Star Trek Beyond

Beyond 05a

Just when I’d completely given up on the rebooted Star Trek franchise, they go and deliver not just their first good movie of the series, but an excellent Star Trek film by any measure.

Star Trek Beyond

Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)

This Star Trek series has always had an excellent cast that does a great job of both impersonating and reimagining the original crew. But they’ve been underserved by writers and directors, from JJ Abrams on down, who cared more about creating action movies in the modern vernacular of war and mayhem than about creating meaningful adventures that are true to the spirit and intent of Gene Roddenberry’s original, iconic TV show. This time around, the action remains dialed to a frenetic 11, but there’s a story here with the genuine flavor of the Trek universe.

After a quick, humorous action opener, Star Trek Beyond is surprisingly measured in its early scenes, with the first 15 minutes or so focusing on a James T. Kirk who feels lost, unmoored, in the vast and arguably meaningless expanses of deep space. Beyond 01Time is spent on relationships (Chris Pine’s Kirk and Karl Urban’s spot-on McCoy) and worldbuilding (a visually stunning space station, Yorktown), and pauses to acknowledge the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy.

When the action begins, it seems to mirror Kirk’s dissatisfied world view—the Enterprise faces not the so much a singular threat as a mob, a bee-swarm of savagely destructive fighter ships that remind us of guerrilla tactics against the more traditional Federation, and the anonymity of drone strikes (though all, or most, of this swarm is manned). The threat feels very new, and very alien, though that proves to be in a sense ironic. That the bad guys are fighting for something that’s at first blush completely worthless only instills a deeper sense of alien estrangement in the audience.

When the Enterprise crew finds itself stranded on a remote planet with that swarming foe, the story wisely breaks our main characters into several teams, pairs and trios each with significant things to do. Beyond 03A major drawback of the original series was that beyond the trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the rest of the crew was usually underutilized. A strength of the reboot era is a desire to give the full cast more to do. Since Pine’s Kirk began as a reluctant hero and more of a screwup than William Shatner’s Kirk, who was a maverick but a well-trained and decisive one, it’s all the easier to let other characters step forward.

An additional character triumph: The film introduces a new character, an alien named Jayda (well-played by Sophia Boutella) who carries on the tradition of fascinating alien character who can stand toe-to-toe with the Enterprise’s iconic crewmen. Beyond 04The film ends Jayda’s story in a way that could allow her to reappear in future installments, and I’d certainly welcome that.

In a crucial return to the classic Trek flavor, though, this movie also plays, albeit briefly, with deeper themes. The enemy army, led by a growling creature called Krall (Idris Elba), derides the pacifistic unity of the Federation, and believes that as war is the crucible of progress, it’s better to smash the harmony of the establishment. Our heroes stand for reason, peace and progress against this petulant, destructive individualism. This would be an interesting theme in any Star Trek adventure, but for a film debuting at the literal peak of Trumpsterism and Bernie Bro bellowing, it’s delightfully contemporary.

The previous film tried to be contemporary in its themes as well, but it was too on-the-nose with its urban terrorism, and yet too mired in the past with its self-conscious mirroring (or distorting) of the iconic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This film gets it right on two opposing counts: respect for the source material and the need to stand alone.

Serving Two Treks

By this third installment, we can no longer judge the new film against the old series alone. The filmmakers now must serve not only the spirit of the original series and its iconic character, but also the world they’ve newly created. This is a different Kirk and Spock, a Scotty played by a particularly gifted comic actor, an Uhura played by an actress who can hold her own in an action adventure.

This film does well by the characters its cast members have created, and it is especially gratifying to see Pine’s callow Kirk earning greater maturity, and Quinto’s more human Spock wrestle (albeit too briefly) with his romance with Uhura and with the weight of being one of the only survivors of his homeworld’s destruction.

We’re reaching the point where I want to know more about these characters as much as I want to see echoes of the old cast I grew up on.

Credit for the success of the film may lie with its very smart screenwriters. For two movies now, having Simon Pegg play Scottie seemed like a fine lark, but having the comic writer/director cowrite the film (with TV writer Doug Jung, who cameos as Sulu’s partner) surely upped the game of this third entry. And Fast & Furious  franchise director Justin Lin turns in not only brisk, edge-of-seat action sequences, but strong character moments and a decided stylistic voice. A frequent trick is a disorient camera roll that communicates the groundlessness of space, where “up” is an arbitrary concept. Lin reinforces the emotional state of Kirk, a young Spock unsure of his next life move, and perhaps of Krall, who is revealed to have been unmoored in his own way.

If there’s a drawback, it’s only that the film is still a modern action flick, moves at such breakneck speed that it risks becoming a numbing visual blur. Also, the Enterprise gets destroyed (again), but at least it’s a vital story point that happens up front rather than as a tired attempt at a heart-wrenching finale. And it must be said, despite both those criticisms, the protracted, high-velocity takedown of the starship is a thing to behold.

Final point of note: After an initial, quiet acknowledgement of Nimoy’s passing (or rather, his timeline-tossed character, “Ambassador Spock”), his successor, Zachary Quinto, has time to give a simple, heartfelt eulogy that felt like a touching salute to both actor and character. And given the very recent death of Chekov actor Anton Yeltsin, one couldn’t help think of that second loss, as well. A final dedication in the credits to both men underscored that this Star Trek movie, at last, had real heart.