Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Coming in the midst of the busiest part of summer, Star Trek Beyond is the third installment in the rebooted franchise.  It follows on the heels of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness.  Taking over for J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair is Justin Lin, famous for his work in the Fast & Furious franchise.  As far as summer movies go, especially this summer, Star Trek Beyond is pretty good popcorn fare, marking a step up from the muddled storyline of Star Trek Into Darkness but also representing a departure from the typical storytelling of most Star Trek films.

The film picks up with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise entering the third year of their 5 year mission of exploration.  They arrive at Starbase Yorktown, an outpost on the fringes of Federation space, for some shore leave and ship maintenance.  Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is struggling with the objective of their mission and has put in a request for transfer, and suggesting Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) be named captain in his place.  At the same time, Spock is giving serious consideration to leaving Starfleet, having just received news of the passing of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy, RIP) from New Vulcan.  At this point, an escape pod with a single crew member arrives at Yorktown in distress requesting aid for her crew, which has been taken captive on a planet in a nearby nebula.  Kirk volunteers the Enterprise to go on the recovery mission, which turns out to be an ambush by a mysterious alien commander named Krall (idris Elba), who attacks the Enterprise in search of an artifact.  With the ship eventually destroyed and the crew either captured or scattered across the planet, Kirk, Spock, Scotty (Simon Pegg) and others, along with the help of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), an alien scavenger on the planet, must devise a plan to free captive crew and stop Krall from launching an attack with a powerful bioweapon that could wipe out Yorktown and more.

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The hiring of Justin Lin to direct the film was a clear indication that the franchise wanted to head in a particular direction with this film, one that was geared a bit more toward action and a little less heavy on the science.  Thankfully, this is not a completely dumbed down version of Starr Trek, even though the emphasis is most definitely action oriented.  Lin knows how to stage action, and how to frame it so that it looks good on screen.  The action, whether it is a swarm of Krall’s ships attacking the Enterprise or the action down on the planet, or the later sequence of the attack on Yorktown, everything is well placed, and executed, and (probably) maximized for 3D (though I did not see it in 3D).

While it is more of an action film that a science fiction film, I found it to be a better story than what was put forth in Star Trek Into Darkness.  That film condensed too much of the Khan storyline, which played out in the original TV series and many years later in a feature film, cramming all of the beats of that into one film and losing a lot of what made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so affecting.  With Beyond, it felt more like an episode of the show expanded into a feature length film, which has its pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, there is little that connects it to the previous films in the reboot, which allows it to stand mostly on its own.  There are allusions to prior events, mainly involving Spock and New Vulcan, but those story details are at a minimum.  The story is focused on the crew, with the hint of outside events on their periphery as they are focused on their mission.  On the minus side, sometimes the story does feel a little slight, especially when the focus shifts away from Kirk, Spock, McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty, and Jaylah.

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It’s just difficult to devote sufficient time to every major character in a two hour film, so actors like Anton Yelchin (RIP) as Chekov, John Cho as Sulu, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura get short shrift.  In Uhura’s case in particular, she is sorely underused.  Spock even feels like he is lacking in sufficient storyline at times, though he spends much of the film with Dr. McCoy, and their banter back and forth does evoke some of the charm of that relationship between Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley’s portrayals of the two characters.  Despite some character getting lost in the shuffle, more than any other theme the film emphasizes the crew working together as a team to defeat a singular enemy that controls a horde that acts like drones.  Though there is no way for it to be planned, there are some definite parallels to the themes of the U.S. Presidential campaigns that could be drawn here (“Stronger together?”).

Outside of the returning cast, the newcomers to the group, Elba and Boutella, are a mixed bag.  Elba is a great actor, but is slightly wasted in this particular role.  Still, it is nice to see his profile continue to rise by being in bigger budget films.  Boutella is enjoyable as Jaylah, first encountering Scotty and developing a quick rat-a-tat banter with him, and eventually with Kirk and the rest of the crew.  It’s a big role, and a step up from playing a henchman to Samuel L. Jackson in Kingsmen: The Secret Service last year.

I found myself enjoying quite a bit of this film, and the trade-off in character development for better overall action has resulted in a film that is better than the previous sequel, though it still falls short of the 2009 Star Trek.  This could alienate some of the hardcore Trekkies, but overall I think it could be of benefit to the franchise going forward.  They seem to have found their footing and feel comfortable taking real ownership of the Enterprise crew members and their exploration of new life and new civilizations.  After two films that were at times too beholden to the original storylines, this is the first film of the rebooted franchise that feels like the franchise is ready to boldly go where no man has gone before.  Now they just need to stop destroying the Enterprise every time out.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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