It isn’t Star Trek if Captain Kirk doesn’t “accidentally” rip his uniform shirt.
It isn’t a Star Trek film if the Enterprise doesn’t blow up at least once.
Luckily for Trek fans everywhere, the third reboot series installment, Star Trek Beyond, features both these attributes. Ultimately, as a new-ish Trekker, I was more impressed with this film than I was with the first two combined. What sets apart Star Trek Beyond from its predecessors, fundamentally, is its focus on the Enterprise crew–which is where the series’ focus should have been all along.
Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) both received mixed reviews (largely negative in the latter’s case) by critics and die-hard fans alike. I can’t say much about that, because it was Into Darkness that got me into Trek in the first place. Now that I’ve seen the original series, all the original films, and almost all the spinoff shows, I, too, have many bones to pick with the reboot movies (no pun intended). Beyond was far from perfect, but it was a step in the right direction in terms of bringing Gene Roddenberry’s vision to the 21st century. (Finally.)
For one, I found there to be a marked difference in characterization this time around. The Jim Kirk who opens the film is very much like he of the original series. Yes, Jim is cocky and rash–the first two films do a solid job establishing that–but he’s also quick on his feet, a true leader, and a very good speech-maker. The opening scene, wherein Kirk attempts to talk his way through negotiating peace between two squabbling species, establishes all of these things. It feels very Trek right from the start, which is a relief and a joy to see.
And as Kirk himself says in the film, “It wasn’t just me. It never is.” Beyond finally establishes that the Enterprise is a collective group of people, that Star Trek is not the Captain Kirk Show, or even the Spock Show. Rebooting this series was an opportunity to let other characters shine, and finally, director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take advantage of that. Sulu has a husband and daughter. Uhura exists outside her relationship with Spock (gasp!) and stands her ground against Krall in believing, unwaveringly, in her crew. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) had probably more lines in this film than he did in the first two combined–and it’s about damn time, because Bones is a crucial part of what makes Trek special. He is the heart behind Spock’s logic and Kirk’s courage. The newest addition to our band of space heroes and heroines, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), is a force to be reckoned with. Though her backstory is a bit predictable, she comes in guns blazing to help the crew and develops an immediate rapport with Scotty that actually doesn’t result in a romantic relationship–a rarity for dynamics between men and women in mainstream film.
Beyond is also sprinkled with subtle little treats for hardcore fans. However, the references to the original series are tasteful choices–they are vague enough to amuse a wide audience but specific enough that Trek fans will pick them out in seconds. “Did you know,” asks Pavel Chekov toward the end of the film, “that scotch was actually invented by a little old lady in Russia?” – a line almost directly taken from the original Chekov’s speech in the original series classic, “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Laughing at the reference, and hearing the rest of the audience laugh with me whether they understood its origins or not, was a great feeling.
The film’s weaknesses lie in (a) a generic storyline, and (b) lazy characterization of Idris Elba’s role as Krall, this film’s adversary. Both these qualms are related–Krall’s anger toward the Federation drives the plot forward, but this anger is unfounded until almost the very end of the movie. Without revealing spoilers, I’ll say his motives are a bit contrived and cliche; furthermore, the actions he takes because of those motives are entirely over-the-top. Idris Elba is a very talented actor, and I wish more had been done with his character to expand and develop him and showcase Elba’s talents. I’m also more partial to character-driven films, so the gratuitous fight scenes and explosions, while necessary to appeal to a mainstream audience, lulled me into distracted boredom every so often. (Pretty sure that’s just a “me” thing, though. As soon as the weapons come out, I start planning what’s for dinner.)
Despite all that, I’m a bit more forgiving with Beyond in terms of plot since, as I mentioned, it was so much more character-driven than the first two films. It might not seem like it to action movie-goers or casual Trek fans, but to those of us who hold the characters dear to our hearts, a new set of writers and directors who actually care about Star Trek made all the difference. Essentially, what Beyond has that the others don’t is heart. Star Trek ’09 was too bogged down with establishing an alternate universe to do justice to the lore upon which it was based. Into Darkness forced us to care about a Kirk/Spock dynamic that wasn’t grounded in the trust and inspiration and love that characterized it for decades. Instead of floundering for fanservice or trying too hard to march to its own drum, this installment finds balance in staying faithful to the original and holding its own.
It’s always been clear that this cast has fun with each other, but never more so than when their characters are actually talking to each other instead of yelling over phaser fire. The film does a great job grounding and establishing relationships, especially those between our favorite triumvirate: Jim and Bones have a great scene together early in the film where Bones sees right through Jim’s apparent ambivalence toward his approaching birthday; Spock and Bones spend a significant amount of time stranded together and do more than just banter; and of course, Kirk and Spock spend the movie realizing for the umpteenth time that they have no idea what they’d do without each other. It’s kind of beautiful, and it’s what made me fall in love with Trek to begin with. However many explosions or dramatic fight scenes there are, I’m in it for the characters. Beyond delivered in that regard, and I wish the first two films had taken the time to do so early on.
But Beyond proves it’s never too late to save a franchise. With an 85% on RottenTomatoes so far, I have a feeling this one will soar at warp speed toward being named a classic in Trek film history.
In short: Dear Justin Lin & Co,
Thanks for caring. It makes a difference.
The Trek Fandom
Biased Trekkie review: 4/5
Overall review: 3.5/5