Ever since JJ Abrams introduced his semi-rebooted series of Star Trek films, there’s been a lot of talk about what makes Trek, well, Trek. That first film, some fans argued, wasn’t Trek-ky enough, perhaps relying too much on big action beats and glossy effects, and not enough on the philosophising and utopian ideals of the franchise. Abrams’ second film, Into Darkness, delved deep into the past, perhaps in response, recreating the acclaimed Wrath of Khan almost beat for beat, but couldn’t shake the criticism.
Now, with Abrams stepping back and Justin Lin claiming the director’s chair, Star Trek Beyond hopes to reclaim some of the original series’ spirit, though can’t quite shake the burdensome requirements of the modern blockbuster.
This time around we find James Kirk (Chris Pine) and the rest of the crew of the USS Enterprise three years into the five-year exploratory mission that defined the original show. Years in deep space have taken their toll though, and Kirk (who jokes that it’s beginning to feel very “episodic”) is unsure of his place and purpose, toying with a cushy Vice-Admiralty instead. That’s about when a desperate alien visitor begs Kirk et al to help her find her crew, stranded on an unknown world in the midst of an uncharted nebula. Inevitably, nothing’s that simple, and Idris Elba’s villain Krall stands in their way.
One of Beyond’s undoubted strengths is its script, co-written by Simon Pegg (who also plays engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung (who briefly cameos as the husband of John Cho’s Sulu, a nod to Sulu’s gay original actor George Takei). First up, as you’d expect from Pegg, it’s very funny. Three films in and the Enterprise’s crew have established a comfortable, witty repartee, best of all when Karl Urban’s McCoy and Zachary Quinto’s Spock are paired up. Though, perhaps also as you’d expect from Pegg, his Scotty gets most of the best lines — and even the girl.
But more than newfound wit, Pegg and Jung bring back Star Trek’s sense of exploration, breaking new ground and discovering new species and technology, rather than just trotting out Khan or the Klingons again. It’s seen in Krall’s swarm of insectile ships, in newcomer Jaylah’s (an excellent Sofia Boutella) striking monochrome features, in the almost fungal structures that make up an alien dwelling.
What’s lacking, though, is creator Gene Roddenberry’s interest in diplomacy, in negotiation, in exploring real-world conflicts through fictional stand-ins. There’s an admittedly funny nod to it in the film’s fast-paced prologue, but beyond that the focus is firmly on fighting one’s way to victory. Director Justin Lin proved his action chops in the trenches of the Fast & Furious franchise, but here some of the biggest set pieces feel muddled, too ambitious for their own good, the geography of the fights lost in the effort to make them spectacular.
Fortunately, his cast are more than capable of making up for such setbacks. Pine is still dependable as Kirk, but it’s Quinto that once again runs away with it as Spock works through his own crisis of confidence. That’s triggered by one of the twin tragedies hanging over the film: the deaths of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Nimoy, who died last February, is commemorated through the off-camera death of his own time-travelling take on Spock in a touching tribute. Yelchin, whose death came as such a shock a scant few weeks ago, is celebrated with a brief ‘For Anton’ title in the film’s closing credits after delivering one of the film’s warmest, most endearing performances.
Star Trek Beyond strives for a middle ground between Abrams and Roddenberry, a Trek that’s both open-minded and action-packed. It never quite reaches that lofty goal, but it’s difficult not to love it for trying at all.
Words by Dominic Preston