Reunited and it feels so good
Despite wandering over to the dark side to reinvigorate some other science fiction franchise that no one has ever heard of, I still think the best film that J.J. Abrams has helmed so far is his 2009 Star Trek reboot. The way the script was able to reintroduce storied characters while paying homage to Gene Roddenberry’s original series was a stroke of genius, rivaled by few other films attempting to similarly capitalize on established franchises. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, I imagine—to tell an origin story of interest for longtime fans that also welcomes newcomers—but Abrams has proven time and time again that he’s more than capable of executing on such a task. And I think the key to his success comes down to one simple thing: passion.
But now Abrams’ Stark Trek franchise has developed into a beast of its own. In the most recent installment, Beyond, the reigns have been handed over to director Justin Lin, responsible for a few of the Fast & Furious movies and one of the best episodes of Dan Harmon’s show, Community, ever. Writers of the franchise, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who along with Abrams created another great television show in Fringe) have also been replaced, at least for this go-round, by Doug Jung and Scotty himself, Simon Pegg. None of these changes, however, actually make Beyond feel radically different. In fact, Beyond seems very comfortable settling into the groove of its predecessors, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The camp, the action, and, most importantly, the hope is all still here. Rather than make everything bigger and louder like most sequels mistakenly do, Beyond continues to focus on the crew of the Enterprise. This is a character driven story, one that wants to further develop the eclectic group of familiar faces at the film’s core, as well as introduce a couple of new ones along the way. And with characters this entertaining, this diverse, and this convincing, I’m willing to forgive some of the story’s flaws because it’s a lot of fun to spend time with this cast. Star Trek remains focused on the hope in humanity. Who would have thought that would still work in this day and age?
Of course, that’s not to say Beyond lacks any tension or stakes either. The film starts with a couple existential crises, stagnation amongst the crew, and an overwhelming defeat. This setup, however, is rather intelligent given how it splits up the crew of the Enterprise after the ship is attacked and destroyed in an uncharted nebula. Forced to evacuate to a nearby planet, Altamid, most of those who survive the attack are captured by antagonist Krall (Idris Elba), and those who are fortunate enough to only be marooned—including Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones, and Chekov—must rescue their comrades, stop whatever nefarious endeavors Krall is plotting, and return to the space station, Yorktown, safely.
While crash landing on an alien planet isn’t exactly ideal for our heroes, it does provide its fair share of “Odd Couple” pairings, which might be the best thing Beyond has going for it. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) are the duo most responsible for pushing the plot forward, collecting the other main players—like this is Mass Effect 2—as they move around wreckage and try to salvage important items from the Enterprise. This setup gives many of our characters both time to be reintroduced and developed along their separate journeys.
An injured Spock (Zachary Quinto) and a sardonic Bones (Karl Urban) produce quite a few laughs with their thinly veiled disdain for one another as they try to move from harm’s way. Then there’s Scotty (Simon Pegg), who’s probably most ill-equipped to survive on this hostile planet, but he luckily bumps into an alien scavenger by the name of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who’s a pretty charming addition to the cast. Between her ability to kick copious amounts of ass, her stern demeanor, and her loose grasp of the English language, her and “Montgomery Scotty” make a pretty great couple.
The same can’t be said for Uhura and Sulu, however, who spend most of their time as Krall’s prisoners. While these scenes aren’t necessarily uneventful, they do cause the movie to stall given how these characters are essentially waiting to be rescued. Though Krall is quite the menacing figure, as is his fleet, the time spent at his base of operations don’t make the rescue mission itself feel any more urgent. Instead, the plot gets muddled as we learn more about Krall’s plans, and little about the antagonist himself who continues to be shrouded in mystique. That is until a reveal later in the movie that doesn’t feel as shocking as I think the filmmakers intended for it to be.
At the end of the day, this latest Star Trek is mostly just plain fun, though. It’s fun in the way I expected The Force Awakens to be, actually. The different alien races around Yorktown have mesmerizing costumes, makeup, and prosthetics. Action scenes similarly captivate with the synchronized attack patterns of Krall’s fleet. There are a few moments of foreshadowing sure to put a smile on your face later in the film. And the relationships developed between these characters along the way often warmed the cockles of my cold, dead heart. Sure, some might find the music a bit on the nose, but the camp in Beyond never feels forced. Instead, this seems more like a movie that’s quite comfortable living in its own universe.
That level of confidence even extends to Beyond’s episodic nature. I know many will criticize that point, that the movie shouldn’t feel like an extended episode of the show, but allow me to explain why that’s a good thing. The story here is self-contained, and when exactly did that become such a bad thing for a movie? Today, too many franchises operate like serialized television shows anyway, stringing audiences along year to year. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens, as an example, but it’s also an experience that means a lot less when viewed out of context. Certainly you will find more to appreciate in Beyond if you have some prior knowledge of Starfleet, Kirk, Spock, and maybe even Wharf, who knows. But the film also never loses sight of its characters, wraps up its important loose ends, and still leaves enough intrigue to warrant repeated viewings. Maybe that won’t seem as grandiose to some people, but it is far more complete experience than most films these days.
So it’s really too bad that Star Trek almost seems like a B-tier franchise now that Abrams has moved on, at least for this installment (he was still attached as a producer). Beyond’s focus on introducing new characters while continuing to develop the ones we know and love, its sense of closure, and the fact that it’s just plain fun—I can’t emphasize that last point enough—make it one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had at a theater this summer. This version of Star Trek clearly knows exactly what it is now, but it’s still not resting on its laurels, not yet. Lin, Jung, and Pegg deserve a lot of credit for understanding what makes Star Trek work best, the crew of the Enterprise. May they continue to be good at what no other reboot has been good at before.
Compelling new characters
Compelling old characters
Characters with plenty of character
Confident writing and directing
Plot gets muddled at times
Tone/nature may bother some
Keeps it steady (LLAP)