I’m not going to lie. I went into Star Trek Beyond expecting to hate it.
Now I know that’s not a great place to be starting from when you’re planning to review a film, but my love of the Star Trek franchise is deeply ingrained. After the disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness, the idea that the next movie in the rebooted series would be directed by action-oriented Fast & Furious filmmaker Justin Lin just kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
Why though? I liked Lin’s Fast & Furious movies, but I just couldn’t see his frenetic filmmaking style jibing well with the sci-fi setting and what I like most about Star Trek as a franchise. Bad things happen when Trek goes into full action movie mode (See: most of the Next Generation films).
Before I get to Star Trek Beyond, I feel like I should tell you what type of Star Trek fan I am. Some of my earliest memories are of Saturday afternoons spent with my old man, watching Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy on some sort of dangerous away mission. Hell, I’m old enough to remember being excited about the arrival of a new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, back in 1987, and clearly remember watching the first episode – “Encounter at Farpoint” – with my dad and enormously pregnant mother just a few weeks before the birth of my little brother. Since then I’ve probably watched every episode of every Trek series at least once, and seen the original crew and Next Generation movies more times than I can count, even the not-so-great ones. In fact, I’m fairly certain that one of the first live action films I ever saw on the big screen was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – a memorable but inauspicious start to a lifelong obsession with the movies. So, you might say that I’m a fan.
That’s why I’m happy to report that Star Trek Beyond is the Star Trek that me and so many others grew up with – or at least it’s the closest we’re going to get until Bryan Fuller’s new TV series launches early next year.
Sure, Beyond is flashy, bombastic, and not nearly as cerebral as its long off the air television counterparts, but the core of what made the original series and subsequent movies work – the relationship between the trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones – is there. It took three movies to get there, but they did it. Where director J.J. Abrams’ previous Trek films were brisk affairs more concerned with MacGuffins, mystery boxes, and moving the plot forward at all costs (also see: Star Wars The Force Awakens), Lin’s Trek movie is about the relationships between characters. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto might say, it’s all about family. In this case Beyond is about space family: the crew of the starship Enterprise.
Three years into their five year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his intrepid crew have settled into a bit of a routine exploring strange new worlds, making first contact with new civilizations, brokering peace treaties, and spreading the gospel of the United Federation of Planets. They’ve been out there exploring the final frontier for a while now and it shows. This is an experienced crew who’ve experienced trials and tribble-ations together, not the ragtag group of glorified cadets we saw in the previous films. But all that “episodic” exploration, as Kirk puts it, is starting to weigh on the good Captain. He’s looking for a change of pace and has applied for a desk job as a Vice Admiral at Starfleet’s impressive new space station Yorktown (Fun fact: the USS Yorktown was the name of the central starship in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek pitch). Spock meanwhile grapples with a personal dilemma: should he continue with Starfleet or join his people on New Vulcan to help rebuild his society? As both contemplate their respective futures, the Enterprise and her crew are tasked with a rescue mission that will change everything.
Where Star Trek (2009) was the Kirk origin story we never got and Into Darkness the re-imagining of one of the series’ most beloved movies, Star Trek Beyond is closer in tone and scope to the average episode of TOS or TNG – albeit on a $185 million budget. After a truly spectacular space battle the crew find themselves marooned on an alien world, separated into small groups and under attack from an unknown enemy. Alliances are formed with the locals and characters get time to breathe. For the first time in the rebooted series, we get to spend entire scenes with our heroes where they’re not quipping or desperately trying to fix something or save the day; they’re simply surviving and interacting with one another. Make no mistake, there’s still plenty of quipping, technobabble, and day saving, but it’s these low key character scenes that stand out because they simply didn’t exist in the previous films. There’s numerous scenes where it’s just Spock and Bones, Kirk and Chekov, Uhura and Sulu, together – working, talking – being a crew as opposed to walking solutions to the next big problem.
Full credit to screenwriters Simon Pegg (who is better than ever as Scotty) and Doug Jung (who also briefly appears as Sulu’s significant other in the film). The two seem to understand what makes Trek tick better than the previous series screenwriters. They’ve taken the idea of the away mission – a frequent trope in pretty much every version of the series – and turned it into a rollicking adventure the likes of which the original TV show could only have dreamed of. There are echoes of the earlier films as well – Spoilers ahead – Much like the first, third Star Trek movie (1984’s The Search for Spock), Star Trek Beyond sees the Enterprise completely destroyed and its crew take up residence in a much older, less advanced vessel. – End Spoilers – Thankfully these little nods never feel like the fan service from Into Darkness, which hammered viewers over the head with references to “Space Seed” and The Wrath of Khan – and only served to remind longtime fans of how much better the source material was. Pegg and Jung also get that the central trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones are what people want to see. You haven’t seen this dynamic at play for any length of time since 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The crew all have their parts to play, but at the end of the day you’re there to watch how these three very different people will engage with and solve a problem. Hint: They can only do it together!
What didn’t I like about Star Trek Beyond? The damselling of Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for one. While it’s unfortunate that the distress of this highly capable officer is what drives the third act forward, Uhura provides an excellent foil throughout for new baddie Krall (Idris Elba). As always, Elba is an impressive screen presence, even behind layers of alien make-up, however his character’s motivations are at best slightly confusing and at worst totally unclear. He acts the hell out of the role though, which makes any other shortcomings not worth complaining about. Viewers wanting to see more from Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) will likely be a little disappointed; the former hangs around with Kirk a lot in this movie, while the latter spends most of the proceedings in an alien internment camp. Of the supporting players it’s Scotty (how convenient, Mr. Pegg!) and the mysterious Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who get the most to do, but ultimately everyone in the film plays second fiddle to the big three. Even though it’s one of the most visibly diverse franchises in Hollywood, it’s a little disappointing to see prominent series newcomers Elba and Boutella disguised behind alien – and in both cases white – make-up. I get that this is Star Trek and aliens are always going to be a central element, but when are movies going to stop literally alienating actors of colour?
Those issues aside, there’s a lot to love about Star Trek Beyond. I’m still absolutely tickled by how much I enjoyed it, though for obvious reasons the film is a somewhat bittersweet affair. It’s tough to see Anton Yelchin so vibrant and alive knowing the sad fate that awaited him just months later. Beyond is appropriately dedicated to the actor at the tail of the end title sequence, which also contains a nod to original Spock Leonard Nimoy who passed away last year. There’s a particularly poignant moment towards the end of the film that feels like it definitely closes the book on the previous chapter of the franchise. Had this little scene happened in Into Darkness I would have feared for the future of the franchise, but Star Trek Beyond works so well and gets so much right about the series and these characters that I couldn’t help but smile. Yes, my Star Trek is over – it’s not going anywhere but it’s certainly not coming back either – but for the first time in a long time I’m excited to see where Kirk, Spock, Bones, and rest of the crew boldly go next. Let’s see what’s out there!