Directed by Justin Lin
Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung
Starring Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella
Runtime: 122 minutes
With Star Trek celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it’s good to have something bearing the moniker up on the screen. Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the franchise that started in 1979, which was the spin-off of the Star Trek television show that ran from 1966-1969 and the Star Trek: The Animated Series which briefly ran from 1973-1974. Keeping a franchise this old fresh must be difficult (just ask Stephen Moffett and the group working on the now 53-year-old Doctor Who series), but the team working on these reboots of Star Trek had the right idea by setting their stories in an alternate timeline so as not to alter anything that fans have known and loved all these years because that universe is still intact (and probably the setting for the upcoming TV series, though when it is set is still unanswered). The good news is that Beyond doesn’t go off the rails like Into Darkness did, but it’s still trying to live up to the superior ‘first’ installment.
The story puts us three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission. Kirk (Christopher Pine) is getting bored being out in space for so long, despite encountering difficulties with negotiations with a species the size of a small dog when they rejected his neutral representation of a species that was presenting them with a piece of an ancient weapon as a peace offering (it’s important later). The Enterprise docks at Yorktown, a new Starfleet facility that is a starbase, but it looks more like a class-encased city-planet that was designed by MC Escher. Kirk hopes that some time off the ship will help refocus him on the mission. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is told of Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy)’s death. The Enterprise isn’t docked for long when it’s sent back out on a rescue mission into a nearby uncharted nebula where the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed (no spoilers there, it’s in the trailer) and the crew separated. They were attacked so Krall (Idris Elba) could get the piece of the ancient weapon and rebuild said weapon to use against the Federation.
Writers Simon Pegg (who is also Scotty) and Doug Jung (who appears briefly as Sulu (John Cho)’s partner) have done a great job of keeping the mood light by infusing humor all the way through. Scotty’s scenes are especially good (go figure), but this time around the entire crew gets time to shine because they are split up. Kirk spends most of the film with Chekov (the sadly late Anton Yelchin), Spock is teamed with Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Scotty with Jayla (Sofia Boutella), a great new character who had been stranded on the planet by Krall, same as the Enterprise crew. Pegg and Jung do a fantastic job of continuing to build these characters we’ve already spent two films with (and in some ways, 50 years, though they’re not exactly the same). They’ve also created a villain in Krall that is suitably terrifying and with a scary, crazy viewpoint of wanting to destroy the Federation so humans can know struggle, pain and war that doesn’t really make sense, but if it did you’d probably have to question your value system. They’ve also engineered a great twist as to the identity of Krall, but it appears that may have been spoiled in one of the trailers or TV spots. Regardless, they’ve worked in quite a lot more character moments than in the previous films and that is to the benefit of the entire picture. There is also the little matter of making Cho’s Sulu gay. It’s done tastefully and it also sets up that he’s already had his daughter Demora, so the timeline is at least intact there (Demora became the helmsperson for the Enterprise B in the prime timeline, shown in Star Trek Generations). It’s a brief shot and is never brought up again (though his partner and daughter are seen running for safety during the attack on Yorktown), and you know why? Because it isn’t a big deal. They use it as a glimpse into the lives of the crew when they aren’t aboard the Enterprise and quite frankly, it’s about time that the single most progressive franchise acknowledges that gay people are out there and that who people are attracted to doesn’t mean anything in terms of character or personality, just like skin color or religion or nationality.
Coming on to direct this third (13th) installment is Justin Lin, best known for directing 4 films in the Fast and Furious franchise. As one would expect, Lin does the action in a breathless fashion, a skill honed over those four FF pictures, but also in distinctive imitation of prior director J.J. Abrams’ style. He even cops a lot of the wandering camera that provides a lot of uncommon angles (not just Dutch angles, but full camera revolutions on a push in). While this is good to create visual continuity in the series, it feels like Lin may not have been trying to do anything particularly different with the film than Abrams did. What may surprise some is the deft way he handled the quiet, non-action scenes, of which there are plenty. Yes, there are a lot of heartfelt monologues in the FF pictures, but no real character building beyond the “We’re a family” trope (I’m not bashing the franchise, they’re really not that bad, but they are more or less pretty simple in their characters), but here there is genuine development and a flurry of mixed emotions. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he can handle this, though, as his directorial debut was with Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002, which he also co-wrote. That film is about a group of over-achieving Asian-American teens that are so bored with doing well in school that they take up their own criminal enterprises and the consequences that result from their actions. It’s a remarkable film and in a way it’s sad Lin never got to continue making those personal pictures, but he hit the big-budget leagues and he’s doing quite well in them.
The cast continues to be great in their roles, making them their own without trying too hard to call back to their famous predecessors. The tragedy is, of course, that this will be Anton Yelchin’s final appearance as Chekov, having died in a freak accident earlier this year, though there are 4 other films he’d completed before his death that have not yet been released. It is unclear how this will be addressed in future installments, as the film was already completed and ready for release (it happened barely over a month ago as of this writing), but I hope Chekov is not recast.
Star Trek Beyond may not be as invigorating as Star Trek (2009), but it goes a long way to keeping this franchise barreling ahead. It puts everything back on a great course, a challenge considering the last act of Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s exciting, fun, funny and confronts a lot of the themes that made Star Trek a lasting legacy: time, age, discovery and the importance of working together to advance ourselves as one people and as one galaxy and again encourages us to live long and prosper.