The Star Trek cinematic reboot series has been an interesting exercise to dissect. Rather than a new set of characters, the folks at Paramount opted to reboot the classic TV/Original movie series that everyone knew and loved. Given the love those characters and their actors still have from their fanbase, it was a tough idea but, I’d have to say, they’ve managed it well. Under the tutelage of writer/director JJ Abrams and his team over at Bad Robot, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness have been successful and mostly well-received movies. Now with Abrams departing to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year, the reigns for Star Trek Beyond were turned over to Fast & Furious director Justin Lin. It’d be appropriate to be apprehensive for such a major change. But does Lin deliver?
Beyond takes place three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission into the outermost reaches of space. They taken part in exploring deep space, encountering new civilizations and beginning the process of building bridges between them and the Federation. Things are going smoothly, which is creating a sense of ennui in Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). He’s wondering what he wants to do with his life. A similar sense of doubt has crept on Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) who is struggling with the needs of his Vulcan people. It is during a rescue mission in deep space where they and the Enterprise run into Krall (Idris Elba) and his band of warriors who disable the Enterprise and strand their crew on their planet. Cast adrift, injured and desperate for answers, the various members of the crew – Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) – set about finding a way to escape Krall. Along the way, they find Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the last survivor of another crew that fell into Krall’s hands. What is Krall after? Why does he harbor such hatred for the Federation?
Let me answer the question about Justin Lin first: Yes, yes, he does deliver. The guy who reinvigorated the Fast & Furious franchise brings his eye for action here and it works very well. The big action set pieces are frenetic and fun. Whether it’s Krall’s attack on the Enterprise (one of the highlights of the movie) or the various fight scenes between the heroes and his henchmen, Lin makes a Star Trek movie that’s action-packed but that doesn’t lose sight of where things are or how they’re happening. He combines the look that Abrams created for this new Trek but is not beholden to it. (For one, the infamous lens flare of the Enterprise is conspicuous for its absence). If he continues leading the Trek series, I don’t think I’ll have a problem.
As for the cast, at this point, they’re old hats to their roles now. Pine, Quinto, Saldana and the rest fit comfortably as Kirk, Spock, Uhura, etc. I will highlight a couple of performances though. Karl Urban has delivered, since the first movie, an incredible performance as Dr. “Bones” McCoy. He’s been acerbic, yet humorous; cantankerous but loyal and embodied the best of what DeForest Kelley brought to that role. Here he gets a greater chance to shine and riff off of Quinto’s Spock and they’re great. Simon Pegg does well once again to provide levity and fun, particularly as he builds a relationship with Boutella’s Jaylah. Boutella, who did a good job in Kingsman: The Secret Service, has a bigger role here and does well as the alien warrior who’s been fending for herself and becomes key for the Enterprise’s crew to succeed.
Sadly Idris Elba has little to do for most of this movie beyond glare, scream and threaten. And that’s not because it’s all he can do. The script by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung (with credits to Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay and John D. Payne) wants to keep the mystery of Krall close to its chest and only unspools it at the third act. On the one hand, this has the effect of making the audience share in the same level of confusion that the Enterprise’s crew has as to why they’re attacked or how to survive. On the other, it leaves the heft of the emotional payoff to occur right when the action has been built up. Suffice it to say there’s a reason for the animosity Krall bears against the Federation.
That said, don’t let me speak so badly of the script that Pegg & Jung crafted. Because overall, it works and it does something I begged they do after Into Darkness: it’s original. By which I mean, it’s not a remake of a previous Star Trek movie nor does it mine the previous TV shows for its bad guy. They created a new idea and one that touches on something I don’t know that any other Trek had touched upon. Namely, the idea that maybe not everyone wants to be in the Federation and the side effects of throwing ships and crews into the vastness of space.
Consider that, for its entire existence, the United Federation of Planets has been considered good and presented as the utopian future for humanity. There’s no internal strife and war is something that only occurs when facing off against threats like the Romulans or the Klingons – war-seeking empires. The Federation has enough resource and willpower to explore the heavens. As it does, it builds bridges with other space-faring civilizations and many join. But what of the ones who don’t want to join? What of the ones who are desperate to be left alone? And what of those sent out to find them? They’re put in harm’s way in the name of the Federation’s good, unsure of ever seeing home again.
It’s this malaise that has struck both Kirk and Spock at the movie’s start. Their mission is going well. Their crew functions like a well-oiled machine. This leads to Kirk to begin to question his place, his reason for joining Starfleet and what he wants to be. As his birthday/anniversary of his father’s death approaches, Kirk wonders if he’s doing what is best as captain. Meanwhile Spock is having more doubts over his role within Starfleet given the continuous needs of his decimated people. But their doubts are less to do with their situation and more to do with their purpose. When things run smoothly and there’s peace, for warriors like Kirk and Spock, there’s a sense of confusion and that maybe they’re no longer needed. It obviously comes to a head with their clash against Krall and his minions.
The questions are in there, but they’re not hitting you over the head with them. Overall, Star Trek Beyond is more interested in being a good sci-fi action film and on that it delivers. It’s fun and funny and action-packed and, in my estimation, a better movie than Into Darkness because it’s unburdened from trying to bring to life an iconic villain or series-defining moments. Free to be itself, Beyond is one of the better movies out this summer. If this is the end for the Star Trek reboot series, it goes on a high. And if more movies are made, I hope they take the best things this movie does and keep pushing towards the goals of entertaining, fun and question-filled science-fiction. We always need more of that.