Since directing the underappreciated Star Trek: Into Darkness, franchise rebirth extraordinaire JJ Abrams has gone on to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), leaving a spot open not only to continue bringing new Star Trek stories to life, but to do it in a new way that builds upon the first two entries.
Rest assured, Justin Lin has proven a worthy heir with Star Trek Beyond, which finds Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew having to save the day once again from a villain with morally complex ideologies.
Lin, fresh off of helping to revitalize a stagnating Fast and Furious franchise from depravity, has learned much from his recent directing efforts, which he applies here. No, Beyond doesn’t deal in nonstop action and frantic pacing to the levels of the Fast films. Yes, the first trailer for Beyond that made the Star Trek fandom nervous for a film with seemingly an overly drastic shift in tone and style is evidence not to judge a film by its first footage.
Essentially, what Lin has done with Beyond – produced by Bad Robot, JJ Abrams’ production company – is what he did to make the Fast films an almost annual box office bonanza and critic-pleaser: get to the core of what makes a franchise great, and bring it to the surface through the tone, aesthetic and plot.
I’ve never seen a single Star Trek episode (although the upcoming rebooted TV show looks tantalizing), but this could easily pass for a two-hour special of great television: an adventure on a unique planet, with everyone getting appropriate screen time that, while loosely based on the franchise’s prior entries, still adds something to the franchise as a whole.
Like Into Darkness – still the best of this rebooted Trek timeline – Beyond begins in the middle of a U.S.S. Enterprise mission in the midst of its five year voyage hinted at in the closing moments of the last entry. By this point Kirk is a capable commander, his leadership unquestioning but his internal sense of purpose still on somewhat unstable ground.
While Into Darkness focused on Kirk’s maturity as a leader, this entry explores his internal struggle of being unable to live up to his father’s legacy. It’s a tantalizing structure to set up new growth for the character, although it isn’t explored in the film’s middle and final acts as explicitly as in the film’s first 15 minutes.
Spock has his own troubles and conflicts, some of which are fleshed out and some which aren’t explored nearly to the degree that they could have. It’s one plotline that feels like it could have been axed for the sake of making what feels like a two and a half hour movie closer to its actual length of 120 minutes.
But those are minor complaints. Beyond, like Fast, focuses on the fun, and there’s tons of enjoyment to be had among the not-so-subtle themes of isolation and ostensible hopelessness.
It starts with the chemistry between core crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Now more than ever there are opportunities for the Starfleeters to engage with one another in 1-on-1 settings, and these small moments – much like The Force Awakens‘ best parts – are small treasures in themselves scattered throughout. Here’s hoping at some point we get a spinoff centered around Spock and Bones, two characters that are as much foils to each other as any other pairing in the franchise.
Much of these little moments are a product of Simon Pegg’s contributions to the script, ensuring that its humor and more serious portions balance out effectively.
Of course the continuously immensely satisfying characterizations of people like Spock and Bones, along with Uhura, Scotty, Kirk and Chekov – depicted marvelously by the late Anton Yelchin – is a testament to the performance of the actors portraying them. Seven years later, it’s tough to imagine a better choice than Chris Pine to portray Captain Kirk for a new generation, and the same can be said for virtually every other core actor. On their third voyage into the final frontier, they’ve become comfortable with understanding what makes their respective characters so great and bringing that essence to the forefront.
The plot also keeps the audience on its heels, with enough twists and surprises that more or less make up for the more bogged down parts of the film.
As always, the visuals are gorgeous, from the new environments (including one reminiscent of Elysium‘s first-world oasis on steroids) to a variety of species designs to the Enterprise itself, the sight of which simply floating into space only to later be destroyed (again) is enough reason to catch Beyond on the big screen.
Beyond‘s antagonist, a new alien named Krall played by Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Prometheus), continues this rebooted Star Trek universe’s tendency of refusing to make its villains one dimensional, instead giving them real motivations to play off of. Although not as adept at commanding the screen and audience’s attention as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Darkness, Idris Elba’s acting chops are on full display even under so much makeup and prosthetics, unlike Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse in the most recent X-Men entry.
However, while Krall’s plan is clear, his endgame really isn’t, his backstory not as fleshed out and clear as it could have been.
A little more focus could also have been given to Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, a centerpiece in Beyond’s marketing efforts. Here she is pretty one-dimensional, little more than a tool by which to move the plot along whose background is also only teased. She never really feels intregral to the plot as a whole, only a cog to move things along.
Speaking of moving things along, Beyond does an adequate job keeping matters succint. Although not as tightly directed as Abrams’ Darkness, there’s very little in Beyond that can be deemed expendable.
In a Nutshell
Most trilogies have their rotten eggs. Beyond cements what has to be one of the more successful and consistently entertaining sci-fi trilogies in years, thanks to genuine chemistry within the cast, thrilling sequences and uncompromising visuals.
8.2 / 10
Star Trek Beyond is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban
Directed by Justin Lin