Star Trek isn’t an action heavy property. In its initial form of The Original Series, Star Trek existed as more of an excuse for exploring new territories. The intrepid crew of The Starship Enterprise was there to talk to other species, only using lethal force when necessary. Even when the franchise went cinematic with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it took more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars to middling effect. Now, twelve films and multiple cast members later, Star Trek Beyond directly faces the conundrum of having to balance the spirit of exploration that the universe was created under with the action necessities of a modern blockbuster. Paramount helped emphasize this by giving the modern Trek reigns from director of multiple The Fast and the Furious films Justin Lin after Star Trek ’09 and Star Trek Into Darkness director J.J. Abrams mostly jumped ship to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens while staying on as a producer. Could Lin succeed?
When we meet back up with the crew of The USS Enterprise at the start of Star Trek Beyond, many of them are in the middle of trying times. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is dealing with potentially being Vice Admiral and the looming mortality ghost of his father. Commander Spock (Zachary Qunito) is torn between his desires to get the remaining Vulcan race thriving and his strained relationship with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). While the crew is on a Starbase for shore leave, an escape pod arrives from a nebula with an alien who claims her ship is stranded on a nearby planet. The Enterprise decides to investigate, only to be surrounded by ships that kidnap most of the crew and damage their beloved ship beyond repair. Now, disparate pieces of the main Starfleet crew must try to reunite in order to stop an alien warlord Krall (Idris Elba) who’s hellbent to stop The Federation at all costs.
The biggest trouble with Star Trek Into Darkness was that the fan service guided the plot over the characters, something oddly avoided by its predecessor. Star Trek Beyond knows to avoid those pitfalls – as well as avoid stupid ideas like using a tribble to cure death – and bring things back to basics. At its heart, Star Trek Beyond is a character based story in space, setting up the conflicts of our major characters well enough so their struggles with the plot help them deal with their inner turmoil. The best example is Kirk, directly facing the fact that he will soon be older than his father ever was. Chris Pine exhibits the brash cockiness and weighted worry that shows how well he’s grown into the Kirk character, particularly with his responsibilities as a captain. The moment where he watches the USS Enterprise fall, there’s a real hesitation on Pine’s face as to whether or not he should go down with it. It’s not directly exposited, but scenes like his drinking banter with Karl Urban‘s Dr. McCoy show off how heavy that concept is on his mind.
That banter is something Star Trek Beyond plays with for all the characters. Screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung integrate this by separating the crew into disparate pairings in order to keep a solid balance of stakes and levity throughout. Pegg’s Montgomery Scott’s encounters with the frank and badass Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) have an odd chemistry that also develops the societal hierarchies of our major planetary setting. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) trying to decipher the motives of our mysterious marooned alien builds tension behind the attack while leading to some of the more creative action sequences. McCoy tending to Spock’s serious injuries builds on the themes of mortality while imparting a The Odd Couple style chemistry in their back and forth. Even Uhurah, Sulu (John Cho) and the rest of the crew being trapped in Krall’s clutches gives them a bit of comradery business as more is revealed about the mysterious warlord brought to life wonderfully by Idris Elba’s memorable if occasionally inaudible snarl. All of these subplots are full of sci-fi action, but the type that’s at least partially fueled by character conflicts. Star Trek Beyond actually utilizes something few other blockbusters have in this summer 2016 movie season: stakes based in character.
Justin Lin’s directorial pizazz shines around Star Trek Beyond. Lin knows how to adopt his style into the Star Trek universe that J.J. Abrams reestablished, but set his action in appropriately Trek style sheen. The planet has gold rocks that mirror the average Original Series episode budget. The woodlands feel like a locational episode with a few pixies to make it alien. The villains have gloriously odd sculptures of make up that use simple contortions to define an alien race. It’s minor budget aesthetics with a larger than life feel. The action escalates the plot mechanics well, but it’s also so inventive. Lin’s bonkers action style displayed in cinematic joy rides like Fast Five may not seem fitting to the exploration heavy concept of Trek, even if Abrams had reinvented the franchise as a more action heavy concept. Yet, Lin’s ability to mix action with endearing character interactions fits the concept of Trek quite well, making Star Trek Beyond the fresh fun adventure we needed after the overly dark and repetitive Into Darkness. Scenes like Chekov and Kirk being chased through the crumbling Enterprise at varying angles or the finale zero gravity fist fight are full of high energy, tension and dazzling visual turns.
Above all, Star Trek Beyond feels closest to the original ideas Gene Roddenberry wanted to inspire from his creation: the power of science and human progress. There’s a recurring thematic element about Starfleet’s hopes to study and help life throughout the universe. We see Kirk’s drive to help a stranded being. Spock’s selflessness despite increased pain. Scotty’s inherent empathy for an alien being with true loss. It’s a warmth and brightness that reminds one of the more memorable yet light flair of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, yet still has the contemplative weight of a Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This cast’s comradery and lack of overt cynicism is refreshing in a summer of forgettable mediocrities. Star Trek Beyond does a remarkable job of weighing spectacle with genuine human emotion. That and the discussions of Spock Prime’s absence put the passing of Leonard Nimoy and the tragic youthful loss of Anton Yelchin into perspective, but don’t distract from the adventure we’re on. Star Trek Beyond isn’t top tier Star Trek, but it’s a worthy memorable entry. And all without screaming “KHAN!” while punching Benedict Cumberbatch… seriously, screw Into Darkness.
Rating: (4 / 5)