I don’t go to the movies in the theater much anymore, but I’ve been twice this summer. The first time was to see the new Ghostbusters, which I very much liked, and just last weekend my husband and I went to see Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the “rebooted” Star Trek franchise that began in 2009. I have long been a Star Trek fan. I remember watching the original shows in reruns with my dad on Saturday afternoons–this was in the 1970s–and I remember seeing each and every Star Trek film in the theater, up until the very disappointing Star Trek: Insurrection in 1998. While I enjoyed the 2009 reboot, I was somewhat disappointed, mostly after the fact, with 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Beyond, but I was interested to see it. I’m glad I did: the film turned out to be delightful, easily the best of the rebooted film series.
(Very mild spoilers) Beyond begins a couple of years into the starship Enterprise‘s five-year mission to explore deep space. After a botched diplomatic job involving an alien trinket, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is sent on what seems like a simple assignment to rescue a disabled ship that has fallen into an uncharted nebula. Once there, however, the Enterprise is fiercely attacked by a fleet of tiny spaceships, commanded by the evil alien Krall (Idris Elba), which literally tear the starship into pieces that crash in various places on a forbidding planet. Krall quickly rounds up the Enterprise crew and holds them hostage. The principals are scattered in various places: Kirk and Scotty (Simon Pegg) join up with a mysterious alien (Sofia Boutella) who owes Krall an unpleasant revenge; McCoy (Karl Urban) is forced to deal with a badly wounded Spock (Zachary Quinto); while Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) try to keep the Enterprise survivors together. Ultimately it becomes clear that Krall is searching for an ancient weapon that he intends to use against Starfleet, setting up the final confrontation on a lavish Starfleet space station, with millions of lives at stake–naturally!
What I liked about Star Trek Beyond was that it recaptured, as closely as I think you can do 50 years later, the spirit of the original 1960s TV show, which at its heart was simple Golden Age science fiction. J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek from 2009 and Into Darkness were both too self-referential to the Star Trek mythos, and sought to recreate iconic moments, particularly from the 1980s movies, to prove its chops. Beyond, directed by Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin, seeks to emulate the spirit without recreating the tropes themselves. Beyond emphasizes pure adventure, but it also seeks to leverage the chemistry of the main characters which was what made the original work so well. Kirk is exasperatingly arrogant, Spock and McCoy bicker like an old married couple, and Scotty, Sulu and Chekov (played by the late Anton Yelchin) play off one another as brilliantly as the original cast did in the 1960s. It took three movies for the rebooted cast to get up to speed with the personal chemistry, I think, which was why they couldn’t quite do it in the earlier pictures. I suspect Lin also gives them a bit more maneuvering room, character-wise, than did Abrams, whose stress was on the institution of Star Trek as a whole. In this sense, Beyond sets its sights a little lower, but succeeds more generally.
As I watched the film it occurred to me that Star Trek movies are structurally quite fragile. You have a great and powerful institution, a glittering playset that comes with the characters, the Enterprise, a menu of alien races like the Klingons and Romulans, and well-worn tropes like “Live Long and Prosper,” dilithium crystals and the like. But each time around, some set of writers and a director has to plug these elements into a cohesive story with interest, conflict and resolution. It’s harder to do with Star Trek than other franchises because the stories aren’t ready-made. A good villain is especially important. For much of Beyond I found Idris Elba’s Krall somewhat lackluster, your typical knobby-looking alien with a sneering voice and universe-conquering appetites. However, the film ingeniously reveals that there’s much more to Krall than meets the eye, and the final scenes involving Idris Elba are so good that I think he deserves to be enshrined with Ricardo Montalban’s Khan as one of the best Star Trek villains.
The singer Rihanna put out a hit single, called “Sledgehammer,” which appears on the soundtrack of Star Trek Beyond. Here’s the official video.
I also like how the film starts out a bit slower than the others. The failed diplomatic mission at the opening gets the adrenaline flowing briefly, but then Beyond settles down, daring to show us the monotony of space exploration, the unfulfilled desires of the characters, and the more personal struggles, like Kirk’s career decisions and Spock’s romance with Uhura, that fill out the characters. J.J. Abrams had little patience for this, preferring action and spectacle. This too is like the old series, which for every space battle or fight on a planet with a rubber monster had a scene in sickbay or some new angle on Spock’s quest to reconcile his Vulcan and human natures. There’s a tendency, once you push Star Trek to the big screen, to “go big” all the time, but Beyond resists that temptation, making for a much richer movie on the whole.
Beyond isn’t perfect. There’s some cringey dialogue, some parts that don’t work that well, and the usual obsessions of 2010s SF movies for too-quick cuts, too-dark scenes and overuse of CGI. But on the whole it’s superior to the first two reboot installments, and a fine chapter in Star Trek in its own right. It’s a fun, entertaining summer movie, great for an afternoon out.