This year, the Star Trek franchise hits a milestone, as it marks it’s 50th anniversary. What started off as an ambitious, but admittedly cheesy prime time sci-fi adventure series on televisionin the 1960’s has since blossomed into one of the most influential and recognizable brands in entertainment. In the last 50 years, the original series has spawned a movie franchise that in total has produced 13 films, albeit with questionable continuity. It has also led to the creation of 4 different spin-off series, with another currently in development, all of which help to expand on the mythos that Star Trek is built upon and build up it’s legacy further. And through all this, it’s still remarkable how Star Trek has managed to remain relevant all these years later. Sure, the devoted fan base of the Trekkie population has always kept the series in the spotlight, but we are also still seeing even the casual viewer taking interest in Star Trek today, still holding it up in high regards. I think what has helped Star Trek to adapt over the years has been the way it’s been guided by expert filmmakers who bring a bit of their own interests into the series. When J.J. Abrams was tasked with bringing a re-imagined Star Trek to the big screen back in 2009, he stated that he was coming at it as someone who wasn’t a passionate fan of the series. Don’t get him wrong, he still respected the Star Trek universe, but what he wanted to do was to create a version of the series that was not geared solely to the die hard fan, but also to the uninitiated viewer who may or may not be experiencing this universe for the first time. And it was a new direction for the long running series that really paid off in the end.
J.J. Abrams re-imagined the Star Trek universe by bringing it back to it’s roots, with all the original characters, but opened up the possibilities of different directions by injecting the concept of an alternate timeline into the mix. It was a genius way to allow a new, more up-to-date take on the origins of the Star Trek, but also give the devoted fan base the relief that it’s not rewriting what has happened before it; keeping the original series and films respectfully a part of this on-going franchise (take note Ghostbusters). The 2009 relaunch of Star Trek was universally praised by both Trekkies and general audiences alike, but this also put pressure on the filmmakers on how they would follow this up. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), encountered a much different reaction when it was released. While not an outright disappointment, a lot of fans of Star Trek were underwhelmed by the uneven sequel. The plot made very little sense; some of the cast were very out of character; and the finale of the film shamelessly stole scenes wholesale right out of the beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), showing clear-cut audience pandering that left many fans cold. While I stated in my review that I still enjoyed Into Darkness overall, I do acknowledge that it had a lot of unsolvable problems that hurt it, namely in the dreary, taking itself too seriously screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Damon Lindelof. When it was announced that another Star Trek was in the works, many people feared that the wrong direction that Into Darkness was taking the series into was going to continue, and with J.J. Abrams jumping ship to relaunch the Star Wars series with The Force Awakens (2015), it looked like Star Trek was heading for a downfall, just as it was finding it’s footing once again. So, with Star Trek Beyond now in theaters, are we seeing the best days of the series long behind us, or will this movie take it back to it’s celestial heights?
The story finds the crew of the starship Enterprise in the middle of their five year mission into deep space, or as famously stated, the Final Frontier. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) begins to question his place within the Federation hierarchy as the mundane and thankless missions take their toll on him, and he seriously considers giving up his captain’s seat for a vice admiral position. At the same time, his First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is torn by his duty to the ship and his desire to help his Vulcan people rebuild their culture, leading him to also consider leaving his position. Their personal struggles are put on hold when a distress call is brought to their attention, leading them to take the Enterprise out to a remote planet on the edges of the galaxy. There, the Enterprise is attacked by an immense, swarm-like fleet of ships, which leads to the destruction of the Enterprise and the forced evacuation of it’s crew. After crash landing on the remote planet, the Enterprise crew is split apart and at the mercy of the ruthless mercenary force, led by the mysterious Krall (Idris Elba). Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) search for answers as to where their lost crew might be, and what Krall is after. Spock, wounded from his encounters with the alien force, must rely on the help of Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) to survive. Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) seek to escape the clutches of Krall’s forces as they are confined with the other hostages. And Scotty (Simon Pegg) runs across a lone wolf rebel on the same planet named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who may have the means necessary of helping the crew reunite and fight back against Krall. But time is short for all of them, as Krall seeks to use a weapon in the Enterprise’s possession that could destroy millions of lives at the nearby Federation star base.
A lot of questions were raised whether or not the Star Trek franchise would manage in a post-Abrams direction, and the choice of direction given over to Justin Lin of Fast and the Furious fame seemed to make a lot of fans uneasy. Thankfully, all of our fears were for not because Star Trek Beyond is a success all the way through; not just as a continuation of the Star Trek franchise, but as a movie in general. From beginning to end, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, and probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie all summer. The action scenes are phenomenal, and very creatively staged. The cast is engaged and clearly having fun. The script is also much more in tone with the basics of what this series is about. It should be noted that a draft of this screenplay was written by Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty in the movie) and his input brings a renewed focus to the series. Pegg is clearly a fan of Star Trek and he manages to show that in his writing by essentially crafting a two hour episode of the series. The crew encounters a strange, new world; do battle with the hostile force; and return home after saving the day as a team; nothing more complex than that, and it works. Pegg doesn’t have to rely on paying homage to the past or rehashing old ideas in a new context. Here, he just let’s the story and characters go about their business like they normally would, and that makes for a much more engaging adventure in this universe. Also, a lot of credit should go to director Lin for managing to keep the momentum going in this series after the departure of it’s high profile director. Trekkies, rest assured, your franchise is in good hands.
Before I go into the many great things that work in this film, I also want to point out that it’s not 100% perfect either. I think that the while I do enjoy the direction of Justin Lin in this movie, it can sometimes veer dangerously close to incomprehensibility. Lin’s style matches the frenetic vibe of the Fast and the Furious series perfectly, but it sometimes clashes a bit with the story being told here. The pacing for instance suffers a bit from the quick-editing that Lin is more used to, at least in the film’s opening act, where plot points are thrown our way without much time to stick properly. But, thankfully, when the film reaches the remote planet in the second act, it begins to settle down, and allows the narrative to flow out more naturally. Lin’s style also helps to make the action scenes more kinetic than in past films, and thankfully it’s not in a way that feels out of place here. Those of you worried about the image of Kirk riding a motorcycle that was shown in the trailer, be rest assured; it plays out much better in context and is not a forced injection of Fast and the Furious machismo into the Star Trek universe. The only other negative working against the film is unfortunately the central villain, Krall. He’s something of a weak, underwritten character who’s motivations are barely explored, and even when we find out more about his past, it’s kind of shoe-horned in very awkwardly. This is more the fault of the screenplay rather than the actor playing him, because Idris Elba does try his very best and does leave somewhat of an impression. The character is adequate, but never grabs our attention the same way that Eric Bana’s Nero or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan had done before. Even still, the character could have been much more poorly handled, and it’s to the credit of Elba’s abilities as a performer that he works fine at all in this film.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength would be the absolute stellar cast assembled for this series. These actors were given the unenviable task of taking over iconic characters and making them their own, and each one of them has done a superb job. Given that one of the stars of the film also served as screenwriter, it’s no surprise that much of the movie is devoted to building the interconnected relationships with one another. What I love best about the film is that it attempts to pair up characters that don’t normally share screen-time together in this series and allows us to see what might happen as a result. I especially liked the pairing of Spock and Bones in this film, as it gives the movie it’s most amusing subplot. Spock, of all people, gets some of the film’s biggest laughs, and I thought it was a welcome surprise for this series to use the character this way, yet still remain true. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and everyone else continue to impress as these iconic characters; embodying the roles without falling into parody. I also liked the fact that they’re able to find new angles to explore with them. News broke earlier that this film was going to reveal that this version of Sulu is gay (something that original Sulu and out actor George Takei objected to, despite it being a special acknowledgement to him), but I was pleased to see that it was presented in a very subtle, non-exploitative way that does not change anything about the character at all; it’s just a nice added detail. I also liked how well the new character of Jaylah fit into the story, and the character dynamics overall. She could have easily have been a stereotypical tough girl character, but her determination and resourcefulness really helps to add something to the film, and it makes her a more interesting character as a result. I think she works especially well because she is paired with Scotty for most of the movie, and their distinctive personalities mesh together surprisingly well.
Star Trek Beyond’s visuals are also noteworthy of praise. The film supposedly had a smaller budget than Into Darkness, but you wouldn’t know it. Amazingly, this movie feels quite epic in scope. The most impressive centerpiece of the film is the Yorktown Space Station, a massive glass enclosed satellite base that’s other-worldly and breathtaking at the same time. It gives the viewer a sense of awe and wonder that you normally don’t find regularly in the Star Trek franchise. The Base also provides a perfect setting for the climatic battle at the end, which is a significant upgrade from the previous film, which end in a very lackluster way. I especially loved the way that the cityscapes of the colossal base seemed to layer on top of one another, making the climax all the more eye-catching. The planet where most of the film is set also is beautifully realized, and feels at times like a hearken back to the classic series itself; with rock quarries and the remote California deserts and forests acting as stand-ins for an alien world (although this time, Canada served as the location shooting for this film). Overall it’s a movie that feels big without ever trying too hard to look big. It’s all in how the visuals ended up being used I guess. Justin Lin takes the best of what he’s learned from Fast and the Furious and gives Star Trek a consistent, non-flashy identity, and that’s to be commended. J.J. Abrams sometimes distracting lens flares are no where to be seen this time around, and I think that’s a positive move for the series. There’s noting groundbreaking in this Star Trek; it’s just pure solid action in service of the story rather than a distraction from it.
So, I would highly recommend seeing Star Trek Beyond. It may not be the greatest we’ve seen from the Star Trek universe, but it’s a worthy addition that provides great thrills nonetheless. The characters are all still wonderfully realized, and the movie allows them to play off one another in a very fun and engaging way. I especially like the new direction that Justin Lin brought to this series, which was in danger of growing stale after Into Darkness seemed to take a step backward. He gives the movie an impressive sense of scale, while at the same time never overwhelming us with the action either; allowing the characters to drive the story instead. I also love the way that Simon Pegg brought a sense of fun back to this franchise with his script. He doesn’t try to be sanctimonious or too smart with the material, which is a good thing. He knows what Star Trek is supposed to be, and he just let’s it play out like it normally would, making the adventure all the more engaging. My hope is that this team continues on this road in future installments, because it came together almost perfectly here. Sadly, they’ll be missing a crucial piece with the sudden passing of Chekov actor Anton Yelchin, who thankfully gets more of a presence in this feature and likewise delivered with a great amount of charm in his role. The movie also pays tribute to original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, in a respectful way, and how they eulogize him within the film is an incredibly touching moment. Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had watching a movie this year. Movies like Captain America: Civil War and Finding Dory may be better overall, but Star Trek Beyond might be the most fun cinematic experience you will have at the movies this summer season. It’s blockbuster entertainment at it’s finest, and a very worthwhile way to honor the 50th anniversary of this monumental series.