Star Trek Beyond Review
It’s been a cruel summer. In Nice last week, a truck tore through a crowd of revelers, killing at least 84 and grievously wounding scores more, leaving a battered if not broken France in its wake. In Turkey, around the same time, a military coup terrorized and rapidly destabilized the nation, killing almost 250 and resulting in thousands of arrests. In America this month, video footage of police officers gunning down two black men reignited the painful, necessary mission of ending police brutality and addressing systemic racism in a country that’s always been obfuscated by its dehumanizing darkness; its disorienting, devastating impact was also present in Dallas earlier this month, where five cops died during an attack by a sniper. And packaged in that brutal assault was another one of America’s most enduring enigmas: how to tackle preventing gun massacres in a society obsessed with the weapons that facilitate them. For a nation still reeling from the hateful carnage of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the sheer quantity of tragedy has been overwhelming.
There’s no escaping that we’re living in a world of far too many painful “posts”: post-Orlando, post-Baton Rouge, post-Nice, and post-Dallas now among them. And Hollywood often reflects that, turning out both angry, sickeningly violent fantasies like London Has Fallen and The Purge: Election Year, which directly wallow in twisted, topical iconography, and hot-seat dramas that grapple head-on with terrorism and questions of whether the war against it is putting our country’s soul on the line, like the drone-centric Eye in the Sky. Going to the multiplex, too, can sometimes mean being swamped with cinematic responses to the same issues audience members are given no choice but to confront out of the theater.
Enter Star Trek Beyond. The third chapter in Paramount’s rebooted take on the iconic Gene Roddenberry series, it finds the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise well into their five-year mission of exploration through the final frontier. Immediately, director Justin Lin makes it clear that it’s time to reap what J.J. Abrams, through the last two Treks, has sown, kicking off with a series of scenes that find the whole crew firing on all cylinders, working together seamlessly, a diverse, inclusive family more than a workplace.
Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) have as easygoing a buddy chemistry as any in the franchise, while Spock’s romance with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is still in play, even if it’s hit a rough patch as the film opens. Kirk has fully grown into his captain’s chair, exuding authority and sangfroid in his ship-wide addresses. And Sulu (John Cho), whose husband and child are introduced in an early scene that’s quietly thrilling in its normative nonchalance, remains one of the franchise’s best, most unabashedly cool characters.
That idea of the interstellar family was Roddenberry’s original vision, and it’s more intact here than it was in the past two films. Things have started to feel a little “episodic,” notes Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, now slightly graying and imbued with nearly Shatner-ian gravitas), but if that meta throwaway reference was to be followed through, the series in question would be a warm, hopeful piece of programming. Audiences coming into theaters will all carry varying degrees of weight around their neck after these past few weeks, and the neatest magic trick that Lin pulls off is depicting Trek‘s utopian universe and making it feel not only engaging but natural.
In these troubled political times, that’s one hell of a hook. We need escapism – and fortunately, Lin’s Star Trek entry is that rare Hollywood product that can provide it in full while still posing optimistic answers to the questions we’ve been seeing on every news channel. To the characters of Trek, inclusion is natural, unity is strength, and diversity is something worth celebrating. It’s the kind of sci-fi future we could all do worse than to lose ourselves in.
A lot of what makes Star Trek Beyond not only work gangbusters on a storytelling level (which it does) but as a thematically rich, conceptually in-step entry in this series comes down to its script, co-written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung with reverence and deep adulation for the spirit of adventure and camaraderie that’s always been at the core of the franchise. The dialogue pops and feels fitted perfectly to the characters, and Pegg and Jung smartly pair off the crew members in interesting, new ways to bring out fresh elements of their characters.
This movie works best when it’s leaning into the retro, goofy trappings of its forbearers, and although that means the film plays out much like an extended episode of the series, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In this new film, the stakes feel smaller, and the characters more completely sketched. It’s the first of the new films that’s not too busy mounting blockbuster setpieces to focus on the kind of authentically, giddily geeky energy that Roddenberry pioneered.
The film’s main action (which I’ll touch upon only fleetingly to avoid spoilers) finds the crew going up against a nasty, reptilian villain named Krall (Idris Elba, hidden beneath extensive latex but faring far better than Oscar Isaac did in his comparable, awful X-Men: Apocalypse role), who’s after an artifact in the Enterprise’s hull and commands a brutal, swarm-like armada of ships capable of bringing down spaceships within minutes. He’s a great antagonist, both because Elba can do just about anything and because Krall represents both a physical and ideological threat to Starfleet. For reasons not worth spoiling here, he’s convinced that the Enterprise’s crew has one clear, hugely exploitable weakness – their unity – and many of his tactics rely on either dividing and conquering or manipulating his adversaries’ compassion and concern for one another.
And worryingly, he seems to be onto something, sending the Enterprise down in flames through the atmosphere of his alien world, taking most of its crew prisoner, and soon setting out on the warpath. Only a few key characters escape his initial assault, including Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin, both a heartache and a wonder to behold on screen), all scattered to the winds with no mandate other than to rescue their imperiled fellow officers. And so they set out, Bones and Spock bickering even as they realize a mutual respect, Kirk and Chekov functioning as an unexpectedly dynamic duo as they comb the wreckage of the Enterprise, and Scotty getting the film’s best match-up with an alien warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, under zebra-stripe makeup and wielding a bowstaff) whose vendetta against Krall is personal.
Being the blockbuster that it is, Star Trek Beyond does put together some impressive action sequences, many of which owe a visual debt to Lin’s speed-freak past on the Fast and Furious franchise. Kirk inexplicably manages to find a motorcycle to ride through craggy alien landscapes, Jaylah faces off with one of Krall’s cronies, and the whole team comes together for some dizzying chase sequences. Luckily, those moments mostly feel earned, even if the finale descends into overkill in pulling out all the stops and requiring (probably by studio mandate) that Kirk engage in hand-to-hand combat with Krall.
Nevertheless, the spectacle doesn’t feel like the point this time around. Star Trek Beyond is more concerned with alchemy, exploring the truly terrific characters at its disposal and seeing how they function when thrust into the kind of fun-loving, restrained storyline that defined the travels of their TV predecessors. There are definite nits to pick – a flimsy plot point here, a stilted line here – but by and large, Star Trek Beyond is something its predecessors arguably were not; it’s at once a good film for modern audiences and a great Star Trek film for Trekkies who’ve felt their franchise become lost in space.
Surprisingly retro, character-driven and steeped in Trek tradition, Star Trek Beyond offers a simple, but much-need message of strength in unity and power in diversity.