One of the best things about Star Trek Beyond, the 13th and latest film in the 50-year-old sci-fi franchise, is its embrace of the show’s original slogan: “…To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Recent Trek entries have seemed more inclined to go conservatively where the TV series and other films have gone already. The previous installment, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, even made an ill-received rehash of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, easily and arguably one of the most beloved of the Trek films. While a rehashing of sci-fi tropes have paid off with such enjoyable entries as The Voyage Home and Star Trek First Contact, Star Trek on the big screen has seldom seemed prepared to leave the familiar behind and capture the thrill of discovery promised by interstellar travel.
Star Trek Beyond proves admirably willing to push the neo-film-series’ frontiers, at least in its eagerness to envision brand new, alien environments with incredibly imagined designs. Less compelling are the emotional stakes Director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung break provide for the crew of the starship Enterprise. Lin’s fleet direction and the charismatic cast give dedicated fans their fix and the casual moviegoers a fun enough time, but Beyond offers a less memorable outing than its more ambitious predecessors, providing more for the eyes of its audience than for their hearts.
Notably, Beyond’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut in 1966. Early in the film, Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk mentions that the Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission, a nod to how the original series only lasted three seasons. “Things have started to feel a little… episodic,” he says, reflecting Kirk’s restlessness at his tour of duty while winking at the film’s origins. Sometimes fan service can sabotage a franchise film, but a reference like that is both subtle enough and adds to the mood, the character, of this version of Kirk. Similarly, second-in-command Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the passing of his older, future self (Leonard Nimoy), brought to the timeline of this film (separate from the original series, established in JJ Abrams’ 2009 film that rebooted the franchise with younger actors). The plot point lets the new film pay homage to the late Nimoy while causing the younger Spock to reconsider his life choices.
While Kirk and Spock still enjoy their fine bromance, both secretly consider going their separate ways, until the Enterprise takes a rescue mission on the opposite side of an “unstable nebula” (which resembles a zero-gravity avalanche). Without warning, a swarm of torpedo-like fighters riddle the Enterprise with holes, crippling the ship and making short work of the crew. Alien leader Krall (Idris Elba) makes a Darth Vader-like entrance through a smashed bulkhead and quickly establishes himself as a match for the heroes.
Some of the crew is cast away on Krall’s home planet Atlamid, while the rest become his prisoners. Beyond splits its regulars into smaller groups, effectively switching up the crew’s usual dynamics by giving them unique pairings. Most of the bonding takes place between Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), whose shared risks give them a chance to move past their trademark bickering. McCoy gets many of the film’s best jokes, but has fewer chances to fulfill his role as Kirk’s conscientious counterpoint to Spock’s logic. Chekov joins with Kirk, so the late Anton Yelchin enjoys more than usual screen time as the still-eager young officer. The captive Uhura (Zoe Saldana) fiercely confronts Krall rather than play victim. Chief engineer Scotty (Pegg) befriends the alien scavenger Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who basically adds a fierce athleticism and a superfluous revenge-oriented backstory to the plot.
By the standard of any big-screen sci-fi epic, Beyond is visually impressive. A multi-tiered starbase called the Yorktown is built on the interior of a sphere, so buildings jut nearly at right angles to each other, like the folding cityscapes of Inception. Lin shoots much of Altamid at real locations with otherworldly features, including undulating rock formations that seem to defy a viewer’s usual idea of geology. And like Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film shows an appreciation for practical effects, with complex, visually striking make-up designs that avoid coming off like obvious rubber masks.
Elba proves unrecognizable in the Krall make-up, but pushes through the prosthetics to convey the villain’s grudge against the utopian Federation. The script flirts with a metaphor of a Third World country using guerilla tactics to humble an expansive superpower, an idea which goes largely undeveloped and is undermined by revelations about Krall and his motivations late in the film. Krall’s pursuit of an ominous alien artifact and the film’s drawn-out finale both feel derivative of Guardians of the Galaxy—Beyond’s ending even involves a weaponized pop song that seems closer to Guardians’ cheekiness than Star Trek’s usual sincerity.
Lin directed four Fast and Furious films, and like in those films, some of Beyond’s conversations feel perfunctory, especially early in the film, as if Lin can’t wait to get to the next sequence. The director seems very much in his element with the stunts and action, of course, and even presents a variation on the Vin Diesel/Michelle Rodriguez mid-air catch from Fast & Furious 6, only with Trek’s technology. Lin seems a little indifferent to the film’s destination, but he doesn’t want to waste time getting there.
The story doesn’t particularly challenge any of the actors, although some of the supporting players get better fleshed out (such as the much-debated revelation that John Cho’s Sulu is in a same-sex relationship). Beyond plays for lower than usual stakes and works best in pleasant, little moments. For a film so focused on acceleration, it’s ironic that Star Trek Beyond spends much of its time coasting on charm.
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Idris Elba, Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Sofia Boutella
Release Date: July 22, 2016