Thirteenth time’s nearly the charm for the long-running film series, which needed to make up for the ground lost by JJ Abrams’ 2013 superfluous Wrath of Khan remake. This time around the Powers That Be went with a different style of director — Justin Lin, mastermind behind four Fast and the Furious entries, including the one where nearly all the heroes teamed up and became the AAA Avengers with their very own Fast and Furious Cinematic Speedway. Lin knows a little about diving into established universes, and a lot about spectacularly timed whiz-bang action sequences. I assumed sight unseen that Star Trek Beyond would therefore have some of the best starship battle sequences in all of Trekdom (or at least it had better), but would he be capable of the kind of cerebral depth that the old-time fans demand from their Enterprise crew?
Short version for the unfamiliar: Now on Year Three of their five-year mission, Our Heroes head toward a distress call that goes horribly awry when their beloved ship is besieged by an alien armada of fast ‘n’ furious flyers, like a school of kamikaze piranha with spiked-steel nosecones capable of shredding other ships into ribbons. Their leader, a big ball of anger named Krall (The Wire‘s Idris Elba, buried under too much makeup), has a mad-on for Starfleet and plans for a MacGuffin that will give him the power of space genocide. Their initial skirmish leaves the crew stranded and separated on a strange planet where their keys to saving the day are a flashy new friend (see above photo) and a mystery the Federation had all but forgotten.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, and Scotty’s li’l buddy Keenser (Deep Roy) are all back. New Starfleet personnel manning the Yorktown base include Shohreh Aghdashloo (24, X-Men: The Last Stand), and JJ Abrams’ buddy Greg Grunberg, fresh off his role as an X-Wing pilot in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the category of actors I missed on my first viewing, Community‘s Danny Pudi is apparently some alien guy, and Shea Whigham (Marvel’s Agent Carter) has a brief voiceover role in the first scene as another angry alien leader who has no time for human shenanigans.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In the early quiet scenes, much is pondered about living beyond the legacies left for us. Just as the movie seeks to leave its own footprint in the Trek universe instead of reusing the work of previous storytellers, Kirk (Chris Pine, sounding more mature than ever) is likewise trying to figure out life and purpose beyond “be like my dad”. His good friend Spock, whose relationship status with Uhura is in a state of flux, receives the news that OG Spock, the legendary Leonard Nimoy, has passed away. Spock (Zachary Quinto, doubling down on his half-human side) is well aware he and Future Spock are technically two different Spocks, but he wonders if remaining Kirk’s head sidekick is really the best way to honor his alt-timeline self’s memory, or the best way to grow up to be just like him, or maybe a thing to avoid so as not to cross the streams, or what.
In the other corner, Krall’s deeply entrenched military background makes him those one of men-of-war who forget that peace is usually the long-term objective in any given conflict. War is a harsh and often terrible thing, but in many cases the point is negotiating coexistence, not brutal annihilation and certainly not infinite murdering. It’s not entirely an inapplicable lesson for today’s political climate, where some leaders forget Earth functions better when countries can work with each other than when they’re plotting each other’s extinction.
Other characters take turns learning lessons about overcoming fears, trusting in leadership, and three cheers for teamwork, especially when that team who’s working it is the crew of the Enterprise.
The audience in turn has to find it in themselves to stay strong whenever the late Anton Yelchin is onscreen. Chekov and Kirk end up travel buddies for a time, giving them a chance to bond and to put the young navigator’s science skills to use for, retroactively and tragically, one last wild ride. They try not to skimp on his screen time, and one brief moment near the end was intentionally edited for maximum lump-in-throat effect for those who pay close attention.
Nitpicking? As viewers can surmise from the trailers, yes, the Enterprise is pretty much blown up AGAIN. The pride of Starfleet has a much sadder demolition track record in the movies than it ever did in any of the long-running TV shows. In the film’s defense, that’s the crux of the first act. The ship doesn’t fade quietly or quickly, and its remains are the stage for numerous scenes long after you’d expect the whole of it to be reduced to one mountainous lump of metallic powder. But still: again?
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’re already aware there’s somehow a motorcycle in this. I’m a big fan of old-fashioned practical stunt shows and willing to grant them leeway on the flimsiest of excuses, but a couple of moments in which biker-Kirk is blatantly all-CG was my biggest disappointment and defeated the purpose of writing Evil Knievel thrills into Trek in the first place.
Idris Elba fans may be dismayed that he spends too many scenes covered in restrictive alien headgear that masks his expressiveness and dilutes the impact of his best tantrums. Eventually Elba reaches a point late in the game where we get an impassioned performance that’s not entirely made of post-production ADR, but some patience was required to get there.
For a radical change of pace from previous Trek works, Justin Lin, his effects teams, and/or Fast/Furious cinematographer Stephen Windon turn the cameras practically gyroscopic as our point of reference in space shifts, tilts, flips, spins, denies any attempts to focus on horizons, and nearly induces vertigo like a You Are There astronaut training video. One character reminds us early on in philosophical tones (badly paraphrased here), “There is no ‘up’ in space. There is only you.” Later the hunt for direction becomes literal for the audience. If you ever wanted to know what zero-G disorientation might look like in a spaceship bereft of (fictional) artificial gravity, several scenes give you a good idea, a few of them incomprehensible for lack of reference points. Like the 5th-dimensional antics of Interstellar, it’s an interesting attempt at new visualizations never before attempted, that may look better in the hands of some future filmmaker who finds a way to improve on these initial, confusing attempts.
My wife pieced together Krall’s true motives a good half-hour before the big reveal. I was too busy letting the virtual roller coaster ride carry me away, though I’d guessed the hivemind aspect of Krall’s swarm from their behavior in the trailers alone. We agreed after the fact that, Elba notwithstanding, Krall isn’t the most original bitter soldier around. He reminded me in ways of a Rambo gone to the Dark Side, while Anne saw an unflattering parallel to Nu-Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness.
When the ending inevitably arrives, neither Kirk nor Spock have the pleasure of delivering big speeches to confirm that their personal quandaries are resolved. They just…kind of are and they move on. Of all the old-Trek tropes of yore, I miss Big Speeches most.
Also, in one crucial scene involving spaceship takeoff, characters keep talking about “terminal velocity” when I’m almost certain they mean “escape velocity”. Then again, my last schoolroom physics class was in 1989. If aeronautics have updated some concepts since then, I wouldn’t know.
So what’s to like? I’d be more annoyed if the overall production weren’t the funnest circus in town. Star Trek Beyond was co-written by Simon “Scotty” Pegg with Dark Blue co-creator Doug Jung (who has a small, silent role as someone very close to Sulu) as a part-thinking, part-action, all-fun vehicle with occasional references for longtime fans (the Wrath of Khan birthday chat, a bit from “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and opportunities for the cast to continue inhabiting these inherited roles to their fullest.
Karl Urban arguably has more fun than anyone with his crankiness dialed up to 10 while trying to help his two best friends sort out their issues and while saving their lives. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura stands her ground and takes the upper hand in as many situations as possible. Spock grapples with his limitations and a bit of forced humility, and Kirk strides inexorably toward his destiny to become America’s next William Shatner in such a good way that I finally, truly accepted Pine as Kirk. And whenever two or more crew members share a scene, chemistry ensues. As their guide and sometimes bodyguard, Sofia Boutella’s warrior fits in well and has her own arc to see through, as a self-sufficient castaway with her own ghosts to face down, admirably so when it’s her turn in the final battles.
While the story structure is kept simple, the surroundings show some welcome touches of inventiveness. Lin’s deft combination of split-second timing, down-to-the-wire editing, and properly amplified sound effects made me enjoy the pilot for CBS’ Scorpion more than I probably should’ve, and the same happened again here, whether in deep-space onslaughts, in the midst of planet-surface wreckage fights, or in the climactic chase scenes set in the blue skies inside/above Yorktown station. All of this is set to yet another Michael Giacchino classic-Trek-movie score with its traditions of sweeping movie happiness and space drama and whatnot. And in the few moments where today’s popular music has to be plugged in, I was shocked and surprised that Lin settled on a couple of personal-favorite tunes instead of going back to the same AC/DC well that too many other action films have scraped dry.
The flaws might annoy me more when I see Star Trek Beyond a second time someday, but I was willing to forgive them while I was entranced and firmly along for the first ride. It’s possibly the best of the current canon, though I’d rank it overall in the high-middle of the series — below The Voyage Home, Khan, First Contact, Undiscovered Country, and possibly Search for Spock. I’d have to give some thought as to how to rearrange the rest of the list, but I’m likely to rewatch Beyond‘s action set-pieces again and again on YouTube more than I ever did with the last four Trek films combined.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Star Trek Beyond end credits, but they lead off with brief dedications to both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, so it’s just as well because some viewers may have been too busy sniffling to pay attention to any more scenes anyway.