Star Trek Beyond, 2016.
Directed by Justin Lin.
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba.
Three years into their five year mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise face their biggest test yet upon encountering a hostile alien force in unexplored territory, which sees Captain James T. Kirk truly discover what it means to be a Starfleet Captain…
We were all a bit worried about this, weren’t we? Let’s be honest. Star Trek Beyond could have been quite the disaster. A production which changed gears very late on, with a script by co-star Simon Pegg & writer Doug Jung written late in the day, not to mention riding in over three years later off the back of Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that’s depreciated significantly in the public consciousness since release as a picture which didn’t really feel like Star Trek at all, and lastly that J.J. Abrams walked to jump ship and direct Star Wars, leaving Fast & Furious director Justin Lin–hardly the first name you’d think of to replace Abrams–to take the helm. Us Trek die-hards were more than a little scared that the big 50th anniversary celebration would turn out to be a disappointing damp squib, not in touch with the fanbase or the very heart and soul of the franchise we love. It’s a joy therefore to report that Star Trek Beyond is not only a pretty damn great Star Trek film, but it’s equally a fun, well paced action adventure in its own right, and if it never quite matches Abrams’ show stopping 2009 reboot, it runs it damn close in many places.
Here’s what Beyond gets right: it understands what Star Trek is, perhaps even more than the first Abrams movie, and most definitely much more than Into Darkness. It’s aware that Trek at the movies often pivoted around Captain Kirk’s own understanding of who he was, and what made him Captain of the USS Enterprise, and Pegg, Jung & Lin really follow through on that with Chris Pine here; while the mention of his continued daddy issues is a touch clunky, the Wrath of Khan-esque drinking conversation with Bones (Karl Urban) and Kirk’s application to become a Vice-Admiral touches not only on his own struggle to understand what being a Captain means, but cuts to the very nature of what Star Trek is about – exploration, discovery and why the Federation does what it does.
Now of course, this being a summer blockbuster, the crew don’t exactly explore very far before they get their arses handed to them and are forced to survive, but in throwing the crew onto a decidedly alien planet, facing a new alien threat, Lin is able to recreate with a bigger budget and 21st century stylistics the same colourful vibe of exploration the 60’s show would give us every week, as Kirk & co dropped onto another alien world. That’s what was missing from the previous films, and Beyond pivots the entire story around it, even if that world & the aliens on it aren’t given nearly enough individual attention as they deserved.
It works in two other key ways as well: firstly, the ensemble nature of the story. Everyone in the Enterprise crew gets a fairly equal share of things to do, even when it’s principally a story about Kirk rediscovering his mojo. Spock (Zachary Quinto) not only gets a subplot that honours the late Leonard Nimoy and the 50th anniversary in, especially in one moment toward the end, tear-jerking fashion, but in the tradition of the older movies he spends most of the film stranded with Bones, allowing them to trade the same kind of loaded barbs of friendship we so enjoyed Nimoy & DeForest Kelley throwing at one another back in the day; Sulu (John Cho) continues to mature into a de facto leader (and it was a joy to see the LGBT angle be incorporated without fanfare, even if it’s a shame a kiss was apparently cut), while untethering Uhura (Zoe Saldana) from mooning over Spock allows her to be a much more functional member of the crew.
Chekov (in sadly his last appearance, given the sad death of Anton Yelchin) is delightfully bubbly as Kirk’s right hand man through much of this, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) once again plays a key but unobtrusive role in the story, especially via introducing Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, who frankly steals the show with a confident, heroic turn as a terrific alien character. If there’s a weak link it’s possibly the villain, Idris Elba’s Krall; Elba is great, inflecting him with a genuinely alien mode of speech, and when he’s on screen he holds it, but while the character is a suitable threat when around, he’s just not nearly around enough, and there are definitely some major question marks around the ultimate revelations surrounding who the villain is, and quite how ultimately he’s capable of the destruction he delivers throughout.
The second successful element is continuity, because Beyond really seems to understand the universe it’s part of. Not just continuity within the films it’s birthed from over the last decade, but the TV shows and movies before that; given the time travel shenanigans that created this new universe, Star Trek still tethers to the decades of output we’ve watched & invested time in, and with several key references and visual callbacks to, principally, Star Trek Enterprise, it shows just how much Pegg & Jung know their Trek, and have a respect for canon many fans have feared the Abrams regime simply didn’t. It just added an extra layer for Trek fans that made it so enjoyable, and endears the movie around when it’s playing in the same field as all the other tentpole blockbusters, throwing action beats at you every five minutes.
Credit to Lin though because, while the script isn’t perfect and the plot certainly has holes, he keeps the action rattling alongside the light hearted comedy and fun without it feeling forced, and utilises elements that had Trek fans worried (the motorcycle, the Beastie Boys) in a context that make sense and add to the material. The whole endeavour still lacks even the sense of intelligence and commentary that the original or Next Generation movies had when they were bigger on action, but what it loses in allegory it makes up for in character work, interplay, and entertainment.
Ultimately, that’s why Star Trek Beyond is a success: it’s fun. It has a sweetness and lightness of touch which recall the best elements of the 1960’s TV show, and finally seems to have jettisoned the youthful angst that clouded certainly the second film, and has positioned the crew of the Enterprise in a place where they really could grow & mature into these characters for another two or three films. Before this, honestly, many of us could probably have let the revived Original Series crew go, and look forward to a new Trek show with new characters, but now… you know, Kirk, Spock et al deserves to keep on exploring.
As long as future Star Trek movies following this crew remember the tenets of Trek, fused with the action and adventure theatrics Beyond delivers, it could be an increasingly enjoyable franchise. Keep it Star Trek Into Light, not Darkness, and we’ll happily keep boldly going with you for many years to come.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★