Since the revival of the beloved Star Trek franchise in 2009, a certain degree of division has taken root amongst its audience. Moviegoers in general and fans of science fiction embraced wholeheartedly the first outing of the perfectly cast Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and co. It was grand, fantastic, operatic, and it introduced the ongoing mission of the Starship Enterprise to a whole new generation. But whilst acclaim for those in front of the camera spanned Earth to Kronos, ‘purist’ audiences criticised those behind it for their approach to, and vision for the mythology as misinterpreting the true spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s creation. This didn’t stop the reboot from being a runaway success, nor did it four years later with Star Trek Into Darkness, but that doesn’t mean to say such criticisms are invalid. Whilst a social agenda was very much a part of the DNA of the original show, an agenda it presented and discussed in adult terms, spectacle + homage seem to form the heart of the franchise’s appeal today. However you might feel about it, the fact is that Star Trek today is very much a blockbuster. Now, with Fast & Furious director Justin Lin at the helm of Simon ‘Scotty’ Pegg’s story and script, can Star Trek Beyond prove the spirit of the show continues to live long, and prosper?
Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise are attacked by a literal swarm of star fighters under the command of the mysterious and menacing Krall (Idris Elba). With the Enterprise utterly destroyed, Kirk and what’s left of his crew are scattered and crash-land on an uncharted planet. But as the Starfleet officers struggle to survive, let alone regroup, they come to understand just how great a threat Krall truly is, to them, to this planet, and to the entire Federation.
Having a director most known for big blockbuster action like the Fast & Furious films, and written by one of geekdom’s greatest heroes (from the real world anyway), on paper this film really should have the best of both worlds. Jaw-dropping visuals and vibrant action wedded to careful characterization and a fundamental sense of intelligence in the film’s story. And, to an extent, that’s what we get. This is easily the most visually spectacular of the rebooted franchise, from its depiction of an alien world to a city in space reminiscent just as much of Inception as Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels. This is also possibly the best balancing of screen time for Kirk’s crew we’ve ever seen in a single instalment. Practically every character we know and love is allowed a moment to shine and a journey to go on, making this film less another ‘Kirk, Spock (Quinto) and everyone else’ setup and more a truly ensemble story. The prize for show-stealing however truly belongs to the pairing of the iconic Vulcan First Officer and Dr Bones McCoy (Karl Urban), their interplay both relentlessly hilarious and allowing for some truly fresh fleshing out of their characters. Had the jokes fallen flat though, the prize would certainly have been Sofia Boutella’s (Kingsman: The Secret Service) in the role of crash-landed scavenger Jaylah, not only for her own interplay with Scotty but for the fact that simply seeing her in the line-up already feels so right, like she’s always belonged in this franchise.
Tragically, we have to acknowledge the fact that the film marks the final performance of Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov, following his sudden and shocking death only a few weeks prior to the film’s release. The film is dedicated to him during its closing credits, and so to see Chekov enjoy so much greater a presence in the story this time around is truly a fine, if bittersweet, thing. And of course, following his death in 2015, Star Trek Beyond also pays a heartfelt tribute to the passing of Leonard Nimoy. Unlike its two predecessors, homages and call-backs to the franchise’s beginnings have been substantially reduced, no doubt in part due to the criticism that Into Darkness was too much simply a reworked Wrath of Khan. What tributes to times past there are however are all the more meaningful. Nimoy was an American cultural icon. As if his passing in the real world could not impact the world he helped create.
Star Trek Beyond’s strengths are undoubtedly rooted for the most part in the effectiveness of its characterizations, but whilst the story itself isn’t exactly a disappointment and is by no means lacklustre, there remains something faintly unsatisfying in the overall effect. Elba brings Krall to life with palpable ferocity and menace, but ultimately he feels somewhat lacking as an antagonist. The logic behind his motivation, whilst making sense upon reflection, is a little hard to piece together, and at times it does feel like the film resorts to haphazard delaying tactics for the sake of postponing the ‘big twist’. Also, with a major summer film on a budget of such magnitude, could they really not afford a few hundred more extras for Krall’s army? The result is a bit of a leap from seeing a few dozen of his warriors engaged in a shootout to literally thousands upon thousands of manned starfighters swarming into space battles. And one more thing; the shaky-cam. Try not to go all Hunger Games on us.
Star Trek Beyond is undeniably a belter of a summer blockbuster. It’s fun, it’s sharp, it’s engrossing, and frankly being able to deliver anything remotely refreshing despite being technically the thirteenth film in the franchise is an achievement. In these terms, it’s a must-see. To the ‘purists’ out there who fear the spirit of Roddenberry being defaced…honestly, does anything ever really compare to the original? Beyond does its best to be what constitutes a successful summer film in today’s world, and it works hard to keep in touch with its roots. Compelling, rich characters. Bold ideas. Heart. These are the things that made Star Trek what it was, and what went on to make the entire genre. Sure, maybe this current iteration of the brand name may not completely champion what you valued about the mythology, but sci-fi should have taught you more than most genres about evolution.