A return to form for the science fiction franchise.
The recent rebooted Star Trek franchise has always had something of an identity crisis. The first entry into the new continuity marked a stark departure from the franchise’s roots, with director J.J Abrams opting for a more action oriented approach to the film, more in line with something like Star Wars (hmmm) than Star Trek. While the first film was well received, many felt Star Trek had abandoned its core thematic values. This was amplified even more when Star Trek: Into Darkness doubled down the action approach, while at the same time borrowing ideas and plot threads from previous Star Trek films without any real thematic cohesion.
Star Trek: Beyond marks the first film in the rebooted franchise to not feature Abrams in the director’s chair, instead employing the talent of Fast & Furious director Justin Lin to take charge of the Enterprise and its crew. There were worries that Lin would take the franchise even farther down the mindless action rabbit hole, and that we would never get a quote unquote “real” Star Trek film again. And with the release of Beyond, those fears have firmly been put to rest.
Star Trek: Beyond picks up in year three of a five-year the USS Enterprise’s deep space voyage. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is becoming restless, having something of an existential crisis. In a chat with McCoy (Karl Urban) on his birthday, Kirk begins questioning his motives for joining star fleet, and again discusses his rampant daddy issues. Kirk is now one year older than his father was the day he died, and Kirk is struggling to live up to his father’s legacy. After contemplating leaving the Enterprise, Kirk and Co. are dispatched on a rescue mission to a far off nebula where they are attacked by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba). After a series of unfortunate events, the Enterprise is destroyed and the crew split up on an uncharted planet.
What’s so refreshing about Beyond is how small the scale feels in comparison to the previous two films. While the previous films dealt with saving the world/galaxy/star fleet/whatever, Beyond has much simpler ambitions. Survive, regroup, and get the hell off the planet. Sure, Kirk and co. have to stop Krall as well, but the majority of the film focuses on the crew’s struggle on the planet. Beyond feels like an extended episode of The Original Series, and what makes it so successful is the attention it pays to its characters. This smaller scale allows Beyond to give expanded focus to its cast, and play them off each other in interesting ways.
After the Enterprise’s destruction, the crew is split up into multiple groups. Beyond smartly mixes up the team’s dynamic by putting them into more unusual pairings. Instead of using the classic Kirk and Spock team up, Kirk is left with Chekov, and Spock is begrudgingly paired with McCoy. The rest of the crew are paired in equally unusual ways, and it’s this odd couple dynamic Beyond plays with that helps breathe life into these familiar characters.
The cast really come into their own in Beyond. Chris Pine is increasingly becoming an iconic rendition of Captain Kirk, as is Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and Karl Urban’s McCoy. The relationship between this three has remained the core of the rebooted franchise, and the chemistry they have with one another really helps to sell it. This extends to the rest of the cast as well, but none of them own their respective roles quite as well as those three. Idris Elba is solid as well, but I felt Elba’s acting prowess was wasted for the first two-thirds of the film. It isn’t until Beyond’s final act that Krall was able to make a firm impression on me, where the film allows Elba to truly shine and provide the stellar performance we’ve come to expect from him.
Beyond is the first film in this new trilogy to not be penned by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, instead the film is written by Scotty actor and Star Trek fanatic Simon Pegg. Pegg’s script brings a lot more humor to the film than the Orci and Kurtzman films, but he does it in a way that feels organic and true to the characters. The film isn’t quippy for the sake of being quippy, the humor occurs naturally from the situations the characters find themselves in, which again exhibits the awesome character work Beyond achieves.
Since it isn’t an Orci and Kurtzman script, it also means the film isn’t riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies, and is able to maintain a semblance of narrative coherence. While the story of Beyond isn’t anything to write home about (seriously, the film is pretty predictable), its serviceable enough to allow the characters to really shine through, which greatly works in the film’s favor.
There’s a lot to like in Star Trek: Beyond, it’s got dazzling and engaging action sequences (one in particular involves a Beastie Boys that I found to be exceedingly effective), a fun if simple pulpy sci-fi story, and genuine Star Trek fan service that adds to the emotionality of the film, instead of taking away from it like Into Darkness. But the reason Beyond is such an enjoyable summer popcorn film comes down to its characters, and Beyond knocks them all out of the park. It feels nice to be excited about the Star Trek franchise again, because if Beyond is any indication, it seems the creative team have finally hit a nice balance of fun summer action, and the character work that has come to define the franchise.