A Fun and Welcomed Return to Classic Trek
It’s clear from literally the opening moments of Star Trek Beyond that the latest entry in the Gene Roddenberry-created science fiction series is meant to be a hard course correct for this reboot movie franchise. With the signature opening notes of the classic theme playing over the blackness of space followed by an in media res intergalactic peace keeping adventure and a stardate monologue by Captain James Kirk, the intentions are made clear from the very beginning: this is classic Star Trek made for the modern era. But are these intentions executed well enough to make Star Trek Beyond and the current incarnation of the series relevant?
Written by Simon Pegg (who also plays Enterprise crewmember Scotty) and Doug Jung and directed by Justin Lin of Fast and Furious fame, Star Trek Beyond picks up with the crew of the USS Enterprise nearly three years into their five year mission to explore outer space. Tired from the toll of never-ending space travel and with various issues plaguing them, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and more members of the crew weigh their options concerning leaving the Enterprise for new opportunities. However, a distress signal sends them to an unknown planet, where they are ambushed by the dangerous and mysterious Krall (Idris Elba), who destroys the Enterprise and strands them on the planet for his own deadly mission. With the crew separated and fighting for survival, our heroes must come together to stop greater destruction from happening.
While 2009’s J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek rebooted the dormant franchise for the modern era with a slam-bang escapist sci-fi adventure story that balanced pitch-perfect character reinvisionings with massive action, the reboot Star Trek series was quickly put on shaky ground with 2013’s dreadful Star Trek Into Darkness. It was a movie that attempted to tell a relevant story about terrorism and government extremism while remaking the classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But for many reasons, most specifically being sloppy writing and a story that couldn’t live up to the original, Into Darkness failed at every turn, causing the franchise to stall early into its run.
In response, Star Trek Beyond strives to make the franchise about exploration, new ideas, and character dynamics that echo the shape of the original Star Trek television series. And Beyond most certainly feels like an episode of the TV series, telling a self-contained story that pushes its characters forward without trying to massively evolve the larger franchise narrative. While that focus means the film isn’t a game changer or could even be accused of lacking some ambition, it’s a most welcome reprieve from the cinematic franchise focus of seemingly every film series today and the very un-Star Trek-like nature of Abrams’ previous two films. It’s what Star Trek has always done best, and by refocusing on its core narrative principles, Lin’s film helps to reinforce that the series is still relevant today, without having to fundamentally alter its principles like what much of Into Darkness did.
Does Beyond have something massively important to say about the world we live in today? Not exactly, but its broader theme of unity and peace being stronger than war and hatred can most certainly be applied to today’s worldwide issues and will most likely stay relevant for years to come. It also ties into Roddenberry’s central idea of peace and unity being what propels humanity into outer space and fuels our desire for discovery via exploration. As a central villain, Elba’s Krall works as the counterpoint to these ideas and the character of Kirk in particular. However, he’s somewhat underwritten, even though a late in the narrative twist gives him far greater meaning. Until then, he’s mostly a menacing bad guy that underutilizes Elba’s talents for layered, emotional performances.
Surprisingly, given that proven action director Lin is at the helm, not every action scene works as well as you’d expect. Given the frantic and chaotic nature of several key sequences of the film’s first half, there’s a certain amount of disorganized cinematography to be expected. But ultra-dark nighttime settings and a lack of geographic setup causes a few hand-to-hand battles to be extremely difficult to understand while watching, even if the goals of characters are still made clear. Thankfully, the rest of the film’s battles and its extended outer space to space station to hand-to-hand fight climax are superbly done. They feel big and important while also staying focused on character through and through. The mission of the Enterprise is peace and exploration, not war, and that idea stays central to every battle waged in Beyond, which helps keep the action cohesive with the plot.
However, between the film’s enticing setup within its first act and the heights reached during the finale, there’s some unfortunate slowdown during the middle of the movie. Keeping the characters apart for a large chunk of Star Trek Beyond helps drill down into the various dynamics of the pairings, but it also stalls the action and narrative thrust for a small portion. But strong moments of humor, action, and character development help make up for lesser thrills as the narrative revs up for its finale.
It’s the characters above all that really make Beyond work as well as it does. Pegg and Jung have an unwavering grasp on what made Kirk and crew work so well back in the ‘60s, as well as what makes their new incarnations connect with viewers today. Pine nails Kirk’s blend of leadership and guts, as well as his doubts, which keeps him as both an inspiring and relatable hero. As Spock, Quinto moves further into the logical yet compassionate character established by original actor Leonard Nemoy (who is touchingly memorialized here) and further from the rage that was newly established by the reboot. Best of all, Beyond gives a large focus on the relationship between him and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, played with a perfectly gruff sense of exasperated humor by Karl Urban. Their interplay results in many of the film’s biggest laughs and most satisfying thrills, which thankfully come from character development and plot, not shoehorned jokes. While some may wish for a greater focus on the Spock/Kirk dynamic like the previous two entries, the change in pairing here makes for a more robust Enterprise crew and a much-welcomed increase in screentime for Urban, who has been the secret weapon for this reboot franchise so far.
As for the rest of the crew, Scotty, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Sulu (John Cho) are all given some time to shine, although they function in more of a supporting role to varying degrees. New character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a warrior-like survivor on the unknown planet, is a welcome addition to the cast, with her role adding new dynamics to the entry in the tradition of the TV series’ episode-by-episode alien encounters. After three films together, the crew of the Enterprise feels like a family, which may be Lin’s true strength as a director. You care for them, you root for them, and their interplay feels exciting because it feels so right. With the tragic loss of Yelchin this year, that dynamic will be affected forever. But with the series given new life and a focus on actually being Star Trek, there are so many possibilities that are now possible.
It’s a thrilling idea and a surprising one, given that it comes from a film that focuses on giving fans a simple, self-contained story without a need for sequel baiting or franchise expansion. For the first time in many years, Star Trek feels like Star Trek again, making this 50th anniversary feel like a true celebration.