Star Trek Beyond: Clean Summer Fun
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella
Screenplay: Simon Pegg & Doug Jung
July 22, 2016
As existing media canons are mined for new franchises, there’s a tough balance for these reboots to strike. There’s a wrong way to build on old beloved stories — think the dull nostalgia churn of Into Darkness, a film that allowed its source to overtake any fresh perspective that could have been offered up. For writers who began as fans, the desire to prove to a new audience just why this particular story was so important can override the ability to tell a new story in the same sandbox (see also: rehashes of big deal comic book events in the Big Two).
Star Trek Beyond is an excellent example of how to create a franchise installment that leans on previous canon without being bogged down in it. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have clear affection for these characters, their previous adventures, and the current timeline; they’ve created a story that feels very tonally coherent with both the first installment and The Original Series while not attempting to rewrite their own favorite scenes. Beyond isn’t trying to be overly clever or self-reflecting, and the plot never gets overly ambitious — it’s aiming for an audience that is there for the characters and explosions, and it mostly manages to deliver.
What Beyond excels at creating a real sense of scope. Space is huge, disorienting and possibly endless, Captain Kirk tells us in his initial Captain’s Log. The Enterprise, too, is allowed to be her full enormous self, packed with crew members of every species (including some women who wear pants!). These extras aren’t well developed, obviously, but they get to play a role in this space adventure rather than stay relegated to the lower decks. The Enterprise also visits the Federation base of Yorktown, a space station that is a beautiful ball of mobius strip urban planning — and it’s even bigger, planet-sized and populated with people from all over the galaxy. Kirk begins the film in a bit of a rut, feeling like a small cog doing small missions of diplomacy, and the visual storytelling highlights it with it’s vast potential. Justin Lin uses his extras judiciously — we see repeating faces of the nameless crew members, we see familiar civilians running from destruction, we gain a sense that each of these people has their own spectacular space adventure happening in the background. Beyond creates a bigger world for the Federation to exist in, even with a story that sometimes barely has time for its essential main characters to take a breath. The example of this is Sulu’s husband, played by co-writer Doug Jung in part because it was important to John Cho that his character have an Asian husband. He’s an insight to a world beyond the bridge of the Enterprise, a tether to the real lives affected by the work the crew does.
Justin Lin is a director with a pretty particular set of skills that were well-exhibited in his work in the Fast & Furious franchise — spectacular action sequences and real emotional moments amid a rather shallow script. Zachary Quinto as Spock in particular gets some truly nice, quiet moments to contemplate the death of Ambassador Spock, and they serve double as a farewell to Leonard Nimoy without feeling forced. Lin also gets to direct some ridiculous action sequences, including one with a truly vintage motorcycle.
The motorcycle (and the one amazing musical cue) never feel too out of place, because Beyond knows exactly how serious to take itself. Beastie Boys as classical music? A tried-and-true fanfic technique for any future-set canon. And, since this is, essentially, a very satisfying fanfic written by Pegg and Jung (which is probably an entirely separate essay), most non-TOS characters exist purely for plot purposes. Newcomer Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah, the alien Original Character who is a total babe package — great at fighting, engineering, and banter. She has a tragic backstory and has good chemistry with the rest of the crew, but she’s missing the history that lets these movies get away with rather shallow characterization without sacrificing audience investment. Jaylah’s a fun and stylish character, and it’s nice to have another woman in the cast (especially since she’s not egregiously sexualized at any point), but she mostly exists as a plot device. That kind of character works better in television format, where you continuously have one-off characters appearing in that week’s storyline. In a film, she feels rather untethered.
Idris Elba gets more range to play with as Krall, the villainous alien who spits and growls as he casually chats about his new bio-weapon with Uhura and Sulu. He wants to sow discord into the peace the Federation has worked for, and has amassed a pile of seemingly-unbeatable technology to do so. I wasn’t amazed at the VFX design of Krall or his followers — the biomechanical components of his design felt at odds with the dissonant facial prosthetics. Combined with the heavy breathing and voice distortion, Krall’s design feels played out, especially when compared to the sleek look of Jaylah or the inventive makeup of various Enterprise crew members. Krall himself is a rather stock character up until a third act reveal, but that feels too little, too late to make him an interesting villain. Elba does what he can, however, and does manage to be menacing while drooling through a pair of dentures.
Krall fits snugly into the theme of “unity versus conflict,” and “a world after war,” the film’s biggest weakness is that it never digs very deep even into that broad thought. This makes it more obvious during the particular emotional beats that rely heavily on familiarity with TOS and character development we’re told has happened off-screen. Spock’s relationships especially feel more tell rather than show — his romance with Uhura is rather bloodless, and Kirk and Spock’s interactions just never quite shore up to the epic friendship the movie tells us they have. The film is clever in how it handles each main character, however, constantly splitting them into slightly unconventional pairings to do their part on the mission to get off planet. Sulu and Uhura in particular were so fascinating to watch on their own, and made me wish they could have cut some of the shaky-cam space fighting for more exploration of why they feel so fiercely loyal to the Federation. Hell, I would have traded some punching to hear resident pessimist Bones’ opinion on the inevitability of conflict. Only Kirk is given time to really interact with the themes of the film, aided in part by a few scenes with Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commadore Paris, a Federation colleague and mentor.
Of course, while science fiction is a toolbox capable of exploring politics, social issues, and other modern themes, it’s not a requirement that every space adventure be a particularly astute allegory, either. Star Trek is a franchise that has managed the rare successes of episodes that managed to be both thematically challenging and full of adventure and suspense. Beyond doesn’t aim that high, never trying to get too deep into its eventual theme of a future beyond war. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does keep it from ascending beyond summer blockbuster. That is to say, though Star Trek Beyond might not be considered a great episode of Trek, it’s definitely a fun one.