Arriving at a time when just about every big blockbuster feels like it was assembled by the cold, calculated hands of blank-faced studio executives wielding highly detailed data analysis, Star Trek Beyond feels refreshingly like the product of the people who actually worked on it.
The reigns previously held by J.J. Abrams are turned over to Justin Lin for this third installment, Lin being primarily known for helping turn the Fast and Furious films into an unstoppable mega-franchise. Lin’s strengths as a director are immediately reflected in Beyond‘s heavy focus on action and spectacle, a move that returns the franchise to its simplistic roots while simultaneously providing a more accessible adventure for those who couldn’t care less about the prior voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Furthermore, the film was co-written Simon Pegg, interesting not just because he also stars in the film as Scottie, but because his influence on the tone of the film as a whole is very apparent, and pleasantly so. Pegg’s efficient, manic comedy style (one he demonstrated in the lauded ‘Cornetto trilogy’ he wrote with Edgar Wright) syncs up well with the breathless directorial energy Lin brings to the table.
Lin and Pegg’s fingerprints being all over this film helps reinstate a sense of sorely needed unpretentious fun after 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness drooped towards morose self-importance under the pens of Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof. Though Abrams clearly understood what made the characters and universe of Star Trek special, there was a sterile meticulousness to his approach that somewhat constrained the series. With the shackles off, the series isn’t only more cheerful, it feels like a door has been opened and leading to infinite possibilities for the series to explore next. From this perspective, it’s hard not to see Star Trek Beyond as a good sign, not just for this franchise but for cinematic science fiction and maybe even blockbusters as a whole.
As you would expect from a Fast and Furious movie, the action sequences in Beyond are dynamic, inventively shot, and edited for maximum visceral impact. At the same time, humor is integrated liberally into these sequences almost to a level of camp, assuring that the tone never gets too oppressive or self-serious. This is all to say that the film delivers as a broad popcorn movie, where everything feels grandiose and weighty, yet light and airy at the same time. It’s a balance that’s hard to maintain, and Lin deserves credit for applying this formula to a pre-existing franchise and still making it feel organic.
That said, the film severely drops the ball when it comes to grounding the thrilling chaos with drama. The best aspect of the two previous Trek films was the interplay between the series’ exceptionally talented cast consisting of Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), ‘Bones’ (Karl Urban), Scottie (Pegg), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin). At the franchise’s best moments, each of these people felt like invaluable cogs in one big, well-oiled machine, who come together to function like one symbiotic organism. Even though Into Darkness had a major script problems when it came to logic and structure, it excelled at painting this team as one worth rooting for against all odds. Not as much the case here.
While the actors all remain charismatic and each character still feels consistent with how they were in the previous movies (except maybe John Cho’s voice, which is back to normal after doing a strange George Takai impression in Into Darkness), very little is done with the plot or dialogue to flesh any of them out or to take advantage of their unique personalities. In other words, we get to hang out with them for a couple of hours, but we never get to know them any better. That’s a shame, especially since Abrams was so successful at getting the crew to play off each other to organically expose their strengths and vulnerabilities.
By contrast, this script is far and away the least substantial of the three. It attempts to broach various themes of responsibility, teamwork and diversity, but doesn’t carry any of these threads to a satisfying conclusion. One can expect about the level of character development of the average Fast and Furious movie, and that would be fine for a Fast and Furious movie. But Star Trek has always been a more character-focused, emotionally rich experience and in that respect Beyond suffers for its simplified, maybe even dumbed-down, approach to drama. This is most apparent in its two boring newcomers: Idris Elba’s generically evil, prosthetic-faced Krall (perhaps slightly more interesting than Benedict Cumberbatch’s Kahn, but not by much) and Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, a continuation of this reboot series’ inability to create worthwhile female characters (did they learn nothing from Alice Eve?) If the returning characters can’t manage to offer anything new to audiences, than these new characters are nothing more than frustrating distractions.
There’s a palpable sense of passion for the source material that pulses through this film’s veins, and that enthusiasm takes the movie farther than it has any right to go. Perhaps fans of the Fast and Furious series will find even more to value here than fans of Star Trek, but the film’s well designed, awe-inspiring action sequences should entertain almost anyone, even if that joy is fleeting. Failing to fully utilize the amazing cast (which has been these films’ greatest asset from day one) is a big problem, but it’s hard to stay mad at a movie that is so earnest in its modest, crowd-pleasing intentions. Star Trek Beyond doesn’t boldly go, but it does go very fast and very furiously, and that’s worth more than you might think.
Score: 3 out of 5