Review: STAR TREK BEYOND is a Solid Addition to The Trek Universe
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, so it makes sense that this summer's Star Trek Beyond in some ways feels like a throwback to the original series and has plenty of nods to the franchise's past. Thankfully, it isn't as much of an obvious retread of past material as Star Trek Into Darkness, largely due to the wise decision of director Justin Lin (Fast Five) and co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung to put the Enterprise crew squarely in the middle of their five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. This allows for the sorts of fresh moments, new species, and exploratory feeling many Trek fans felt were lacking in the previous two movies, and while this one definitely has some terrific moments, I still can't help but wish we got a more cerebral version of this story than the one we ended up with.
The Enterprise is three and a half years into its five-year mission, and Kirk is experiencing some cabin fever. He's getting tired of doing the same thing every day, and he's having an existential struggle about whether or not they're actually accomplishing anything out in the vastness of space. The crew docks at a planet-sized space station called Yorktown for a bit of a breather, but they're soon thrown into action to answer a distress call from a fellow Federation ship. As you've probably seen in the trailers, that turns out to be an ambush, and the Enterprise is destroyed in the ensuing attack, forcing the crew to abandon ship and splinter off into smaller groups on a nearby planet's surface to survive and figure out why they were attacked and what the villain is after.
I'm just going to get all of my gripes out of the way up front, so bear with me for a minute. Lin, who has proven capable of filming strong hand-to-hand fight sequences in the Fast & Furious movies, inexplicably drops the ball in that regard in Beyond. All of the one-on-one sequences are framed so tightly that the geography of the action becomes muddled. Every fight feels unnecessarily claustrophobic, and though I can't presume to understand the intricacies of directing a film on this scale, it seems like an easy fix would have been to simply place the camera a bit further back so the audience can better track what's going on. It happened so frequently that I started thinking it might be a tactic employed to purposefully obscure the sets. (I didn't notice any particular problems with any of the production design or shoddiness of any sets, but the framing was so peculiar I was inventing reasons in my head to try to justify it. It's a very strange filmmaking choice by Lin.)
There's also a big action set-piece in which some crew members slide down a ship's hull as the ship tips forward underneath them before threatening to flip and crush them, but I found it tough to follow exactly how this was all happening. An explosion closes out the beat, characters go flying, and then it cuts to a different angle where the consequences of the previous shots are unclear. I may just be misremembering the Fast movies, but I thought Lin had a better grasp of action filmmaking than this. Detractors will be quick to point out the similarities between one of this film's big action moments and an admittedly ludicrous Fast & Furious 6 scene in which two characters collide mid-air after jumping from moving vehicles. While that kind of thing works in the truly insane world of the Fast franchise, it feels a little out of place here.
Part of the problem could be that Lin didn't have much time to prep for the movie, with only a few months between his hiring and the start of production. Same for Pegg and Jung, who pull together a decent story that feels a little rushed, especially in its all-too-convenient climax. As much as I love Idris Elba as an actor, I didn't care for his villain character, Krall. It's a performance that reminded me a lot of Oscar Isaac's in X-Men: Apocalypse, in that the production hired one of the world's most charismatic actors only to bury him under tons of makeup and prosthetics. He tries to give the character some pathos, but his motivation is hidden for so long that by the time it's revealed, it almost feels like an afterthought. I can't talk about it in more detail without spoiling things, but suffice it to say I think the new Kelvin-verse continues to have a villain problem.
OK, on to the things I really liked. The core cast continues to wonderfully embody each of these characters, and they're just plain fun to watch. This movie does a great job of splitting them off into compelling configurations we haven't seen much of before, and while the previous two movies have chiefly been about how these characters all work in relation to Kirk, it's interesting to see how they all react when they're not at their normal stations on the Enterprise bridge. The original Shatner movies (I haven't seen the entire run of TOS yet), really leaned on the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, but the previous two Kelvin-verse movies have primarily concentrated on the Kirk/Spock relationship; this one finally gives Spock and Bones some time together to develop their dynamic, and it's the source of some of the film's funniest and most entertaining moments. Scotty meets a new character called Jaylah (Kingsman's Sofia Boutella), a warrior with a tragic backstory who's trying to escape Krall's planet, and it seems like Pegg capitalized on the opportunity to write some more for Scotty to do than simply yell about how he's giving the engines all they've got.
Even the combinations of characters we have seen before are terrifically satisfying. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is an early one between Kirk and Bones drinking scotch together on the Enterprise, talking about Kirk's birthday and how he's still trying to escape his father's shadow.
Aside from the hand-to-hand stuff (which only encompasses a few scenes), Lin does strong work with the whole rest of the movie. A few times, he mounts the camera to something that's moving and cuts to that to give us a unique angle on the action, which works like gangbusters when it's attached to the outside of the Enterprise and we see the ship leave the docking station and head out into space all in one quick shot. It gives you a sense of speed and distance that's nearly impossible to convey through wide shots, and I think it might have been the first time in the series when I felt the visceral feeling of, "Holy crap, this baby can really move."
There are a bunch of cool design elements, too, from the production design (including one notably impressive practical location, a rock quarry dressed up to look like an alien world) to Krall's ships (they swarm like bees in large groups, but I like them better when they're shown as individual attacking transport modules) to Jaylah's striking look. Boutella is an especially welcome addition to the cast, getting more to do here than any other female cast member. Though her character has a somewhat rote backstory, she's still a capable ass-kicker who makes us forget all about Alice Eve's Carol Marcus.
It's so clear that Lin and everyone else involved have a deep, abiding love for this franchise. That love — and being able to spend time with these characters — outweigh a lot of the puzzling or questionable aspects of this story for me, and despite my many issues with it, the experience was still mostly positive. With a new CBS TV show by Bryan Fuller looming next year, it seems clear that the franchise is in a stable place moving forward, and there are already whispers of a fourth film on the horizon. The saddest thing about that is the team will never feel fully complete again without Anton Yelchin. I can't imagine them recasting that role, but it also seems strange to just write Chekov out of this timeline forever, so I certainly don't envy whoever ends up making the decision about that for future films. (There's also an in-movie nod to Leonard Nimoy's death, so they address that as well.) Otherwise, though, I'm excited about the opportunity to see these actors reunite again. Hopefully the franchise continues to push the boundaries and boldly go where they've never gone before.