I Won’t Spoil Anything Not Already in the Theatrical Trailers
Star Trek Beyond is fine. It’s a solid B. If you wanted to give it a B+ I wouldn’t argue. It meets all the pre-requisites of a satisfying summer blockbuster (i.e.., cool action scenes, dazzling special effects, enough funny moments to keep things light and a story that’s just barely adequate enough to hold everything together) while also making many of the same mistakes (i.e., no real sense that anyone significant is in danger, not enough quality time with the characters and a script which wastes the talents of a big name actor on an astonishingly underwritten villain). Your mind won’t be changed if you haven’t liked these more action-oriented Star Trek movies, and/or are tired of seeing the Enterprise battle space aliens who are out for revenge. However, if you dig the new Star Trek movies you’ll find much to like here, especially now that they’ve left the Wrath of Khan mimicry behind them. It’s not perfect, but by 2016 blockbuster standards it’s pretty good.
It’s also a bit inessential, broadly recalling Star Trek: Insurrection, the Next Generation cast’s much derided third movie. Like Insurrection, Beyond presents an incredibly slight, self-contained story introducing brand new aliens on a foreign planet before dovetailing into Federation ethics. Whereas Insurrection felt like a perfectly adequate two-part episode of Next Generation forever in search of something more cinematic Beyond is a collection of highly cinematic setpieces in search of a worthy story. If you told me screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and director Justin Lin came up with all of Beyond‘s action scenes first and reverse-engineered the story from there I’d believe you.
The plot: The Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission, and Kirk is having a mid-life crisis, beaten down by the monotony of space life and second-guessing why he wanted to be a captain in the first place. Does he actually look old enough to be suffering such a crisis, and does this totally jibe with how he was presented in the first two movies? I don’t know. Just go with it. Chris Pine’s playing the shit out of it. So it works well enough.
Meanwhile, Spock is wrestling with his own obligations [the film holds back on the specifics; so will I]. This might be it for both of them on the Enterprise. It’s time for one last rodeo, a rather dubious rescue and recovery mission they pick up during a pit stop at the Federation’s fancy new space station known as Yorktown (which Bones humorously and somewhat accurately refers to as “a snow globe in space”).
If you’ve seen any of Beyond‘s trailers you already know how this plays out: The Enterprise is destroyed, the end result of a remarkably drawn-out action sequence in which the ship is overwhelmed by a collection of micro-ships which attack in formation like a swarm of bees. As “destruction of the Enterprise” sequences go, this is certainly the latest and most intense, a triumph of special effects and action choreography, with Justin Lin picking up tricks from Christopher Nolan’s Inception (e.g., a free-falling ship is a perfect opportunity for people to walk on walls) and imbuing it with a bit more of gung-ho Fast & Furious spirit.
The impact of the sequence is somewhat lessened by the fact that we just saw a very Enterprise-like ship destroyed in Into Darkness, but this is a full-on attack in a way I haven’t quite seen in a Star Trek movie (or TV show) before. There were multiple camera movements and images which took my breath away, although the longer it went on the more I started to root for the bad guys just so that the plot could finally move on.
All of the nameless, voiceless Enterprise crew members we don’t know and don’t care about are captured along with Sulu and Uhura. All the ones played by actors we recognize are paired off into twos on the mysterious planet, Chekov with Kirk and Bones with Spock. Scotty is also paired off, just with an ass-kicking refugee he meets named Jaylah, the pale-faced, white-haired girl played by Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella.
Sure enough, there’s something the good guys have that the bad guy (Idris Elba’s Krall) wants, and if the bad guy gets it he’ll use it to kill lots of people for, um, reasons. The good news is Beyond appears to be aware of this overly familiar formula, what with Bones adorably referring to the MacGuffin as a “doohickey” only to then be chastised by Spock. The bad news is the “reasons” part becaue Star Trek Beyond has a real Marvel movie villain problem on its hands.
Krall’s motivations are doled out in pieces through his continued interactions with Uhura in the prison camp. This mostly amounts to Uhura preaching the gospel of the Federation, unity and friendship, and Krall, who speaks with a slight Darth Vader-esque wheeze, espousing frontier justice and verbally shitting over everything the Federation stands for.
We finally learn Krall’s backstory in the final act, but the film so heavily telegraphs the twist that the impact of the reveal is mostly non-existent. Plus, as SlashFilm argued, “[Krall’s] motivation doesn’t seem all that engaging when all his secrets are revealed, and honestly, the secret about his past doesn’t really do much to change the trajectory of the story or how the villain is dealt with by our heroes.”
But the Marvel movies get away with that kind of shortcoming because of the compelling characters (minus the villain, of course), consistent jokes and gripping action scenes. Star Trek Beyond takes a similar approach, and continues the revived-franchise’s trend of trying to give everyone in the cast something to do, at least one individual moment to shine (that’s more than you could usually say for the original cast movies).
Pairing the characters off initially seems like a stroke of genius, a clear attempt to offer up some different character interactions, not just Spock and Kirk all the time. However, in practice the only pairings that pop are Bones and Spoke, who easily share some of the film’s best scenes, and Scotty and Jayha, which Pegg appears to have constructed to play to his own comedic strengths. Kirk and Chekov are too busy running around the downed Enterprise to mine any interesting drama (even though there’s obvious potential there, the weary, aging captain with the youthful, endlessly optimistic officer), and Sulu and Uhura are basically exposition devices.
Yet there is still a welcome comfort in seeing these people play these characters again. Once Kirk, Spock and Bones are finally in the same room together again the laughs come fast and easy, such is their fine-tuned chemistry after 3 movies together. It’s not just their rapport together carrying things along, though. Pegg and Jung’s script feeds all of them some well-constructed jokes, and not always verbal. There’s a fair deal of physical comedy as well. The opening sequence with Kirk on a diplomatic mission subverts audience expectations and pokes fun at genre conventions just as hard as anything in Pegg’s Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) to the point that I’m still kind of laughing about it.
And that’s the kind of stuff I genuinely loved in this movie. The actual plot makes almost no lasting impression, and the heroes are left playing off of a mediocre villain, despite a game effort from all involved. The action scenes are overly plentiful, with Justin Lin throwing the kitchen sink at us, a space battle here, a motorcycle chase there, an anti-gravity fist fight on the other side of that. But because the plot is so threadbare the action feels hollow, millions of dollars and countless hours of manpower squandered on a plot unworthy of such an investment. It’s still nice to look at, though, and the steady pacing ensures you’re never bored. Mostly, though, you just appreciate how they managed to balance the action with enough character-driven scenes to keep you engaged, nicely showcasing the ensemble even if the story they’re in feels a tad lackluster.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a 2016 sci-fi blockbuster, Star Trek Beyond is fine, a perfectly diverting piece of entertainment offering up plenty of laughs and a fair share of oohhs and aahhs. As the third film for the current Star Trek cast, though, Beyond feels surprisingly transitional, like a somewhat inessential step toward an even better sequel, perhaps reflecting the changing of the guard which occurred behind the scenes in the time since Into Darkness.
86% – Star Trek Beyond continues the franchise’s post-reboot hot streak with an epic sci-fi adventure that honors the series’ sci-fi roots without skimping on the blockbuster action.