Director: Justin Lin Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Salanda, Idris Elba Running Time: 122 minutes
How much you enjoy Star Trek Beyond may depend entirely on what it is you expect from a Star Trek film. Those looking for a fun night at the movies will likely leave satisfied. Those hoping for a hint of the depth or thematic resonance of the original series may feel short changed.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise. Beyond fittingly promises a story that returns that franchise to its roots, with the crew having finally embarked on their 5 year mission to “explore strange new worlds”. While some credit is due for attempting to follow through on that promise, it doesn’t excuse the script’s over reliance on by-the-numbers plotting. The story is threadbare and largely recycled; riddled with plot contrivances and a few too many unlikely coincidences. What the film lacks in originality however, it makes up for with a renewed sense of adventure.
It all starts off pretty well. We join the crew three years in to the aforementioned mission. Their bond has grown stronger than ever, but, as Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk informs us, tension and doubt are starting to creep in. After a fun opening sequence involving a failed negotiation on an alien planet, the crew docks at a remote Federation outpost for some much needed shore leave. The station, known as Yorktown, is an elaborate and visually impressive location, reminiscent of the ring shaped structures seen in Elysium or Deep Space Nine. It is here that we are allowed to get properly reacquainted with the crew. It is also the only time the film feels like it has room to breathe.
Some nice moments with each of the main characters in the first act hint at potential story arcs to be explored and developed. Unfortunately that’s about as far as most of these stories go. The plot is hijacked by the sudden arrival of a damsel in distress – her crew stranded out in a treacherous nearby Nebula – desperately in need of the Federations help. And so, Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise rush off on their inevitably ill fated rescue mission. What follows is an endless barrage of action sequences… some of which work extremely well… others, not so much.
Director Justin Lin may be a newcomer to the franchise, but having produced and directed multiple installments in the Fast & Furious series he’s no stranger to action films. Given the adrenaline infused nature of J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek universe, Lin blends in quite well here… at least on the surface. Everything looks like it’s supposed to. And yet, surprisingly, many of the action sequences are quite poorly executed. The geography of a scene is almost always entirely unclear, the camera jumping from one shot to the next seemingly at random. Whether this is a case of badly blocked scenes, poor editing, camera work, or a combination of all three, it makes many sequences incredibly hard to follow. Additionally there are a few scenes that feel entirely unnecessary. A pointless return to the downed Enterprise early on for example only serves to further batter the already extensively battered wreck.
Let’s be honest – the Star Trek films have always been a bit hit or miss. At their best they provide a level of scale and grandeur that can’t be achieved on television. At their worst they feel like a standard episode of the week, stretched to feature length and padded with empty spectacle. Beyond unfortunately tends towards the latter.
Aside from the genuinely unique and menacing alien swarm (featured heavily in the marketing), almost everything in the film feels like it was borrowed from elsewhere. In many cases, plot points are simply lifted wholesale from the previous installment… Enterprise crash landing? Check. Rote villain hell-bent on destroying the Federation? Check. Chase sequence in a futuristic city complete with climactic fist fight? Check!… Not to mention two separate occasions of Kirk essentially reenacting his heroic warp-core-mending “sacrifice” from the climax of Into Darkness. Despite the scale and intensity of all these sequences the whole thing can’t help but feel a little underwhelming.
In saying that, there is still plenty of fun to be had here. The cast are on top form – you can tell they genuinely enjoy playing these characters. Simon Pegg’s script injects welcome doses of humor at regular intervals. There are also a few genuinely touching moments, along with plenty of winks and nods for the fans…some of which may be a little too on the nose (Kirk referring to their mission as “episodic” springs to mind), but they’re fun moments none the less.
New additions to the cast are fine. Sofia Boutella makes arguably the biggest impression as Jaylah, a self sufficient scavenger, with equal amounts of attitude and charm. Her character design is fairly striking, elegant, and minimal compared to the seemingly endless assortment of large-headed individuals on display. One such ridiculously over-sized cranium belongs to the film’s villain, Krall, portrayed by Idris Elba. Despite being completely unrecognizable under multiple layers of makeup, he does the best he can with what little he’s given to work with. A third act development adds a layer of depth to his character and gives Elba a chance to shine, but it’s a case of too little too late.
All in all, in what has proven to be a fairly dull Summer Movie season so far, Star Trek Beyond stands out a welcome piece of well meaning blockbuster entertainment. As a Star Trek movie it’s certainly better than Into Darkness. In attempting to avoid that film’s cynical earth bound doom and gloom though it’s just a pity this one falls into the trap of over familiarity and excess.
With 50 Years of diverse, exciting, and thoughtful storytelling under its belt, this is a franchise capable of so much more.