J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek was a thrilling entertainment with only one major flaw: it didn't feel much like Star Trek. It was fun, it was clever, it was well-acted and it was wildly energetic, but it was a movie made by someone who was clearly more of a Star Wars guy. That flaw proved far more damaging to Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness, which made shameless attempts to cash in on nostalgia for the beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without demonstrating any real understanding of what people actually liked about that movie (much less Star Trek in general).
Justin Lin's Star Trek Beyond (produced by Abrams) certainly mimics the cinematic language and overall tone of its two predecessors (translation: it's very much a modern blockbuster, filled to the brim with frantic action scenes and chaos), and it shares a number of their flaws. Even so, there's something different this time around: this is a movie that comes a whole lot closer to capturing the soul of Star Trek; a film that seems to have genuine affection for the roots of this series.
Our film begins as Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are midway through the five-year exploratory mission they began at the conclusion of Into Darkness. They've been traveling from one planet to another, spreading the Federation's message of peace and harmony to every new civilization they find. It's obvious that the mission is beginning to take a bit of a toll on the captain. “Things are starting to feel a little... episodic,” Kirk sighs, wondering aloud how he and his crew are supposed to feel a sense of accomplishment when they're saddled with a mission that feels so endless.
This sense of restlessness has made Kirk wonder if it's time to move on. He's applied for a new position as the Vice-Admiral of Yorktown, a massive Starbase located on the edge of Federation space. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto, Heroes) is also thinking about moving on. During the Enterprise's brief visit to Yorktown, Spock learns that Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) has passed away. This causes the young Vulcan to do some serious soul-searching, and he begins to wonder if he should travel to New Vulcan to continue the work of rebuilding Vulcan culture (their planet was destroyed in the first film, and Vulcans are now an endangered species).
Career transitions will have to wait, because there's a new assignment to deal with. A ship is stranded on the planet Altamid, and the Enterprise is tasked with staging a rescue mission. Things quickly go south: the Enterprise is attacked and (spoiler alert, if you skipped the trailer) destroyed by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba, The Wire), leaving Kirk and the surviving members of his crew stranded on the planet. With the help of a mysterious new alien ally named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the crew must find a way to A) leave Altamid and B) prevent Krall from carrying out his diabolical master plan (I'll let you discover the details).
The story Beyond serves up doesn't have much to offer in terms of originality, but it's familiar in a way that's far less grating than Into Darkness' familiarity. Once the crew lands on Altamid, the film begins to feel an awful lot like a big-budget episode of the original series: a crisis on a strange new world, an abundance of character-based humor and an obvious but warmly sincere message about the importance of cooperation and teamwork. The film marks a return to optimism for the series, making an argument that people from countless different cultures “standing around holding hands” (to borrow Krall's dismissive phrase) offers greater strength than isolationism (a notion that certainly feels timely given the current state of things).
This cast has been wonderful from beginning, and they're only getting better with time. Chris Pine's Kirk is more conflicted than Shatner's, but the character still retains just the right amount of that “I don't believe in no-win scenarios” swagger. This Kirk is still fond of melodramatic Captain's Log entries, but Pine has a knack for bringing those grandiose lines back down to earth. Quinto's Spock continues to feel a bit more human than Nimoy's (this new Spock has both a little more vulnerability and a little more arrogance than Nimoy's version), but you see him becoming a bit more like the old Spock as time passes (particularly in the wake of the news that the old Spock isn't around anymore). McCoy (Karl Urban, Dredd) remains a grouchy delight, and the film wisely gives him plenty of opportunities to engage in some Odd Couple banter with Spock. Simon Pegg's Scottie also delivers a lot of laughs, and gets a much bigger role than usual this time (one suspects that this may be due to the fact that Pegg co-wrote the screenplay). Uhura (Zoe Saldana, Guardians of the Galaxy), Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin, Green Room) and Sulu (John Cho, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) have some nice moments, but don't get quite as much to do as the others (which, er, is another element that makes this movie feel a bit like the original series). Additionally, Jaylah is a terrific new addition to the cast: she gets a moving character arc, a unique, technology-enhanced fighting style and some marvelously deadpan line readings from Boutella.
Unfortunately, for the third time in a row, this series has delivered an unmemorable villain. Krall feels like an interesting premise (bitter tyrant who feels resentful towards the Federation's semi-colonialist tendencies) that never quite becomes an interesting character. Elba is a terrific actor, but he's buried under heavy, frequently changing layers of makeup that make it awfully difficult for him to deliver an expressive performance. An additional revelation about the character's past offers another interesting idea, and again, the film just doesn't go anywhere with it. There are moments that suggest that the character could go in a more interesting, less blatantly villainous direction, just as there were with the Into Darkness version of Khan. Neither movie works up the nerve to really explore that direction.
Lin's direction is better and worse than Abrams', depending on which section of the film you're looking at. Surprisingly, the most positive adjustment Lin brings to the series is his willingness to slow things down from time to time. Almost all of the Star Trek movies have been action-packed, but before Abrams took over, they were also reflective. This gives the characters the room they need to grapple with their inner conflicts and relationship tensions, and also gives the characters plenty of time to just be themselves. However, I'm just as surprised by the fact that Lin's action scenes are very hit-and-miss: the best are imaginative and fluid (the initial attack on the Enterprise is a standout), but the worst are borderline incoherent. One expects better from the man who gave us the dumb but thoroughly polished Fast Five.
Still, there's much to enjoy here. It would be hard to argue that the movie matches the initial rush of Abrams' first feature, but it feels like the series is becoming more comfortable with the fact that it is, in fact, a Star Trek series. There are countless little moments here designed to set off small bursts of joy within the hearts of longtime fans, but the film's pandering is both far less obtrusive and far more intelligent than the Wrath of Khan riffs of Into Darkness. There's real hope and love in this movie, and that goes a long way. In its final scene, the film does a simple, lovely little thing that beautifully reinforces what Star Trek is all about. The series can be and has been better than this, but Beyond has its heart in the right place.
Star Trek Beyond
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2016