'Star Trek: Beyond' review: Movie franchise needs to boldly go where J.J. Abrams has never gone before
We're never told what “beyond” refers to in Star Trek: Beyond, the 13th film in the venerated sci-fi series. But here's a theory: if the franchise is to regain its footing after the tepid returns of Star Trek: Into Darkness, it will have to move beyond J.J. Abrams, the writer/director who used his brand of copycat magic to relaunch the series in 2009. In our reboot era, he's got the canny ability to provide older audiences with enough familiarity to keep them under the tent while giving new audiences enough youthful verve so they don't feel the franchise isn't for them. If you think that's not worth something, see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where Abrams elevated the concept to the level of pop art.
It's a strength Abrams overplayed in Star Trek: Into Darkness, a noisy contraption that fancied itself a clever nod to series highpoint Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but was really a collection of winking allusions that overlooked what the 1982 classic was actually about: coming to terms with mortality. For Beyond, Abrams is out, replaced by Justin Lin, who's known for a film series that only truly faced the issue of mortality when one of its stars, Paul Walker, died in real life. Nevertheless, one cannot fault Paramount for hiring the visual impresario who turned the Fast and Furious movies into a global money machine.
Which shall it be, 'escape velocity' or 'franchise firmament'?
Beyond is the moment when the underperforming Star Trek series either achieves escape velocity or permanently wanders the franchise firmament lamenting its fate as a middleweight contender. Lin is the key to this equation; a name brand director with a core group of young, motivated fans who'll line up to see multi-culti casts run around and crash into things.
There's lots of running and crashing in Star Trek: Beyond, yet there's a modesty and personality here not seen in the previous two films. The script by Simon Pegg (who reprises his role as Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung makes the refreshing choice of setting most of the action on a planet, as opposed to the claustrophobic, labyrinthine corridors of the Enterprise. In fact, the ship, which Lin shoots from unique and exciting angles, doesn't even make it past the first thirty minutes. A gargantuan swarm of small, metallic “bees” pummel the Enterprise until it's sliced into pieces, the saucer section crashing into the planet Altamid.
Stranded, the crew is separated into smaller groups, an excellent opportunity, mostly wasted, for Lin to explore these characters. An injured Spock (Zachary Quinto, reminding us how much Leonard Nimoy brought to the role) admits to Bones (Karl Urban, more constipated scowling) that he wants to oversee the development of New Vulcan. It's a weightless threat since we know he's not going to leave Kirk (Chris Pine, making the role his own), any more than Kirk is going to accept the vice admiral position he's offered at the outset.
Kickboxing alien & 'generic sci-fi bad guy'
As for Scotty, he spends his time with the film's best new character, a zebra-striped, kickboxing alien called Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, from the awesome Kingsman: The Secret Service). She's the keeper of their ticket off Altamid. She's also keeper of a major grudge against the film's big villain.
He (or she, who's to say in outer space?) is Krall, a generic sci-fi bad guy played by Idris Elba in layers of prosthetics that obscure the face of one this generation's most commanding actors. Krall, who unleashed the “bees” that destroyed the Enterprise, is in pursuit of some powerful metallic doodad of convoluted provenance (let's call it Steve). He wants to unleash Steve on an enormous space station called Yorktown, which looks like the space station from Elysium if designed by MC Escher.
Kirk is, naturally, the only person who can stop Steve from destroying Yorktown and if there's one thing you can count on in these new Star Trek films is an incoherent action climax that undercuts the goodwill built up over the previous 100 minutes. That's not to say Justin Lin isn't a fine action director: he's not a showoff, and he (and his four editors) knows when a wide shot is needed to reestablish our geography. But if you've seen one climatic mano-a-mano in a Star Trek reboot, you've seen one too many. And a previous action sequence involving Kirk's ride on a vintage motorcycle is just a trailer-ready play to the Fast and Furious crowd (Abrams' Star Trek films do love their vintage artifacts, especially music. But they feel more affected than plausible).
Death casts pall over 'Star Trek: Beyond'
Star Trek: Beyond ultimately works because of the smaller moments involving a crew (in front of and behind the camera) finally shaking off the pressures of franchise-launching and starting to gel. The film begins with Kirk lamenting the crew's 966th day in monotonous, endless space, a condition he describes cheekily as “episodic.” We're also treated to seeing Kirk glumly celebrate his birthday, reminded that he has now outlived his father. Indeed, there is a pall over Beyond, not all of it the film's making.
The movie is dedicated to the late Anton Yelchin (playing Chekov for the last time) and Leonard Nimoy. The death of Spock is referenced as a way to advance the film's low-hanging fruit of a theme: the importance of family. After Star Trek II's melancholy treatise on aging, Star Trek IV's environmental messaging, and the Cold War allegory of Star Trek VI, we've got a sequel too timid to run with the unfortunate opportunity it was given to really be about something. Too risky nowadays, a thought one presumes emanated from a Paramount boardroom.
Gay Sulu: However well intentioned, character revelation feels like 'awkward statement-making'
If any risk was taken in Star Trek: Beyond it's the outing of Sulu (John Cho). Showing a major Trek character in a same sex relationship is certainly in line with original series creator Gene Rodenberry's vision of a utopian future. And some audience members might see a beloved character as a healthy, loving gay man and think twice about their own prejudices. But dramatically, seeing Sulu cast his worried eyes over his partner and their child is problematic.
Let's face it, after 50 years we know next to nothing about the personal lives of the Enterprise crew and what little we know of the new cast has yet to be dramatized with any depth. So the noble thought of outing a major character feels like calculated, rushed, and awkward statement-making, no matter how well-meaning the statement might be. The idea would have been better served had it been more fully explored and folded into its family-first theme.
'Star Trek: Beyond': Most satisfying entry among the new 'Star Trek' films
But such is the fate of these shiny, new Star Trek films, of which Beyond is the most satisfying because it isn't trying as hard as the previous two. The corporate imperatives for action over character are there and as troublesome as ever, but Chris Pine and company are shedding the baggage of previous iterations and putting their own modest stamp on the franchise. Their flaws we'll just chalk up to part of their charm.
And if nothing else, it's a pleasure to know that Star Trek lives on, and is worth fussing over, after half a century.
Star Trek: Beyond (2016)
Dir.: Justin Lin.
Scr.: Simon Pegg. Doug Jung. (Uncredited screenwriters: Roberto Orci. Patrick McKay. John D. Payne.)
From the television series Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry.
Cast: Chris Pine. Zachary Quinto. Karl Urban. Anton Yelchin. Zoe Saldana. John Cho. Sofia Boutella. Simon Pegg. Idris Elba. Shohreh Aghdashloo. Joe Taslim.
Lydia Wilson. Deep Roy. Melissa Roxburgh. Anita Brown. Doug Jung. Danny Pudi. Kim Kold. Matthew MacCaull. Jared Joseph. Adam DiMarco. Dan Payne. Christian Sloan.
Cameo: Jeff Bezos.
Star Trek: Beyond cast and credits info via the IMDb.
Images of Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and John Cho as the now gay Sulu in Star Trek: Beyond: Paramount Pictures.