Star Trek fans did a lot of phaser clutching back in 2008 when director J.J. Abrams said he wanted to make his iteration of Trek more like Star Wars. “All my smart friends liked Star Trek,” Abrams said at the time. “I preferred a more visceral experience.” For Star Trek Beyond, Abrams handed the keys over to director Justin Lin, and he took a more hands-off approach as producer. Of the three Star Trek movies under the Abrams banner, Beyond is the one most like a visceral Star Wars adventure.
Lin is most famous for the four Fast and Furious films he directed, and his gifts for staging adrenaline pumping action sequences are on full display here. He also directed two episodes of the cult sitcom Community, so Lin knows how to handle ensembles and comedy as well. Amidst all the action is a script by Simon Pegg – who also plays Chief Engineer Scotty – and Doug Jung that honors the ideals and ethos of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The end result is a movie that focuses more on the wow factor than it needs to, but is still immensely enjoyable because of it.
The crew of the USS Enterprise is tasked with a rescue mission when an escape pod reaches Starbase Yorktown. The lone occupant of the pod tells Starfleet that her ship and its crew are stranded on a planet in a distant, uncharted nebula. When Captain James T. Kirk and company reach the far off planet, they are ambushed by a horde of attack ships, and the Enterprise is torn to pieces. This opening battle, like the one toward the end of the movie, is masterfully orchestrated by Lin. The action explodes on the big screen and achieves an intense, breathless quality.
The structure of Star Trek Beyond is both its greatest strength and weakness. It’s a movie that practically jettisons the first two acts in order to deliver two hours of climax. Within twenty minutes of the picture starting, our heroes are battling for their lives against this unknown enemy and the movie never lets up from there. The Star Trek TV show worked in a similar way – the crew are often in a desperate situation by the first commercial break and the rest of the episode shows them getting out of it – so maybe Pegg and Jung were paying homage with this movie’s structure. Much of the credit for the effectiveness of the battle sequences goes to the design of the enemy attackers. They are described by one character as a swarm of bees. The visual effects team of Star Trek Beyond renders that idea with a great deal of precision.
Between those two space battles, a lot of the movie takes place on the planet where the wreckage of the Enterprise lands after the initial ambush. Producer Abrams is fond of storytelling that employs what he calls the “mystery box,” and writers Pegg and Jung deliver just that with their story. The crew members of the Enterprise who aren’t taken prisoner by Krall, the enigmatic enemy commander, are scattered to the alien winds. As they work to find each other, the crew struggles along the way to decipher why Krall attacked and what he wants with a seemingly useless alien relic.
Meanwhile, Scotty is rescued from nefarious scavengers by Jaylah, a stranded woman who knows a good deal about humans, despite being from a species that hasn’t yet joined the United Federation of Planets. Jaylah tells the ship’s engineer that their strife with Krall is because he is intent on using an ancient bioweapon to attack the Federation – literally and philosophically. It is Kirk’s response to this threat that best exemplifies deceased creator Gene Roddenberry’s original idea for the Star Trek universe.
Until a revelation late in the film, it is assumed that Krall is simply an agent of chaos, inflicting destruction because he can. It feels like a direct correlation to fundamentalist terrorism in our own world. Terrorists always claim the reasons for their actions are legitimate, but the death and destruction they inflict often feel like an end unto themselves, instead of as a means to some other goal. What Kirk, Uhura, Spock, Bones, and the others represent, and what Pegg and Jung specifically call back to in their dialog, is a rejection of that destruction through collective action. Because their community, they argue with pride, is stronger than Krall’s divisiveness. Roddenberry’s message is on the periphery, since Beyond is primarily focused on those near non-stop action sequences, but I really appreciated it being there.
A few other elements in Star Trek Beyond feel like welcome throw backs to the original creation. The various Star Trek TV shows delighted in introducing strange new alien beings every week, and that’s evoked here with new Enterprise crew members, as well as the introduction of Jaylah. Actress Sofia Boutella, a relative newcomer who is unrecognizable to most audiences, is even more unrecognizable under all the makeup, but that doesn’t hinder her from making Jaylah a complete badass. The character’s no-nonsense demeanor, superior fighting skills, and affinity for “classical” music of the 20th Century make her a welcome addition to the Star Trek universe. There’s also some playful winking at the audience as Kirk complains in a Captain’s Log entry that his adventures of late have started to feel rather episodic.
There’s a lot to like in Star Trek Beyond. There are fun character moments, like Dr. Henry “Bones” McCoy being ever frustrated and irritated by, well, pretty much everything around him. The romantic relationship established in the earlier films between Spock and Uhura is advanced. In fact, one seemingly toss away moment regarding their relationship comes back as a central plot point in the story. Beyond relies a little too heavily on slam-bang action to be totally satisfying, but it delivers on a wild ride that can please both fans of big summer blockbusters and true blue-blooded Trekkers.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- I've been wrestling for a few days with the fact that the non-stop climax aspect of the movie is part of the reason I didn't rate it higher. I've had trouble with it because that same technique is a big part of the reason I rated Mad Max: Fury Road as the best movie of 2015. The main difference is Fury Road does settle down, at least for a little while, in a way Star Trek Beyond never does. Also, I was never as engaged with Star Trek Beyond as I was with Fury Road.
- All of the above doesn't detract from how much fun Star Trek Beyond is. This has been a pretty successful Summer Blockbuster season, and Star Trek Beyond is a big part of it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I love me some Michael Giacchino. His beautiful orchestrations on the television show Lost, as well as his scores for movies like Pixar's The Incredibles, are top notch. His work here was a let down. It sounded like a big action movie score that just about any competent composer could have written, without Giacchino's distinctive touch.