Let’s pretend Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t happen. That seemed to the opinion of fans going into Star Trek Beyond, but more than that, it seems to be the inherent approach of Justin Lin and his team in making Beyond. In time for Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary, Beyond, this movie takes the template developed by J.J. Abrams in his two movies, keeps the cast and high tech production values, and creates a story that builds on those films and infuses them with the heart and heritage of Gene Roddenberry‘s “Wagon Train to the Stars.” In essence, this may be the most Star Trek Star Trek film we’ve seen in some time.
The big complaint about Star Trek movies generally is that they aren’t able to funnel the two core features that made the various Star Trek series so great: the spirit of exploration and examining moral quandaries through sci-fi allegory. That’s not to compare Beyond to classics like “City on the Edge of Forever” or “Let this Be Your Last Battlefield”, but there’s finally more to the plot than a bad guy out to get revenge on Earth. Here. the Enterprise is out in deep space, encountering new worlds and life forms, boldly going, and so on, and so forth. Then the bad guy appears, and with him are real stakes, some genuine poignancy, and most importantly, at no point does anyone go back to the Wrath of Khan well.
Look, we all love Wrath of Khan, but let’s not ignore the fact that there was something interesting at the heart of Into Darkness before Abrams and his screenwriters latched on to the idea that flipping Kirk and Spock’s roles in the climax was the height of brilliance. The inference that humanity can lose itself to cynicism and despair in the face of disaster, sacrificing our ideals for creating security with expediency has interesting moral ground to explore, and Beyond’s bad guy Krall, played with menace and drive by Idris Elba, has a similar backstory. This is a villain that’s informed by the idea that in all of us there’s a struggle to get past one’s primal instinct and evolve with the times, yet someone us can’t, and more importantly, don’t want to.
Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) experiences some of that. He’s more than halfway through the Entreprise’s five-year mission and is on the cusp of his birthday, marking exactly one more year of life than his father got to live. Kirk is at a crossroads, unsure if exploring the galaxy’s distant corners is what he’s made for, and uncertain that he’s living up to the aspirations of his father. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also having an existential crisis. Learning of the passing of his older self from the future (the late great Leonard Nimoy), the Enterprise’s first mate is thinking about leaving Starfleet. All this personal stuff is put on the back burner though when a rescue mission goes awry and the Enterprise is ambushed and destroyed by the shrewd and merciless Krall.
It seems odd to spoil the idea that the Enterprise bites it in the midst of the film, but it’s at the end of the first act, and it is a brutal and harrowing affair that pushes our space-faring heroes to the brink. The move does allow the story to do something Abrams was want to do in his Trek movies, and that’s let the crew outside for some fresh air. Spending most of the film planet side shakes things up, as does tag-teaming members of the crew to go off on their separate adventures. This is where Lin’s skill with ensembles, developed over several Fast and Furious movies, comes into play, knowing what odd couples can create the most chemistry and insight into the story.
By far, the best insight of Lin and co-screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung is to re-align “the trinity” to the center of the film. Seeing Kirk, Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) together again, albeit played by different actors, does a lot for Beyond’s alchemy, specifically the back and forth between Quinto and Urban who recreate the old ying and yang between Nimoy and DeForest Kelly very well. It speaks to a level of comfort amongst all the actors – Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, and the late Anton Yelchin included – that they’ve grown into the iconic parts and are now making them their own. Meanwhile, Sofia Boutella as the alien warrior Jaylah is a great addition, and a wonderful foil for the returning crew.
The emphasis on character comes thankfully at the expense of another mystery box. Although there are questions about Krall’s identity and his motivation, the answers to which I figured it out early, I wasn’t sitting their waiting for the other shoe to drop like I was in the case of “John Harrison” in Into Darkness. The conundrum of Krall too will be fairly recognizable to fans of the original series, and that’s all I’ll say on the subject. There are a lot cute nods to the 60s show, from Kirk remarking about how he’s ripped another shirt, to orchestral salutes to the works of Alexander Courage in Michael Giacchino’s score, to an utter touching appearance of the original actors that almost brought a tear to my eye.
Technically, the movie is up to scratch with lots of great action and set pieces. There’s no shortage of ambition, and naturally Lin is an expert at executing extravagant sci-fi spectacle, but there are times when the director’s Fast and Furiousness tends to ping you in the back of your mind. A scene with Kirk on a motorbike and Jaylah fighting hand-to-hand with one of Krall’s minions is practically Fast and Furious cosplay, like a scene for that franchise that was choreographed but never staged. On the other hand, that style does add a certain flare to the outer space scenes as Lin shows off the Enterprise and other ships in fascinating new ways. It also seems like a lot of time and energy was spent designing the magnificence of the Yorktown space station, which, as presented, is a setting you want to get lost in exploring.
Ultimately, I left the theater at the end of Star Trek Beyond with the same feeling I had when I departed after the closing credits of Star Trek in 2009: I want to see another! Hopefully whoever is behind the inevitable Star Trek 4 keeps in mind what Lin rediscovered in Beyond: character-based action, the thrill of the unknown, and unabashed idealism about the awesomeness of the future. It’s a tremendous gift on this 50th anniversary to not just get a Star Trek movie, but to get a very good one that honors the original version and stands proudly on its own, looking forward to further adventures. With this as a foundation, Star Trek looks good to live long and prosper for another 50.