By Matthew E. Milliken
April 13, 2017
Star Trek Beyond, the third entry in J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the venerable science fiction franchise, is a pleasant but ultimately inessential way to pass two hours.
As the picture begins, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise are roughly three years into their five-year mission. But Kirk has grown weary of deep-space exploration (there’s an amusing shot of him opening his closet to see several hangers displaying identical uniforms). Meanwhile, his first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto), feels compelled to break off his relationship with the human communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) because of his wish to help propagate the Vulcan species. This longing is only magnified when he learns of the death of Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, glimpsed in stills), his counterpart from and link to the original Star Trek TV series.
When Enterprise puts in for resupplying, rest and recreation at the remote (and oddly named) Starbase Yorktown after an unsuccessful attempt to broker peace between two warring alien races, there’s a distinct air of discontent about the ship. And yet Kirk remains up for a challenge; when the alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson) rockets toward Yorktown on an escape pod spinning a tale about how her crew has been marooned on an even more remote planet named Altamid, the captain gathers his crew for a voyage through an uncharted nebula.
There Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise are pushed to the brink when they encounter a seemingly limitless swarm of small attack ships led by the ruthless Krall (Idris Elba). The enemy commander, who turns out to know much more about the Federation than they know about him, seeks an artifact that we saw in the movie’s prologue, and he will stop at nothing to get it. By the one-third mark of Star Trek Beyond, Enterprise has been run to ground, most of its crew has been either captured or killed, and key members of the cast have been scattered across a mysterious and hostile planet.
Although the battle over Altamid may be the best action sequence of the movie, the picture’s most enjoyable stretch is the middle stage. This tracks four pairs of characters — Kirk and Ensign Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura and navigator Lt. Sulu (John Cho), and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) and a new character named Jayla (Sofia Boutella) — as they attempt to learn about Krall and his swarm, connect with one another, rescue their crewmates and thwart their adversary.
These middle acts are interesting because it shows us Kirk and crew facing the toughest circumstances they’ve encountered on-screen since the launch of the Abramsverse and because it’s hard to tell just where the story is going. Matters are helped by a dynamic action sequence set on the heavily damaged Enterprise.
Unfortunately, the film loses a bit of momentum as it comes to the end of its time on Altamid, as director Justin Lin (responsible for Annapolis and four — count ’em, four! — entries in The Fast and the Furious franchise) gives us the unfortunate spectacle of Kirk donning ridiculous old-fashioned motorcycle goggles in a raid on Krall’s camp.
Granted, the blame here doesn’t really lie with Lin so much as it does with the scriptwriters: Pegg, who’s also written the comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, among others, and Doug Jung, a TV writer whose only previous feature credit was the independent 2003 crime drama Confidence. Their originality starts to peter out as the blockbuster imperatives assert themselves. One character, Jayla, must face her fears and fight the villain that killed her father; the lead protagonist, Kirk, must reunite his crew and get them to safety; the scientist, Spock, must find a sneaky way to defeat the swarm and complete his emotional arc.
It’s not that Star Trek Beyond is bad; it’s just that as action sequence after action sequence piles atop one another, the moves seem increasingly familiar. At least the filmmakers avoid directly imperiling Earth, as they did at the conclusions of both the 2009 reboot and 2012’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
I described the latter movie as overstuffed, an appellation one could apply to all three Abramsverse outings. At least this antagonist, Krall, has some interesting things to say about unity, strength and the value of conflict. Unfortunately, Elba is muffled figuratively by several layers of latex and literally by an unfortunate accent that his character affects; in the end, he’s the least memorable of the reboot villains.
Abrams, one of Beyond’s producers, and his fellow creators have committed themselves to fleshing out each of the secondary characters. The original Star Trek TV series focused on Kirk, Spock and McCoy almost to the exclusion of the other crew, leaving Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov and the others as little more than glorified props. This was rectified somewhat by novelizations, novels and short fiction, which after all had limitless pages to devote to expanding the Trek universe.
The 2009 Star Trek had a few isolated character beats for the secondary officers, which was pleasant enough but felt extrinsic to the plot. Into Darkness expanded on those moments, but in a way that felt forced. Beyond strikes the best balance thus far — Scotty, Sulu and especially Uhura each have time to shine, and Chekov gets a little attention; best of all, this comes in ways that don’t seem shoehorned into the proceedings.
Star Trek Beyond strongly reminded me of Star Trek: Insurrection, the third cinematic outing of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. There are some parallels between the stories: Villains who drain the life force of innocents; long planet-bound sequences; a key character with important secrets in his past. But the most important parallel were the feelings I had after first viewing each film: While I thought they were enjoyable, I thought they would have been much more impressive had they been produced as a two-part television episode rather than as a stand-alone movie.