some R&R time on the nearby Federation Station Yorktown. This mostly lets Kirk brood over his dead father and Spock process the news that his future self has passed on. (The filmmakers devise a touching acknowledgement of Leonard Nimoy’s death). Soon though a cryptic distress call (is there any other kind?) is received and Kirk is volunteering his ship and crew into action.
Naturally, nothing is as it seems. The mystery only deepens when the crew finds itself stranded and scattered across the surface of a desolate planet. The time on this planet is the longest and most satisfying segment of the film. One of the core elements of The Original Series was its ensemble nature. William Shatner might have been the lead, but he was almost always sharing the screen (& his adventures) with other crew members. Abrams continued this tradition in his movies, which often allowed each core member to have at least one small standout moment. Pegg and Jung take this approach a step further, however. Splitting the characters into small units gives each of them more breathing room.
One of the best benefactors of this approach is Karl Urban’s Dr. Leonard McCoy. From the start, Urban has been one of the greatest pleasures of the rebooted franchise, channeling the spirit DeForest Kelley’s original “Bones” McCoy, while at the same time improving on the acting quality. His looks of exasperation are priceless. In Beyond his character deepens, as Pegg and Jung’s script reinforces the bond McCoy shares with both Kirk and Spock. In the process, they remind viewers that the core of the Enterprise family was never a duo, but a trio. And like any family there will naturally be a fair amount of snarky sniping when things get tense.
Also greatly benefitting from the screenwriting approach is Anton Yelchin’s Pavel Chekov. Chekov has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of Star Trek and as fun as Yelchin’s portrayal may have been, his past two outings did little to raise him above joke status. Beyond changes that by giving him increased screen time along with more responsibilities. Yelchin rises to the occasion allowing audiences to see him as a capable technician with, yes, a wacky accent. There is poetic justice in Yelchin (& for the foreseeable future Chekov’s) final space mission being also his most substantial.
Meanwhile, Chekov’s fellow tech guru, Scotty gets plenty of room to elevate his character beyond a quipping brogue. Pegg and Jung give him a good foil in a new character named Jaylah. Jaylah is an alien stranded on the planet by the same villainous warlord who netted the Enterprise. She makes a striking first appearance striding into action saving Scotty’s life. Yet the writers and actress Sofia Boutella lend her qualities greater than a fierce fighter. Boutella and Pegg have a strong report together which allows for a natural bond to grow between them. It is subtle yet quite effective. The writers are also smart by not rushing it in a romantic direction. The potential is there for future exploration, though, just as satisfying would be sticking with platonic friendship. Either way, Boutella’s Jaylah is a first-rate addition to the franchise; hopefully fans will be seeing much more of her in future outings.
Unfortunately not everyone benefits equally from the screenplay. After making a strong impression in Abrams’ films, Zoe Saldana’s Lt. Uhura pretty much fades to the background this time. The decision to have her spend the marooned segment in captivity was probably not the best choice. Idris Elba is mostly wasted as villain Krall, spending the majority of the film grunting under heavy makeup. Towards the end, he is given the chance to do some emoting. Still it is a disappointing performance from an actor would could have been given much meatier material.
On the technical side, the movie flows pretty smoothly. Lin keeps the pacing stable as he cuts back and forth between the various character groups. He does stumble a little in the large action scenes. There are some excellent set-piece ideas, especially one where characters slide down the Enterprise’s hallways as if they were slides. However, the CGI grows muddy at times, often obscuring what is happening; this is particularly a problem during the big battle onboard the Enterprise. Lin is much surer of himself out of space and on the ground. It is probably not a coincidence that the most dynamic action sequence in the movie involves a motorcycle and old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. That said, there are some great design elements such as Jaylah’s naturalistic makeup and Krall’s swarm fleet.
Overall the plot holds itself together. Yes, a couple twists in the climax do not quite add up, however, they work within the logic of the movie. The biggest nagging question, though, remains the one that has been dogging the franchise since Abrams’ reboot: how much of creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision is left in these films? The Original Series typically centered plots not on action but social issues (with a karate chop tossed in here and there for good measure). The series truly aspired to make viewers think. The same cannot be said for Beyond which might touch upon a couple issues but only fleetingly. There are those, the current James T Kirk Chris Pine among them, who argue that expecting such sophistication from a big-budget popcorn movie these days in unrealistic. Yet, it can be done. Earlier this year, Captain America: Civil War demonstrated that a script can balance excitement and intelligence without pandering. As far as quality goes, it remains the blockbuster of the year to beat. Even Dawn of Justice attempted to mix in some big ideas about theology. In that case the experiment fell flat, yet what does it say when a Zach Snyder movie is more willing to leap off the philosophical deep end than a Star Trek flick?
That said, Star Trek Beyond is vastly more entertaining than Dawn of Justice. While it could have been more, it remains a satisfying adventure which should please fans who watched the original broadcasts, the new ones who came in with the reboot and the legions in-between.