From a storytelling perspective, Star Trek Beyond represents a deliberate attempt to take the reboot film series back to the primary roots of Star Trek. It scales back the self-mirroring franchise-metatext ambitions shown in both the previous J.J. Abrams-helmed films and delivers what might best be described as a super-sized traditional Star Trek episode amped up on current-day filmmaking and visual effects steroids.
I just kind of wish I had liked it more.
Don't get me wrong; I liked this reasonably okay, and I appreciated the screenplay's admirable focus on character interaction. But there are stretches here that feel like disappointing exercises in "been there, done that, wrote the review." Beyond is perfectly acceptable Trekkian fare, and at times even pretty good. But on the whole? Meh.
More than anything else, Beyond to me evokes the memory of Star Trek: Insurrection. That too was a serviceable but unremarkable film in the model of "just another planet-based Trek adventure." And while I like that they've tried here to make Trek breezy and light on its feet again (the tone is set in the first scene with a failed alien negotiation that devolves into amusingly goofy slapstick), they've done so with a threadbare storyline that for stretches feels like it's adrift in the wilderness and revolving around a flat villain who has weak (and unclear) motivations.
Beyond takes place halfway into the Enterprise's five-year mission exploring deep space on the final frontier. The Enterprise has become a self-sufficient family out of the necessity of its prolonged isolation, and if there's an upside to the setting, it's that deep space gives this a very different feel when compared to the previous two Earth-bound movies. It feels like we're out in the wilderness. On the downside is that being out in the middle of nowhere provides little opportunity for world-building in this universe, which felt like an asset in the previous two movies. (That point may seem counterintuitive, but if this whole thing is a one-off then we're not really contributing to the cohesive canvas. This is a self-contained episode with self-contained adversaries.)
Kirk finds that he's experiencing a crisis of self-identity. On his birthday, he observes to Bones that he's now older than his father was on the day he was born — which, as we know, was also the day his father died. Considering an announcement has already been made for a fourth film in this series that will allegedly be about Kirk meeting his father, maybe Kirk will be able to even more fully work out those issues. (Note: Always beware any early announcement purporting to discuss the idea behind a sequel that has yet to hire a director — or, for that matter, before the box-office results have even started to come in on the current outing. Announcements can always be unannounced.) Feeling so personally rudderless has pushed Kirk to the point he's considering leaving the Enterprise for an open vice admiral position. (Though his isolation begs the question of whatever happened to Carol Marcus. A point was made to show her joining the crew at the end of Into Darkness, but there's not so much as a single line mentioning her here.)
The Enterprise docks at the Federation's Yorktown starbase for resupply and shore leave. Actually, let me amend my earlier comment about world-building: The realization of Yorktown represents this film's single best visual triumph. It's a massive space city that envisions skyscrapers built at angles opposing one another on a gyroscope-like design. It's quite the sight to behold and is an example of how the availability of CGI allows the creation of anything onscreen, with imagination being the only limiting factor. Of all the space station designs I've seen in Trek (and beyond), this one surpasses them.
The crew takes some needed downtime. As Kirk ponders his crisis of identity, Spock is facing his own dilemma: His relationship with Uhura is on the rocks, in large part because news Spock has received about the passing of Ambassador Spock (more on that later) has made him question his own priorities as a Vulcan. He's considering leaving the Enterprise to return to New Vulcan. Meanwhile, Sulu is reunited with his husband and young daughter. If much has been made in the press the past couple weeks about the revelation of Sulu being gay — amounting to Trek's first (and long overdue) confirmed-on-screen gay character — the film itself appropriately treats it as the complete non-issue it is.
Shortly after the Enterprise's arrival, a lone alien in an escape pod named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) arrives at Yorktown pleading for help, saying that her ship's crew has been stranded on a nearby planet. The Enterprise is assigned to cancel shore leave and rescue them. What they instead find in orbit of the planet is a swift ambush by a massive swarm of tiny ships that quickly disables the Enterprise, which is then boarded by an alien force led by Krall (Idris Elba) who is looking for something the Enterprise has in its possession. That something is essentially a MacGuffin that drives much of the plot for the next hour.
The catastrophic assault on the Enterprise is an impressive barnburner of a sequence, ultimately leading to the ship's destruction, with the crew being evacuated and the saucer crashing to the planet's surface. In an outing that generally avoids the sorts of drawn parallels between the prime universe and this one, I'll just make the note that the second entry of each film series gave us Khan, while the third entry of each gives us the destruction of the Enterprise. Also worth noting is how the ship's demolition is played for its visceral impact much more than it's playing on our emotional attachment to it, assuming we had any. (These films have little time to be sentimental about the ship itself, and the fact we get a new Enterprise in the movie's closing scene is analogous to the way Kirk dies in Into Darkness only to be revived a few scenes later. We used to have to wait years until the next movie for payoffs to these major developments; now we need only wait minutes.)
Stranded and scattered on the planet surface, the characters must now figure out what to do. Most of the crew members, including Uhura and Sulu, have been rounded up and are now being held at Krall's compound as he plots his next move in tracking down the MacGuffin device. Kirk and Chekov return to the crashed saucer section of the ship to retrieve the MacGuffin along with Kalara, who betrayed them and must clearly not be trusted. She has in store a second betrayal that Kirk sees coming, and the resulting shootout with the aliens ends with the saucer section being flipped over.
Meanwhile, Scotty becomes allies with a resourceful alien survivor named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who has been stranded on this planet for years. She lives in the wreckage of the USS Franklin, a crashed warp-4 Starfleet derelict that went missing a century ago and that has no business being this far out in deep space. Surviving for so long by cleverly using the art of holographic illusion, Jaylah is in the tradition of plucky sidekicks who are more competent in their element than the main characters and have a funny way of saying things, a la "Montgomery Scotty." She likes listening to Public Enemy on the ship's music database. Her knowledge of Krall's base will be essential in rescuing the Enterprise crew. Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding the Franklin is what gives the movie its backstory intrigue, although for a very long time that would-be intrigue feels more incidental than essential.
Probably the best thing about Beyond is its pairing of McCoy and an injured Spock and their ongoing banter — and indeed the expanded role for Bones altogether. The film pivots away from the Kirk-Spock-Uhura triad of the last two movies and back toward the Kirk-Spock-Bones triad of the classic series. While this backtracks on something that has thus far been a uniquely distinguishing characteristic of the reboot, it's nice to see Bones take center stage again. Karl Urban does a great job capturing the essence of the character while in a perpetual state of comic annoyance. (Look, for example, at the scene where Bones is forced to co-pilot a swarm ship because it's been deemed a "good idea" and he barely gets 10 seconds to offer up a protest before being beamed away.) Urban and Zachary Quinto have memorable moments alternating pithy dialogue and levity that's in the great tradition of the original characters.
On the other hand, the film's biggest disappointment has to be Krall. As a character, there's very little substance here, and what's here is the opposite of subtle. Idris Elba has been great in many roles, but Krall is not one that will distinguish him. Krall hates the Federation and wants to retrieve the MacGuffin device because it holds the key to unleashing a doomsday bioweapon that he intends to use to kill everyone on Yorktown — because it represents the Peaceful Unity of the Federation that he very much opposes.
Why? That's the nagging question for a very long time. He's opposed because Unity Is Weakness. There's something else here, but that's not to be revealed until the big twist at the end. In the meantime, as the film's adversary, he's a boring one-note heavy buried under pounds of prosthetics who trudges about the screen and growls intimidatingly. Occasionally, he uses a strange device to apparently suck the life-force out of other people and transfer it to himself. Even more so than Admiral Marcus in Into Darkness, he represents the film's failure to engage with meaningful ideas (in this case, ostensibly, xenophobia and isolation — relevant today to be sure), and simply uses his beef to drive a familiar doomsday plot.
Some of the action tries to stand out as memorable (Ex. 1: Flipping saucer sections! Ex. 2: Holographic motorcycle diversions!), but the frequent hand-to-hand combat and shootouts feel antiquated at this point. Many of the planet-bound scenes seem to revert to the tropes of Westerns, and while that's a reliable staple in the annals of Trek, little of it feels fresh or exciting. At times I felt my impatience growing. Fortunately, just as I was starting to get antsy, the action allows the crew of the Enterprise to be rescued with a clever and resourceful plan by Kirk & Co. by reviving the Franklin, and they escape the planet. The scenes of the crew problem-solving to escape their dilemma represent classic Trekkian fare. Next they must stop Krall from destroying Yorktown!
Heading back to Yorktown is in the film's favor. It at least raises the stakes — and like I previously said, the Yorktown is an impressive setting to be in — although the doomsday scenario is admittedly worn out. The crew uses vintage technobabble improv to destroy the swarm fleet (Ex. 3: An explosive wave to the tune of the Beastie Boys' Sabotage!), and then Kirk must duke it out with Krall in the Yorktown's life support hub to stop him from deploying the bioweapon (Ex. 4: A final fight in a space station's bizarre gravity well!).
The big twist is the discovery that Krall is actually a mutated Balthazar Edison, the captain of the crashed USS Franklin and an ex-MACO (see Star Trek: Enterprise season three) who was made a Starfleet captain after the military organization was disbanded (which points at the seed of his ideology that was ultimately twisted into an evil vision). Edison apparently went a little crazy as a result of the alien technology that allowed him to extend his life, coupled with his sense of abandonment from being stranded so long. This backstory at least gives Krall a little more interest, but it unfortunately does so only retroactively once the movie is nearly over. It also raises a lot of questions that don't feel adequately explained. Where did the swarm fleet come from? How did Krall come to lead the aliens who pilot it? Why does Krall need the bioweapon when he already has such a destructive swarm at his disposal? For that matter, if the movie explains where Krall's henchmen Kalara and Manas came from, I missed it. (According to Memory Alpha, they were other surviving members of the Franklin crew, but the movie does not make that clear. Giving them different alien designs doesn't exactly help.) I suspect all the necessary information is probably buried in the movie somewhere, but from a narrative clarity standpoint it's messy and feels incomplete.
Justin Lin's direction here is perfectly fine. More than anything, he comes across as a hired gun who comes in and does his job to efficiently helm an episode and mostly stays out of the way. Ultimately, he can be primarily attributed neither the strengths nor weaknesses of the film. That falls more at the feet of the screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung.
On the plus side, they've done some really admirable character work and have moved the tone back toward a traditional Trek without it ever seeming forced. All the characters feel like they've been allowed to settle in a bit and be more relaxed and reflective as themselves — the big three of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in particular. These are more refined versions of the characters than seen in the first two movies. Their relationships and interactions anchor the movie.
And Spock's reflection upon the death of Ambassador Spock honorably acknowledges the real-world passing of Leonard Nimoy. There's a really nice touch where Spock opens Ambassador Spock's personal effects and inside we see the cast photo from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It's a simple, wordless scene that says everything it needs to say — bridging the prime and reboot universes in an understated and yet consciously self-referential way.
On the minus side, we've still not gotten a reboot Trek movie that feels like it has actually tried to deal with fully formed, significant ideas. Instead, there's still the overriding sense that the audience cannot be challenged because we don't want to make things too difficult for them to consume.
As such, this film represents a reasonably entertaining balance of those priorities. It seems at this point the Trek film franchise is currently boxed in by a lack of will for higher ambitions because it views itself only as a popcorn franchise. As I've said before, that's okay (if self-limiting), because Trek serves a lot of different masters and this is just what is being served up right now in this particular medium. There will be more Trek soon (Star Trek: Discovery arrives in January), which means there will be another medium offering a different vision. That's the beauty and legacy of Star Trek when coupled with its already available library. It exists in different tones and time frames, with different visions and creative goals, delivered by different casts and crews — all at once. Sooner, later, and previously, there is a Trek to fill every need.
Previous: Star Trek Into Darkness