A brief note about presentation: I had the opportunity to see Star Trek Beyond at its world premiere in San Diego. The premiere was the world’s first outdoor IMAX screening, complete with the San Diego Orchestra performing the score live to picture. It was an incredible treat… but perhaps not the most ideal way to see a movie for the first time. See, the orchestra needs light in order to perform, and that light inevitably bleeds onto the screen causing the picture to be less vibrant and clear. I don’t want to sound as though I’m looking a gifthorse in the mouth, because I had an absolute ball, but I just want to acknowledge any way in which poor visibility may or may not have affected my opinion on the quality of the film.
If you spend enough time exploring the corners of the internet where Star Trek fans dwell, you’ll inevitably come across a certain amount of hostility towards J.J. Abrams and the pair films he has directed. You’ll also notice that this disdain has less to do with the quality of the films themselves (for the record: one is quite good and the other is reprehensible filth), and more to do with Mr. Abrams’ lack of credentials as a Star Trek fan.
You see, Abrams has made no secret of the fact that prior to directing his 2009 film, he was not much of a fan of the series. This infuriates the fans. “How dare he,” they say, “direct the Star Trek reboot when he’s not even a fan?!” The dirty little secret of Star Trek, though, is that – with one exception – the best films were made by people who had little-to-no prior experience with Trek. The Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country, and the 2009 reboot are all terrific fun, and even the oft-maligned Motion Picture is far more valuable than the likes of Star Trek V or Generations, films directed by men deeply engrossed in the world of Trek. In fact, the only truly great Star Trek film directed by someone with a pre-existing passion for the material is Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Justin Lin is very much a Star Trek fan. He’s spoken at length about growing up with reruns of the original series on television and the way it shaped both his perspective as a filmmaker as well as his relationship with his family. Historically, that would not bode well for the quality of his film, but with Star Trek Beyond, Lin manages to buck the trend and accomplish something remarkably similar to what Nimoy achieved three decades ago.
When Star Trek Beyond picks up, the crew of the Enterprise is three years deep into their five year mission and the ship’s captain, James Kirk (Chris Pine), is having something of an existential crisis. He waxes philosophical about the ‘episodic’ nature of their travels, and over a glass of scotch with the ship’s doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk confesses that his crisis of faith has been brought on by the realization that he is now one year older than his father was at the time of his death. He’s questioning whether or not his path in life – his role as a captain in Starfleet – is anything more than an attempt to live up to a legacy he had no say in. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is reeling from a piece of news that puts his own future into question. Is jetting through the stars really the best use of his time, or could his talents be better served leading his people – crippled from the destruction of their home planet – into a prosperous future? As the two of them are wrestling with these decisions, Starfleet receives news that one of their ships has been stranded in a nebula, deep in space, and the crew of the Enterprise is sent to rescue them. Unfortunately, this distress call turns out to be a trap, as the starship is besieged by a swarm of miniscule (by comparison) veasels that tear through its hull, sending the surviving crew careening towards the surface of an uncharted planet down below. On the planet, separated, and with no ship to return to, Kirk and his crew have to find a way to reunite and liberate themselves from Krall (Idris Elba), an alien with a mysterious past and a deep-seated grudge against the Federation.
When comparing Beyond to The Voyage Home, one must do so with the concession that the former is not nearly as good as the latter. Star Trek IV was lighting in a bottle. It’s a film that could have only happened in that moment with that cast; it would be impossible to replicate. That being said, both of these movies (each of which happens to coincide with a major anniversary year) are, at their very core, a celebration of the original series characters.
More so than anything else, it’s the characters that define the original series of Star Trek. Half the joy of watching the show was simply getting to hang out with Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of the gang for 50 minutes at a time. It was their personalities, their conflicts, and their sense of humor that made up the essence of the series – these wildly different people coming together to achieve a common goal. Abrams’ 2009 film does an admirable job trying to honor that spirit with an incredible cast and a structure that is explicitly built around bringing them together. Unfortunately, Abrams’ signature ‘don’t think, just run!’ method of storytelling means the film doesn’t give us a ton of time to really dig into most of these relationships.
Justin Lin’s approach in Beyond instantly announces itself as being something very different. The beginning of the film very deliberately takes its time, establishing who all of these characters are and their relationships to one another before the action starts in earnest. It’s a counter-intuitive approach for a major blockbuster, where the common wisdom is to start with a bang, but it works really well for this particular story. By the time the action does start, and the Enterprise and its crew are quite literally torn apart by Krall’s forces, we really understand exactly what is being destroyed. It’s not just destruction for the sake of spectacle, but instead it’s a visual manifestation of the film’s central conceit.
That conceit plays out as the major players in the crew find themselves divided into groups, each of them trying to find a way to reach their companions. Kirk is paired with Chekov, Bones is stuck with Spock, Scotty meets up with Jaylah – an alien who has been evading Krall’s forces for years, and Uhura, Sulu, and the rest of the crew are in Krall’s custody. By splitting the crew off into these groups, it allows the film to give more attention to characters like Bones, Scotty, and Chekov who, in previous films, had been stuck in the margins while Kirk and Spock held the spotlight. Each character has something to do, and it allows this incredible cast to really dive into these roles in a way they haven’t previously had the opportunity to do. The downside, however, is that by dividing the middle of the movie up into these separate, parallel stories, it becomes clear that not all subplots are created equal.
Bones’ and Spock’s adventure is the best of the bunch. These are two characters who have historically always had a fun dynamic since they are effectively complete opposites. McCoy’s raw emotion and tell-it-like-it-is southern sensibilities clash with Spock’s level-headed logic, and here there’s an added wrinkle of Bones having to help Spock along after a crippling injury. Karl Urban is almost certainly the MVP of this already terrific cast, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see him given more to do this time around, meanwhile Zacharay Quinto has refined his take on Spock. For various reasons, the previous two films have seen Spock motivated much more nakedly by emotion which made him feel somewhat divorced from the character of the original series, but here, Quinto manages to better capture that sense of a guy who doesn’t quite understand the people he’s working with even as he cares for them. It’s a hard balance to strike, to be emotionally detached, while also displaying a sense of camaraderie, but Quinto manages to really pull it off, finding just the right amount of dry humor in Spock’s awkward persona.
The same can be said of Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, a character who has similarly felt somewhat disconnected from his original series counterpart. Here, however, his whole arc is about finding the reason why he is invested in Starfleet, why the Enterprise and her crew matters to him – in other words, it’s about learning to become the Kirk of the original series. For some – especially those with a soft spot for Into Darkness – this is going to be frustrating, because this is the same arc Kirk has been made to go through for the past two movies. It’s a lot like the way the first three Daniel Craig Bond films ended on a note saying “okay, he’s really the classic Bond now.” Frankly, though, this is the first time I’ve really bought that supposed transformation, even if it largely occurs off-screen. His and Chekov’s story feels a bit like wheel spinning – as well as an excuse to get in an obligatory second act action setpiece. It’s fun to see Kirk and Chekov hang out together, but the film doesn’t mine any real narrative meaning from that pairing, so it’s ultimately somewhat pointless. It’s not until Kirk meets up with Scotty and Jaylah (who have the second best side story of the bunch) that it feels like his story really gets going.
Finally, rounding out the group is Sulu, Uhura, and the remainder of the surviving crew held hostage by Krall. This is the group that clearly drew the short straw. For one, by no fault of her own, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura winds up being the weak link in the cast. Uhura, frankly, was never given much to do on the original series to begin with, so the new movies attempted to bump up her importance by introducing a romance with Spock, but now that the two of them are on the outs, Uhura once again finds herself without any sort of defining characteristic. Saldana is basically left to play ‘Superficially Strong Female Character™’ while she stands around and has the plot explained to her by Krall. Which brings us to another issue… Krall kind of sucks.
There’s the germ of a good idea in Krall. He’s a character who has deeply personal reasons for hating the Federation and everything that it stands for, which should present a good foil for Kirk’s journey to figuring out what he himself sees in the Federation and in Starfleet. The problem, though, is that Kirk and Krall don’t actually meet until the third act of the movie. The whole middle of the movie where Kirk and Krall should be playing off one another and really mining the thematic depth of this central conflict is given over to a whole bunch of uninspired monologuing about some space MacGuffin that we’re given no reason to have any investment in. It’s a huge missed opportunity, and it’s made worse by the fact that the movie ardently refuses to give us any context for Krall’s motivation until the last possible minute. There was a big chunk of the movie where I thought maybe I was just dense and missed something because certainly they wouldn’t have the villain go on and on with these lengthy monologues about hating the Federation without ever explaining why he actually hates the Federation. But no, that context is saved until the very end of the movie so that they can pull a surprise third-act reveal. It’s such a mind bogglingly wrongheaded move. Going into this I was excited about the idea of this movie having a villain with some actual thematic weight, but instead Krall is somehow the worst villain of these reboot movies – an impressive feat if there ever was one.
Still, as much of a wasted opportunity as Krall is, and as unbalanced as the middle of the movie may be, once the characters are reunited and head into the third act, things really get cooking. There’s not a lot I can say lest I spoil the fun of discovery, but I’ll just note that the film’s big final set piece is deeply, deeply silly, but also totally, completely perfect. Some die hard Trek fans are going to be turned off by that silliness, but the original series was hardly above being silly from time to time. For me, it’s totally keeping in the spirit of classic Star Trek even if it has a decidedly more modern bent.
Ultimately, that’s what this movie achieves. More so than any of the other films – even the films starring the original cast – this is a tribute to the feel of the original series episodes. It’s a self-contained conflict that serves to not only give the crew of the Enterprise ample opportunity to bounce off of each other in fun, funny, and interesting ways, but as an excuse to celebrate what it is we love about these characters in the first place. It may not quite be the rousing, triumphant love letter to the original cast that The Voyage Home was, but short of finding a way to bring back those actors in their prime to do another movie, this is the closest thing I think we’re ever likely to get to capturing that feel. Star Trek Beyond is a silly movie with a frustrating villain and a lopsided second act, but it’s also fun, funny, and rousing, and I kind of love it to pieces.