50 years ago, a short lived science fiction show called Star Trek premiered on CBS. Its road to creation was fraught with problems (the original pilot was outright rejected), and upon its premiere many didn’t think the show would last. Though it only spanned three seasons, Star Trek would go on to become one of the biggest science fiction franchises of all time and spawned four more series, twelve feature films and tons of expanded universe material, giving rise to an army of devoted fans. Back in 2009, director J.J. Abrams brought the franchise back to great acclaim, recasting the iconic original crew of the Enterprise to great results. Now, on the franchise’s 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond has arrived, directed by Fast and Furious director Justin Lin and written by self proclaimed Star Trek fanboy Simon Pegg. Can this thirteenth installment possibly live up to expectations?
Halfway through its five-year mission, the USS Enterprise must make a scheduled stop at the Federation’s newest space station, Yorktown, where the crew comprised of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) among others, can take shore leave. Once there, however, the crew are sent on an emergency mission to rescue a missing ship crew who’ve crash landed on an undiscovered planet. Things aren’t as they appear however, and the Enterprise gets attacked by a force of aliens led by a mysterious figure known as Krall (Idris Elba). Marooned on the planet and left with few resources, the intrepid Enterprise crew will have to band together and use every bit of ingenuity, bravery and skill they have in order to prevent Krall from creating a weapon that could end the Federation forever.
I got introduced to Star Trek through the 2009 reboot, and after viewing it I retroactively went back to watch the original series, so I’m not exactly what you would call an old school Trekkie. That being said, I feel confident in saying that Star Trek Beyond is an old school Trekkie’s dream turned reality. It is, in the best way imaginable, a two hour long big budget episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. What makes the show so special even in modern days isn’t the special effects, or even the plot, it’s the interaction and fellowship between the crew members. It wasn’t something that just materialised though, there was a lot of tinkering with the cast in the early days (Chekov wasn’t a character until Season 2 for example) but once they finally found the perfect blend of characters, magic happened. This reboot franchise was blessed with having all these characters available from the start, and Beyond excels at giving each of them their time to shine. Sure some get more to do than others (Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty in particular) but everyone gets at least the briefest moment of character depth.
When the Enterprise crash lands on the mysterious planet, the cast is split up into pairs and its through this plot choice that the characters are allowed to breath. The choice of character pairings was spot on, Spock and Bones in particular make a delightful pair together, as Spock is going through a crisis of purpose in many ways. He feels guilty for not doing enough to help the dying Vulcan race and believes that he is betraying his own kind by staying with Starfleet. Quinto does excellent work bringing the hidden humanity of Spock to the surface, and Karl Urban’s McCoy bounces off of him with a perfect mix of sharp tongued wit and wise advice. The Spock/McCoy dynamic was one of my favorite parts of the original series and Beyond captures that chemistry perfectly as the two characters are permanently engaged in a friendly battle of insults, and its joyously funny to watch.
One of the things that made the 2009 Star Trek reboot so damn good was the amazing cast J.J. Abrams assembled to take over the roles of the original Enterprise crew, and Chris Pine in particular has really grown into his role. He’s no longer the brash Han Solo-type rogue we know from the 2009 film, instead he’s fully embraced the calmer leadership role that William Shatner played so effortlessly well in the original series. Although John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin don’t get too much to do, they both have characteristic that make them stand out, such as the decision to make Sulu gay (refreshingly depicted in a matter-of-fact way that emphasises the progressive future of Star Trek) and Chekov’s apparent fascination for the craziest looking alien women. If there’s any character the film doesn’t do well by, it’s Uhura, whose main role in the movie is to be a person Krall can deliver his expository dialogue to. Though Uhura gets to be badass at some points, she is overshadowed by the introduction of a new female character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who is also stranded on the planet and needs the crew to help her escape. We don’t get much back-story on her, but she fits in well with the crew, adding a different dynamic to the proceedings (that of the outsider) and is clearly being set up for better things in future films. She shares most of her scenes with Scotty, who gets significantly more screen time than he did in past films and gets some of the funnier material, not all that surprising considering the guy who plays him wrote the damn movie.
When I first heard that Justin Lin was directing a Star Trek film, I was extremely sceptical. What are they thinking given Star Trek to a guy who’s known for brainless fast car movies? But if there’s one thing Lin knows, it’s action and that is made clear in the masterfully shot action scenes in Beyond. The scene where the Enterprise is under attack is frenetic and explosive, and makes you scared for the crew. The Enterprise is a character to itself, and to see it be so brutally destroyed is terrifying and ups the movie’s stakes significantly. Of course, a movie is more than just action scenes, and that’s where the script comes in. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung obviously had a clear and concise knowledge of the characters they were writing for, and captured what makes each of them special. The script is peppered with funny dialogue and Star Trek references (fans will giggle at the mention of a giant green hand). When a director and screenwriters are on the same page, the sky’s the limit, and Lin’s direction coupled with Pegg and Jung’s script came together beautifully to form 2 hours of sci-fi gold.
The Star Trek community has had its fair share of sadness recently. Actor Anton Yelchin passed away mere weeks ago and Leonard Nimoy, Spock himself, died just last year. It’s clear that Beyond was conceived with the intent of paying due tribute to the man, and it succeeded wonderfully. Although he is never on screen, Nimoy’s presence is felt throughout the movie. By the time Zackary Quinto stares at a picture of the original Star Trek cast, I was a wreck and I imagine Star Trek fans young and old will be too.
Layered throughout Star Trek Beyond is the running theme of unity, and the belief that humanity is stronger together than it is divided. It’s something that was very important to Gene Roddenberry when he first conceived the Star Trek world, envisioning a progressive society where we stopped fighting over issues of race, gender and religion and instead joined together to unlock the many secrets of the Universe. That theme is reinforced by Beyond’s main antagonist, Krall, who goes against this idea, instead believing that war is the only way for humanity to survive. His motivations are a mystery for most of the movie and though the reveal is very interesting, it happens too late in the film for you to really care and I wished they could have fleshed him out earlier. It’s the only aspect of the plot that I felt got lost in the shuffle, and could have been much better served if given more time.
The technical aspects of Star Trek Beyond also pay homage to the original series, as Michael Giacchino’s terrific original score includes many musical queues from classic Trek. There’s also a scene where Spock and McCoy traverse a rocky cliff that looks almost identical to the cheap Styrofoam sets of the 1960’s show. Even the final battle between Kirk and Krall was choreographed similarly to the cheesy fight scenes from back in the day, with a lot of exaggerated movements and tumbles. The alien designs and makeup felt like it was a glossier version of what we got in the 60s, with even the most minor of alien characters having individual physical characteristics that distinguished them from other cinematic extraterrestrials. With all that said, there is one particular moment during the final battle that will cause some contention amongst audiences. Without saying too much, it involves a certain song being used as a means to stop the bad guys, and though I felt this made logical sense in the narrative, some more hardcore Trek fans might think it too simplistic and gimmicky.
Almost every single piece of Star Trek Beyond fits into place to form one of the better sci-fi films we’ve gotten in years. It gives you everything you could possibly want from a Star Trek movie: Great action, deep character interactions and thematic resonance, pleasing long time fans and those only familiar with the newer movies. It pays tribute to everything and everyone who came before it, while also telling a compelling original episodic story. This is the blockbuster to beat this summer, and a true delight to watch.