OK, let’s get the bona fides out of the way: I’m not a big Trek guy. I’ve seen most of the OG movies (which I found 50 percent entertaining and 50 percent laughable), a few episodes each of The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager, but precious few of the original series. I genuinely enjoyed Abram’s first Trek film and found the second to be mostly forgettable. But Trek is not one of my sacred cows, so I can’t tell you how well this film adheres to Roddenberry’s vision or if its characters are perversions of their inspirations. So what you’re going to get is a review of the movie, full stop. No whinging about whether or not it’s faithful to the spirit of the franchise or whether or not it poops on Roddenberry’s grave.
So, that said, Star Trek Beyond? Pretty damn good.
The story picks up a bit less than three years after the end of Into Darkness — Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew are traveling through the universe, on missions of exploration and diplomacy alike. After a supply stop, they encounter a strange woman who begs them to help rescue her missing crewmates on an uncharted planet beyond a dense nebula that, upon passing through it, effectively cuts off communication for the Enterprise, leaving it and its crew on their own. And of course, that’s right when hell breaks loose. The ship is attacked, the crew scattered to the winds of the strange planet, and the sinister plan of a deranged planetary warlord named Krall (Idris Elba) begins to coalesce.
That’s about all the story you should give yourself going in, because there’s a fair number of surprises throughout the film and they’re genuinely fun to encounter blind (so the customary spoiler warnings for the comments will apply here). What’s more important is that the story itself is a peculiar little mix — there’s Krall’s plot, of course, and unfortunately that’s also the weakest part of the story. Sure, the adventure that takes place as the crew begins to solve the mystery of what his plan is and where he and his army come from is interesting enough, but there’s too many leaps, too many plotholes, too many assumptions that the script asks the audience to make. It’s as if they had a solid point A and a solid point C, but the line taking us there is blurry and unsure of itself. It’s a shame, because it mars the picture a good bit, and the explanation for Krall’s power is poorly explained, with a rushed and awkward bit of exposition to fill in the holes. Furthermore, the story takes few risks and at times retreads some of the conventional sci-fi tropes, doing little to actually advance the overall arc of the franchise.
However, in some ways that’s almost OK, because what the film does well is deal with the characters themselves. The crew is shattered into small clusters, each unaware of the others’ fate, each dealing with their own internal issues. It’s those smaller moments where the film thrives, letting the natural chemistry of a cast clearly comfortable with each other percolate. Pine, along with Zachary Quinto’s Spock, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, Simon Pegg’s Scottie, Anton Yelchin (R.I. goddamn P.) as Chekov and John Cho as Sulu, all hit their character beats smoothly, and the various interpersonal issues that they were working through at the beginning of the film clearly influence their actions subtly but clearly right to the end. Special credit should be given to Karl Urban for making Bones McCoy an absolute joy to watch. The film’s most pleasant surprise is definitely Sofia Boutella as the Jaylah, an alien they encounter who kicks a fair amount of ass but is also a deftly scripted, interesting character. Boutella is a dancer by trade, given her first big break as the blade-footed henchwoman in Kingsman: The Secret Service who rarely speaks. Here, she’s given a meaty and critical part and she handles it solidly, displaying a solid mix of vulnerability, determination and desperation.
The film’s second greatest asset is, unexpectedly, the directing of Justin Lin. Lin initially seemed like a misplaced addition — he made his bones with the terrific indie Better Luck Tomorrow before switching gears to the flashy, goofy action of the Fast and Furious franchise, directing four of the seven films (not to mention the famous “Modern Warfare” episode of Community). He seemed an odd pick for the weighty seriousness of Star Trek, but he handles himself capably, balancing the dramatic notes with a fresh injection of humor, adding some modern flare and clearly placing his own stamp on it without doing the franchise the disservice of abandoning its roots. However, Lin clearly has a gift for action direction and that’s where the film truly shines. He makes clever and innovative use of the environments and opportunities that zero gravity and outer space provide, creating some incredibly impressive action sequences out of those settings. The film is exciting and exhilarating, in no small part because Lin has a clear vision of what you can do to expand the constraints of conventional action when you’re, say, floating through space or plummeting down a mountain or crashing through the atmosphere. It’s great fun to watch (though in good conscience I must implore you to skip the 3D version, which darkened and muddled an otherwise spectacularly filmed movie).
Star Trek Beyond has a main story that’s just good enough, even though it stumbles in its efforts to get itself to the finish line, playing it safe with its story. Thankfully, a collection of rock-solid performances, characters that are exciting and intriguing to watch, and a heady, exciting pace coupled with some innovative action make for a film that’s just popcorn enough to please the masses, while also having enough intelligence and wit to make it a solid, appealing entry into this new era of Trek films.