For a multitude of reasons, I loathed 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Not only did Into Darkness squander the potential of JJ Abrams’ reboot by being nothing more than a retread of The Wrath of Khan, it injected the iconic sci-fi series of hope and optimism with a post-9/11 cynicism overflowing with the conspiratorial overtones of a 9/11 Truther. From a purely technical and storytelling level, there are worse Star Trek films than Into Darkness, but Into Darkness felt antithetical to the foundation created by Gene Roddenberry.
Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly bursting with enthusiasm about Star Trek Beyond, the third entry in the rebooted Trek. The bitter aftertaste of Into Darkness was still in my mouth and I had my own set of doubts as to Justin Lin’s ability to helm a Star Trek film. All those fears were quickly set aside as Lin and the script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have a crafted a loving homage to original series, as Star Trek Beyond brings back the hope and optimism and seems to work as a refutation of Into Darkness’ cynicism in an uneven but entertaining summer movie.
Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Enterprise – consisting of Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) – are in kind of a malaise. As the Kirk says, things are “a little episodic.” The crew of the Enterprise take a break from their exploration of deep space at Yorktown, a massive new space station established by the Federation. It’s not long before a mysterious stranger arrives at Yorktown under distress. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are sent out to explore the potential threat, taking them deep into a nebula that cuts off all communications between the Enterprise and Starfleet. Upon arrival, a swarm of tiny ships lays waste to the Enterprise, capturing the crew and wrecking the starship on the surface of this mysterious planet. With the crew split up and some of them captured, Kirk and his crew must find out the motives of the villainous Krall (Idris Elba) with the help of another person trapped on this secluded planet in the warrior Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who lives in the crashed remains of the old Federation starship USS Franklin.
It doesn’t take long for Star Trek Beyond to reintroduce the characters and where they are currently emotionally and mentally. Then the script from Pegg and Jung separate the characters, dividing the equally among the alien planet, but still giving each character a set of obstacles and challenges to overcome as part of the unit’s whole. It really reinforces the old Trek way of collaboration and teamwork, keeping a shining beacon of optimism. The characters are dragged down to low points yet they never lose hope. Halfway through the movie, Spock says a line that feels like it was included just for those like myself that were dismayed by Into Darkness’ cynicism when he says, “We will do what we always do: We will find hope in the impossible.”
With the crew separated on an alien planet with different terrains, Star Trek Beyond looks like a textured, realistic version of those classic sets from the original series. The story also unfolds like a classic episode, with each character playing a crucial role in solving the film’s central issues while featuring a villainous character in Krall that leaves us with questions as to his motives and nature without confusion. Most of all, what really stands out about Star Trek Beyond’s homage to the original series is the deft manner with which it’s able to capture the feel of the classic foundation without a slavish devotion to a previously told story.
This third entry in the rebooted Star Trek also seems to have a better handle on the characters than its predecessors. Finally, Chris Pine is able to play a Kirk that isn’t merely an arrogant bastard who lucks into everything. This Kirk is a thinker, a problem solver that has great trust in his crew. And the character dynamics throughout the film work incredibly well, from the bickering of Spock and Dr. McCoy to the entertaining banter of Scotty and the new character Jaylah. As the film’s villain, Idris Elba continues one of 2016’s oddest quirks – movies unwilling to allow Idris Elba to show his face. Krall is fascinating character for his thematic qualities more so than much of his plans or villainy, but it really seems like Lin and company are trying to embrace the aspects of a more mysterious villain from the original series.
Most surprisingly is the fact that the weakest elements of Star Trek Beyond come from the film’s action scenes. Justin Lin is a phenomenal action director as evidenced by his work on the Fast and Furious movies, which makes the fact that these action scenes are so underwhelming a genuine shock. Lin embraces a shaky cam aesthetic in the action and it can be quite bewildering at times, as is his affection for odd angles and camera movement at any given time. Luckily, Star Trek Beyond isn’t just an action film, and Lin has a remarkable knack for little moments of character that can keep you emotionally invested in the action even when it’s not particularly pleasant to look at.
Star Trek Beyond isn’t a great Trek film, but it’s a pretty good one. This is obviously a movie that isn’t geared for fans of generic action movies. This is a movie that feels like a mea culpa for Into Darkness directed to the strongest devotees of Trek, and that’s what I found so damn refreshing about it. Beyond has a brisk pace and nice sense of humor to complement its character-based story. It may not boldly go where no one has gone before, but Star Trek Beyond recaptures the essence that some were feared lost, a hopeful and optimistic tale full of adventure and fun. It’s not perfect, but it feels necessary.