'Star Trek Beyond' Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
3.5

Star Trek Beyond is the second straight blockbuster to be a reboot of a decades-old franchise. While the Trek universe shares little in common on the surface with Ghostbusters, both franchises and their fan bases are caught in a divide between the old ways and the new. Though many of the 'Ghostbros' have been far more hostile in their reactions to a new world, there are long time Trek fans still loudly opposed to how this reboot franchise has made Star Trek the kind of loud, effects/action driven spectacle the original series and movies never had to be, especially after Star Trek Into Darkness.

The continued battle between the old school ways of Star Trek and the new slam-bang prime directive of the recent movies is on full display in Star Trek Beyond. This is actually rather fitting for a movie celebrating Trek's 50th anniversary, as it recaptures the ideals and values that has made Trek endure for five decades at its best, and shows the limitations of its current incarnation at its worst.

The Enterprise crew is three years into its five-year exploration of uncharted space, and the toll is wearing heavily on them. In particular, Kirk and Spock are facing respective crossroads as the ship takes a much needed break in the base of Yorktown. But their rest is short lived when they receive a distress call from a nebula in deep space, which turns out to be a trap carried out by a creature named Krall and his hive of bee-like ships. This brings the Enterprise down and leaves the crew stranded and separated on an uncharted planet, where they receive help from a long time survivor named Jaylah and discover that Krall has far more destructive plans than just bringing down one Federation ship.

Since J.J. Abrams was on sabbatical to reboot the Star Wars franchise, the captain's/director's chair was handed to Justin Lin, who took over the Fast and the Furious franchise halfway through and paved the way for it to be a billion dollar empire. Yet while his action-centric resume surely gave pause to the long time Trek fans, Lin actually gets things off to a slower burn than Abrams did the last two times out. A diplomatic mishap, a few captain's logs, trouble in paradise for Spock and Uhura, a personal revelation about Sulu that George Takei already and controversially objected to, and the visually stunning base of Yorktown fill out the opening set-up before Lin unleashes the dogs of action.

In honor of Trek's 50th anniversary, Lin and co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung try to ultimately honor the legacy by putting Kirk and Spock in doubt about their future. Kirk has the weight of his father's own legacy on his shoulders, which now seems like a mere prelude to the next movie, in light of the news that it is bringing Chris Hemsworth back as George Kirk somehow. As for Spock, the off-screen loss of Leonard Nimoy necessitates mourning for the original Spock as well, bringing about the most bittersweet nostalgia and tributes to the past.

Abrams' two movies revolved around the Kirk-Spock pairing and their differences, but Lin is a bit more versatile in pairing characters together, all while still charting Kirk and Spock on parallel courses. As it turns out, it is oft-neglected third lead McCoy/Bones that is the best sounding board for both of them, particularly for Spock when he and Bones are left stranded. While the reboot series has tried to make Kirk and Spock more of an oil-and-water pair than in the original, Spock and Bones are more naturally suited for it, as Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban help show off together.

These smaller moments of reflection and inner struggle may seem more like the Star Trek long time fans love than the more relentless CGI filled sequences. For those that feel differently, Lin gives them an entire swarm of bee-like ships that bring the Enterprise down, a big chase through the Enterprise wreckage that damages it further, and Kirk going hog wild on a motorcycle.

The balance between honoring the Trek of old and creating a more blockbuster Trek for today has always been the great push-and-pull of the reboot series. Star Trek Into Darkness ultimately pulled away too much, but Beyond gets in more moments that honor the franchise's core strengths and ideals, if only as an anniversary tribute. And when it comes time to go to the "throw in everything but the kitchen sink" well for the action climaxes, Lin's expertise serves him well, although one can only imagine what the old school Trekkers will say about one particular third-act solution.

To further put Trek's legacy under the microscope, they introduce a villain in Krall who teases out a very hostile grudge against everything the Federation, and Star Trek by extension, stands for. It takes a long time before the roots of that grudge are exposed, although when they are, it does expose some fascinating layers to the movie's core struggle and to Star Trek as a whole. Nonetheless, perhaps it takes a bit too long to get there.

With Idris Elba trapped behind layers of blue makeup and voice modulators as Krall, his first live action appearance in 2016 after doing voice overs for three straight Disney blockbusters is a bit limiting, as he only really gets to cut loose in the final act. By waiting until nearly the end to expose the truth about Krall, it seems like all the intriguing possibilities and themes from these revelations are packed in as an afterthought, when they could have been explored more deeply if revealed much earlier. Ironically enough, an ad centered around Krall days ago actually gave away a good part of his backstory, making it less of a shock for those who already caught it on TV or online.

In truth, these final twists really bring Star Trek Into Darkness to mind in more ways than one, which won't be appealing to those who weren't fans of it. In that context, it seems Star Trek Beyond is still rehashing and refighting the same core war between the past and the present of the franchise, and is still struggling to make them co-exist. But in both of these movies, the good intentions and ideas behind these tactics are clear, although the execution of them winds up being flawed.

Into Darkness fell short since almost none of it held up under closer scrutiny, and perhaps Beyond is at risk of the same fate. Nonetheless, it doesn't make the same logical mistakes as Into Darkness's cure for death via "superblood", unlimited beaming capabilities and turning Khan from a brilliant vengeful mad genius to a Terminator-style savage. By those standards, Beyond is a step in the right direction in the big picture, even without being quite the breath of fresh air that Abrams' first Star Trek was.

Lin also inherits the gifts of Abrams' original cast, from Chris Pine to Quinto and Urban and down to Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the now late Anton Yelchin. Of course, some have more to do than others, though it helps getting to work with different scene partners than usual in mid-movie before they all come back together.

With the now established new Enterprise crew in control, there is only scarce room for anyone else, aside from the two major newcomers in Elba and Sofia Boutella. While Elba is held back by design much of the way, Boutella's Jaylah gets to inject more of a spark, perhaps partly because Pegg wrote most of her one-on-one scenes to be with him/Scotty. Either way, showing off big fight moves and showing life and emotion underneath a lot of makeup should also serve Boutella well when she transforms into the new Mummy next summer.

Star Trek clearly isn’t done after 50 years, and not just because of the new TV series next year and the already green lit fourth movie. The state of the brand and whether the current movies are taking it in the right or wrong direction may still be up for debate, but there is more to be encouraged by than discouraged when Beyond is said and done.

The reminders of the importance of loyalty, honoring the past, and fighting for a future that doesn’t just wind up fighting the same old battles not only harkens back to Star Trek’s core values, but to goals that probably need to be remembered more in our current pre-Federation world, especially in this week of all weeks. At its heart, Star Trek and Star Trek Beyond is still capable of touching on that even after all this time.

Nevertheless, the missed opportunities to go deeper, and some of the storytelling and pacing problems that get in the way, are also glaring as well. This might not be the ideal movie that bridges the gap between the newer school fans, and those who wish the Star Trek movies resembled the more thoughtful original TV series episode of the week more than the average mega blockbuster of the week.

Given that the next movie stands to go the time travel route in reuniting father and son Kirks, whether or not Abrams, Lin or someone else is in charge, how the next 50 years of Star Trek kick off is still anyone’s guess. Since the original six movies were famous for the even-numbered films being much better than the odd-numbered, it is ironic that the opposite is turning out to be true for this new series, although that doesn’t bode well for the next one.

Star Trek Beyond ultimately does encompass almost everything about Star Trek in the last five decades and in the last seven years in particular, from the good, the bad, the promising, the frustrating and everything in between. It all averages out to somewhere between a 6.5 and a 7 score, although it is bumped up to 7 for the official TMN.com scale.