Paramount’s 2009 reboot of its venerable Star Trek franchise had a tricky mandate. It had to place new actors into roles that were inextricably linked to the actors that originated them and dos so in a way that didn’t alienate old fans while still bring in new ones. Director JJ Abrams managed to thread that needle adroitly, using a bit of time travel hand waving to create a new timeline for the franchise that preserved what had come before while still opening the door for brand new adventures. That’s what made the 2013 follow-up Star Trek Into Darkness such a disappointment with its badly warmed retelling of the classic Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. But just in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary this year, incoming director Justin Lin has course corrected things somewhat with Star Trek Beyond, giving us a rousing space adventure that feels like a throwback to the original 1960s television series that started it all.
Responding to a plea to help the crew of a crashed alien ship, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and the compliment of the USS Enterprise find themselves under attack from Krall (Idris Elba), who wants an artifact that the ship was carrying. With the Enterprise scuttled and its crew scattered across the planet, Kirk must find a way to stop Krall’s plan to attack the Federation with an alien weapon and fins that help comes in the form of an alien woman named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who may have her own agenda.
Star Trek Beyond is a welcome return to the high adventure that franchise creator Gene Roddenberry aspired to bring to the small screen every week. It really captures the “Horatio Hornblower in space” aspect that Roddenberry used as a pitch to the television networks when selling the show back in the 1960s. This is the crew of the Enterprise exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations and discovering that some of them are not as friendly as we are. Where the last film felt distinctly un-Star Trek with much of its action very much Earth bound, Beyond finds the crew out on the frontier, pushing the boundaries of known space. It is just that some are not happy with that and have decided to push back.
But like almost all of the franchise entries over the past couple of decades, Star Trek Beyond still lacks the strong morality play quality that many of the episodes of the original 1960s series contained. What little there is, is confined to one scene towards the end with Kirk confronting the alien villain Krall. Another thing that is held until the end is any kind of characterization for Krall. It is one thing to keep the mystery going as to Krall’s identity and origins as an ongoing subplot. But to not address this at all until late in the film’s third act actually becomes distracting as audiences are left wondering what Krall’s motivations are and if the film is going to explore them at all. And that is a shame when you have an actor of Elba’s character in the role.
The screenplay – by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung – does a very smart thing when it separates the ensemble into smaller groups once the crew is stranded on the alien planet. Giving each of these duos their own storyline allows each of the actors their own moments to shine. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban have settled into their roles of Spock and Dr. McCoy exceptionally well. More so than any of the other cast members with the exception of Pine, these two demonstrate a knowledge of how the original Trek cast played the characters and have expounded upon it on their own. No one is ever doing an imitation or impersonation.
Director Lin tweaks the visual style of the series somewhat. He brings a fluid camera which likes to rotate and move around the characters in a way that reminds us that there is no up and down in space. At times it can be disorienting and even distracting, but it is a nice way to set the audience up for the film’s zero-gravity finale. The former Fast And Furious franchise director also shows an enthusiasm for shooting the Enterprise herself from angles previously unseen. It is a good way to bring new visual interest to a cinematic spaceship that has become an American icon over the last five decades.
Unfortunately, Lin seems to be very impatient to get to the film’s first big set piece, the swarm ships attack on the Enterprise. As such, we get some rather disjointed scenes around the Yorktown base. He also doesn’t let what should be moments that should be setting up character arcs to play out. The editing is quick, saying to the viewer “We’ll be done with this stuff in just a second, we know what you want.” But some of those things that are glossed over in the film’s opening scenes could have been better developed as a basis for stronger character arcs throughout the film.