Ever since JJ Abrams launched the rebooted, more action-oriented Star Trek franchise in 2009, the Enterprise crew’s five-year mission has remained tantalisingly out of reach. The first in the series – an effervescent, often charming introduction to the new Kirk, Spock, Bones and so on – teased the possibility of space exploration with its “where no one has gone before” voice over. But 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness saw the mission postponed yet again thanks in part to the murderous antics of one John Harrison – a rasping-voiced, predatory Benedict Cumberbatch.
Star Trek Beyond, on the other hand, finally sees Kirk and his crew head off into the final frontier. The emphasis on fast-pacing and action from the previous two movies is still front-and-centre, but Beyond still feels more like an episode of the Original Series writ large than either of JJ Abrams’ earlier entries.
Taking place around two-and-a-half years after the events of Into Darkness, Beyond sees Kirk (Chris Pine) in a not dissimilar position to his analogue in 1982’s The Wrath Of Khan. He’s older, maybe a bit less impulsive, and increasingly aware of his own mortality. “Here’s to perfect eyesight and a full head of hair,” says Bones (Karl Urban), raising a glass of something alcoholic in a disarmingly intimate and low-key early scene.
You may have read about the behind-the-scenes changing of the guard on Beyond; Simon Pegg and Doug Jung took over as screenwriters, while Roberto Orci (who co-wrote Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness) is now a producer. With JJ Abrams decamping to other pastures (a small franchise called Star Wars), Fast & Furious director Justin Lin stepped into the breach, and despite all the changes, Beyond’s opening third feels perfectly assured. We’re taken on a tour of the Enterprise, where the rigours of space travel are taking their toll; in a passing nod to John Carpenter’s Dark Star, exploration is revealed to be monotonous and frustrating as well as exhilarating. Kirk even comments that the days out in space begin to roll into one, like years spent stuck in a submarine.
Not that things remain too quiet for long. Sent on a mission to the other side of a nebula to help a stricken alien space ship, the crew find themselves scattered across an uncharted planet and far beyond the Federation’s reach. There, a ruthless space fascist named Krall (Idris Elba, almost unrecognisable beneath facial prosthetics akin to the ones worn by Louis Gosset Jr in Enemy Mine) aims to get hold of an ancient and deadly weapon. Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets an alien warrior named Jaylah (Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella), who’s initially wary of the crew but eventually becomes a useful ally.
Without giving anything more away, Beyond becomes a breezily entertaining survival adventure where we get to see familiar characters interact in refreshingly new ways. Bones and Spock (Zachary Quinto) enjoy some great, sparky scenes together, as do Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin, who tragically died after filming on the movie wrapped). If there’s a consistent factor across the Star Trek movies released since 2009, it’s the chemistry between the cast – and that remains true in Beyond. Karl Urban’s Bones gets more to do this time, and he’s a real highlight. Series newcomer Jaylah, by the same token, is such a cool, engaging character that she fits right in as though she’s always been a part of the line-up.
Where Beyond falters is in the villain department. Krall looks and sounds imposing, but Elba’s given little chance to project his charisma full all those prosthetics while the plot gives him little to do other than make the occasional speech or idle threat. His evil scheme and lust for a powerful super-weapon also feel rote, while his army of rank-and-file goons run about in anonymous-looking space armour that could have come from a Dead Space videogame.
When it comes to action – and boy, there’s a lot of action – Lin’s direction sometimes borders on the fussy. Many shots – particularly aboard the enterprise near the beginning – are nicely framed and lit, yet Lin occasionally has a tendency to go wild with his swooping cameras and digital edits, where one shot flows into another so the camera becomes like a drone, flying in and around the action and pitching and shaking. One early action scene feels overlong and chaotic enough to induce air sickness.
If nothing else, Star Trek Beyond is eager to please, as it fuses moments of broad comedy, explosions, battles and chases with quieter character-building moments – including one genuinely moving homage to the late Leonard Nimoy. The result’s fun but oddly lacking in a sense of outright peril or drama; it’s telling that Beyond’s most poignant or funny moments are all spawned from nods to the old TV shows and their cast.
Beyond seems so keen to be all things to all movie-goers that it winds up feeling a little frivolous. Die-hard Trek fans will likely be heartened that the movie includes more exploration, problem-solving and a general sense of what I can only call Trekkiness than the previous two movies. Anyone who disliked the less-than-scientific sci-fi elements of Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, however – the red matter, Tribble experimentation and so on – probably won’t be impressed by some of Beyond’s goofier bits. As our esteemed editor Simon Brew pointed out, one plot point is remarkably similar to one in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!
Nevertheless, Beyond moves at a fast pace, and younger viewers will probably enjoy the humour and the light good-naturedness of it all. There’s the nagging sensation that there isn’t much in Star Trek Beyond that will stick in the mind for more than a day after viewing it; the sense of occasion and drama in, say, The Wrath Of Khan, The Search For Spock or First Contact are conspicuously absent. But once again, it’s the quality of the characters and the actors who inhabit them that make this a worthy evening’s entertainment. Coupled with Michael Giacchino’s uplifting score, the crew of the Enterprise remain as fun to spend time with as they ever were.
Star Trek Beyond is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd July.