Aside from everything else, Star Trek Beyond immediately provokes a massive sigh of relief. Following the cynical, ludicrous fan service and paranoid truther politics of the abysmal Star Trek Into Darkness, the franchise has gone through an overhaul and come out the better for it. With J.J. Abrams staying as producer but installing Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) as the new director, and cast member Simon Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung taking over screenwriting duties from the odious Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Trek has pivoted back to a simpler, more traditional approach. Star Trek Beyond evokes the spirit of the original series better than the previous two films in the so-called Kelvin timeline, getting past the flaws it does have with humor, great character moments, and some nicely placed nostalgia that doesn’t hit you over the head.
As the film opens, the Enterprise is 966 (Trekkers will grasp the meaning of that number) days into this crew’s five-year mission of exploration — yes, the damn ship finally got away from Earth for this entry — and we catch up with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) just as he’s getting out of a scrape involving relations with a new alien race. From that amusing opening we get a somewhat more sober look at the state of the Enterprise crew, including its captain, after nearly three years in space: like life anywhere, it’s a mix of the marvelous and the mundane, the lonely and the loving, with a sly remark from Kirk about the “episodic” nature of their everyday existence. The original series touched on this in small ways — what it would be like to live with hundreds of others in space for years at a time — but never as succinctly and ambivalently as this.
After docking at the Yorktown, a combination space station/interplanetary hub that arches and twists around itself on a giant gravity wheel like something out of Escher — and where both Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are making some decisions about their respective futures — a ship appears out of a nearby nebula calling for a rescue mission. The Enterprise launches into action, probing the nebula and coming upon a hidden planet, where the crew and ship fall into a trap sprung by the baleful, malevolent Krall (Idris Elba), an almost classic Trek villain who gradually reveals layers of both his scheme and himself as our heroes struggle to survive and fight back.
A distress signal, a mysterious nebula, ancient alien technology and a long-missing pre-Federation starship — these are the elements that come into play in this story and if they sound like they’re right out of an original series episode, that’s probably no coincidence. Pegg and Jung have crafted what is essentially a feature-length segment of Star Trek: it’s spruced up with top-notch visual effects, given a modern spin with some hyper-adrenalized action sequences, but still centered on the crew that we love and their struggle with the strange circumstances they find themselves in. If I had to rate Star Trek Beyond in terms of the level of quality of each year of the original series, I would put it just a notch or two below the finer episodes of the first two seasons — only because it’s missing the moral dilemma that those stories often presented.
Pegg and Jung — and Lin, who proves here that he can handle small character moments as well as he handles tons of crashing vehicles — have a genuine fondness for these iconic characters that seemed absent from Star Trek Into Darkness. They also understand what causes them to tick in a way that makes sense when they are separated and broken down into smaller groups. The best moments come from Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), who spend most of the movie together and cut off from everyone else. The two officers have always represented two sides of Kirk’s personality — logic and cool rationalism vs. big emotion and empathy — and their differences are starkly defined here, albeit with some welcome humor (Urban is once again eerily good at invoking the spirit of the late, great DeForest Kelley).
But everyone else also gets their turn. Scotty (Pegg) provides some different comic relief as the engineer finds himself thrown together with an alien named Jaylah (well-played by Sofia Boutella from Kingsman: The Secret Service), who reveals herself to be an impressive ally. Meanwhile, Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are also paired, and there’s a gentle sense of Chekov’s admiration for his commander, who must live up to the responsibility of being a leader to the young ensign. This ties into an earlier scene — a discussion over drinks between Kirk and McCoy that’s a nicer hat-tip to The Wrath of Khan than the whole last movie — where Kirk wonders whether he can ever live up to his father’s legacy as a Starfleet officer. That arc does not get as fully developed as it could have, but the resonance remains. Sadly, it’s bittersweet to watch Yelchin and be reminded of the gifted actor we lost just last month (the film is dedicated to him and Leonard Nimoy, whose own 2015 passing is woven into the film in two brief yet poignant scenes).
As for our villain, the less said the better, but Elba brings out a mix of rage and melancholy — even under a ton of prosthetics — that makes Krall easily the most effective of the antagonists in the Kelvin timeline films, and a damn sight better than some bad guys in earlier Trek pictures too. While a few of his machinations are muddied by the fast pace of the movie — we suspect a scene or two clarifying a couple of points were left in the editing bay — he’s got a purpose and back story that are well fleshed-out and even reminded this fan in a very subtle way of a thematic element from one of the best films of the franchise (I won’t say which).
With the character work on solid footing, it’s odd to say that Lin actually misses the mark with some of the big action set pieces as the film unspools. The first attack by Krall’s forces — a “swarm” of literally hundreds of tiny drone ships — against the Enterprise is brilliantly handled and drives home the agonizing destruction that’s wrought upon the beloved ship. But Lin’s tendency to juggle the camera ultimately works against later scenes, including one set inside the darkened hull of the Enterprise that’s almost impossible to follow. He does redeem himself in the climax, however, staging a hand-to-hand battle in a gravity-free environment that is dizzying and thrilling.
There are other things missing from Star Trek Beyond: that sense of wonder and sometimes awe the old show inspired, along with the moral or ethical dimension to the conflict that we mentioned earlier. Kirk’s brooding over his father seems like something he should have moved beyond (ha ha) by now. Although I’ve despised the half-hearted Spock/Uhura romance from the start, Quinto and Zoe Saldana play it more subtly here, unlike the bickering teens they were reduced to in the last film. And no, the modern, frenetic action scenes still don’t sit quite right in the world of Trek.
The truth is, I may never see what I consider to be the perfect modern Star Trek film. I’m not even sure I’d recognize it, although I know the things I’d like to see in it. But I am sure that every longtime Trekker can picture his or her own perfect Trek movie as well, and I’m equally sure they’re all different. That wide range of possibilities is what has kept Star Trek alive and interesting for nearly five decades, and it’s the acknowledgement of that — plus the original show’s undying optimism — that makes Star Trek Beyond such a nice surprise and affectionate tribute as the 50th anniversary of the original series’ premiere looms on Sept. 8. Star Trek Beyond may not be the perfect Star Trek film, but it is unashamedly, entertainingly, and enthusiastically a true one — and that’s more than enough for this Starfleet lifer.
Star Trek Beyond is out in theaters this Friday (July 22).