One of the chief complaints with J.J. Abrams' relaunched Star Trek franchise is that it's so heavy on action that it neglects some of the humanist, philosophical aspects that made Gene Roddenberry's creation great. That's a fair point, and the difficult balance has always been between those thoughtful touches and the required blockbuster action. As the franchise celebrates its 50th year, Star Trek Beyond arrives with a purely action-oriented director in Justin Lin, best known for demolishing cars in the Fast & Furious franchise. Now he gets to crash entire starships in the most explosive, intense Star Trek yet, and it's so relentless you don't have time to worry about what's missing.
“Things are starting to feel a little episodic", grumbles Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) during the film's somewhat melancholic opening sequences. It's possible Lin and co-writers Simon Pegg (who also plays "Scotty") and Doug Jung are remarking on the reboot itself, which got out of the gate hot with 2009's film then faltered with Star Trek Into Darkness. More likely it's just a nod to the 50-year history these characters and the oft-battered Starship Enterprise have endured. Either way, that feeling of gradual unease as a ship captain on an endless voyage has Kirk thinking of a career change. "What are we trying to accomplish?” he wonders. But of course, a dangerous mission and a new foe put any answers on hold.
An answered distress call lures the crew into an unknown nebula where they are attacked by a new enemy, Krall (Idris Elba), an evil warlord with plans to destroy everything Starfleet stands for. Isn't that always the case, though? Krall's attack force, a buzzing swarm of fighters, engulfs the Enterprise as if it was caught in a whirlwind of bees. The ship destroyed in epic, Lin-endorsed fashion, the team is separated on Krall's planet, with a handful such as Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) captured. Spock (Zachary Quinto) suffers grievous injury, but that's okay because he's got Bones (Karl Urban) around to patch him up and exchange witty banter with. If you're looking for the kind of team camaraderie seen in the prior movies, it's only here in measured doses, but the interactions between Bones and Spock are the movie's highlight, with Pegg adding many light touches to the screenplay. It's safe to say this is the funniest Star Trek has ever been.
What's missing is a sense of higher stakes. Krall's plan is pretty thin, "destroy Starfleet", targeting one specific outpost that he sees as a symbol of their unity. Yeah, okay, but what else? Not much. There is a reveal about him later that arrives too late to matter much to the plot, and after the big battle things just sort of come to an end, a sign that there wasn't much in the way of repercussions. The other major new character introduced is treated much better. Sofia Boutella (who played the razor-legged villain of Kingsman: The Secret Service) brings much-needed spark as Jaylah, a fierce warrior with her own beef against Krall, but she's content to survive out on her own rather than seek revenge...at least until Scotty, Kirk, and the gang come calling. With her fighting ability and knack for creating invisibility fields, she proves a match for pretty much the entire crew. Good thing she's on their side.
The rest of the crew doesn’t get a lot to do. The relationship between Spock and Uhura has hit a rocky stage but other than a few humorous jabs by Bones we don't see much of it. A lot has been made of Sulu's newly-revealed sexuality, and in the screening I attended it earned a round of applause, but it's merely background color. You'll get a pang of sadness every time Anton Yelchin warbles through his Russian accent as young ensign Chekov. We see more of the late actor this time than in previous films and it's a treat that should be savored. The role won't be recast in future movies so this is the last time we'll see Chekov at all in this Star Trek canon, unless it's in flashback. The emphasis is more on spectacle this time around than ever before, and Lin delivers the dazzling array of action we'd come to expect from him. Think the gravity-defying madness of Fast & Furious was wild? Think of what Lin can do when there is no gravity at all. It's pretty spectacular, with Kirk literally flying into battle at one point.
Whatever one thinks of the story, Lin accomplished what he was brought in to do, and that is entertain. Star Trek Beyond doesn't have much complexity, and that may rankle fans who were hoping for a bit more depth and humanity, but it'll just have to wait until the next voyage.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5