May 2021

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

beyondDIRECTOR: Justin Lin

CAST: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba


Star Trek: Beyond, the third installment in the “new” Star Trek reboot series, with Justin Lin of the Fast & Furious series taking over from J.J. Abrams (who stepped back to merely producing while busy rebooting another sci-fi franchise with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), feels like a super-sized, feature-length episode of the original series (with a budget it could only have dreamed of, of course), but while there are more of Gene Rodenberry’s fingerprints on this one than its two immediate predecessors, the script by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (the latter of whom, of course, also co-stars as Scotty) fails to go “beyond” as the title aspires toward.  Like the previous weak entry Insurrection featuring the Next Generation crew (led by Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard), it’s a relatively stand-alone, small-scale story where the Enterprise crew spends most of their time grounded, meandering around on an alien planet.  Unfortunately, while this hearkens back to various episodes of the original series, it’s not terribly exciting.  This feels more television episode than big summer tentpole motion picture.

We pick up three years into the five-year mission to explore deep uncharted space that the Enterprise’s crew was set to embark on at the end of Into Darkness.  All the usual familiar faces are still on-board (though Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus has disappeared into the ether), but the years in space are taking their toll.  Kirk (Chris Pine) is going stir crazy with the unchanging monotony of a long space voyage and considering accepting an administrative desk job at a space colony.  Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also considering leaving Starfleet and turning his efforts toward rebuilding Vulcan, which has driven a wedge between him and Uhura (Zoe Saldana).  But before the crew potentially go their separate ways, they’ll have to survive their latest adventure.  A distress call leading the Enterprise through an unexplored nebula lures Kirk and company into an ambush of a massive swarm of nanobots that turn the Enterprise into mincemeat and send everyone plummeting to the planet surface in separate escape pods.  Everyone gets split up for a while—Kirk with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) as his sidekick, Bones (Karl Urban) nursing an injured Spock, Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) taken prisoner, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) making the acquaintance of an alien warrior woman called Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who doesn’t like being stranded here anymore than he does—but the scattered crew is going to have to lick their wounds and reunite, because the mysterious baddie, Krall (Idris Elba, buried unrecognizably beneath alien prosthetics), has only struck the first blow, and he has his eyes on a lot more than the Enterprise.

Some were concerned the replacement of J.J. Abrams by Justin Lin in the director’s chair would turn the series into shallow action spectacle, of the sort that Lin directed with the Fast & Furious franchise.  Admittedly, the focus here is more on action-comedy than deep weighty philosophical themes (none of which are given more than brief perfunctory lip service), but the same could be said of Abrams’ 2009 reboot that kickstarted this new series.  The movie tries to inject a dash of social commentary by casually revealing that Sulu is gay, with a male partner and child, but the moment is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it as to be irrelevant (apparently this was meant as an homage to Sulu’s openly gay original actor George Takei, but ironically Takei disapproved, feeling it was not in keeping with the character who had originally been portrayed as heterosexual).  Those who were left unimpressed with what Abrams did with Trek are unlikely to be converted by Lin, but Lin largely continues in the same vein as what Abrams started without making any radical departures (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on who you’re asking).  Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s script bears more of a “classic Trek” feel, but this threatens to get lost amid the semi-comedic hijinks.  Action-comedy was heavy in 2009 too, but for whatever reason, it feels more forced and awkwardly-integrated this time around.  The destruction or near-destruction of the Enterprise is getting repetitive by this point.  When Kirk set a self-destruct sequence in 1984’s The Search for Spock, it had an impact.  Here, it’s already been put through the ringer in both of the previous two Abrams films, so its loss here doesn’t surprise or affect us as much. The smaller scale leaves this latest adventure feeling underwhelming and constrained.  After the planet-hopping and space ship-to-ship duels of Star Trek and Into Darkness, we spend two-thirds of Beyond with our scattered crew meandering around on an alien planet and staging a POW camp escape.  The climax, when we finally get off the planet, kicks things into gear, with an aerial chase through the elaborate and labyrinthine Yorktown space colony, but the final confrontation with Krall is underwhelming (not unlike Krall himself).  This is the kind of thing that might have worked better as a television episode but feels too small for a big summer blockbuster.

The visual effects are first-rate, not that we would expect anything less at this point.  The alien world is nice to look at (and avoids being reminiscent of Avatar‘s Pandora), and the space colony Yorktown is a gloriously well-rendered location that might be beyond anything the franchise has ever shown us before.  It’s the kind of dazzlingly detailed eye candy that we wish we could spend more time exploring.  The climactic chase through Yorktown is far more engaging than Kirk doing bike tricks through a POW camp populated by extras in rubber latex.  The recently deceased Leonard Nimoy (who made appearances in both previous films) gets a touching tribute, and for those moved by nostalgia, there’s later a photo featuring the entire original cast (although seeing the original faces probably also reinforces some viewers who see these young newcomers as imposters).  Another offscreen aspect that casts a shadow over the film is the untimely death of young actor Anton Yelchin in a freak car accident only a few weeks before its premiere.  While as before, Yelchin’s Chekov stays mostly in the background, and doesn’t really steal any scenes, his presence here is inevitably tinged with a poignancy that it would not otherwise have had (the film is dedicated to both Nimoy and Yelchin).

beyondAfter three movies, the cast could probably play these roles on autopilot by now, and sometimes seem to be doing just that.  Chris Pine is attractive and charismatic, but this is the third movie in a row where Kirk has gone through essentially the same loosely-delineated character arc of growing into the captain’s chair and trying to live up to the memory of his heroic father (played by a pre-fame Chris Hemsworth in the 2009 prologue).  Zachary Quinto’s Spock seems to be slipping out of his “logical” deadpan a little too much (Quinto’s Spock was always more emotional than Nimoy’s, but the gulf seems to widen with each movie).  Karl Urban’s Bones skulks around providing cantankerous comic relief.  DeForest Kelley’s Bones was more than a one-note comic relief sidekick, but the rebooted Bones hasn’t advanced much out of this pigeonhole in three movies.  Considering he co-wrote the script, Simon Pegg’s Scotty unsurprisingly has a bigger role this time, but this only makes his excessive fatuousness more glaring.  Zoe Saldana doesn’t get much to do except give Krall someone to monologue/exposition to, and John Cho and Anton Yelchin are still relegated mostly to the background, despite Yelchin getting to run around as Pine’s sidekick for a while.  Idris Elba falls into the same pitfall as Oscar Isaac in this summer’s X-Men Apocalypse; a respected actor squandered in the thankless role of being buried unrecognizably beneath heavy prosthetics and playing a generic hum-drum villain who, like too many other Trek villains before him (including both of his predecessors in the reboot series, Eric Bana’s Nero and Benedict Cumberbatch’s revamped Khan) wants revenge on the Federation for past real or perceived wrongs it has inflicted on him.  The Star Trek franchise has had a long-running pattern of casting strong actors as its bad guys (over the many years Trek has existed, Christopher Plummer, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among various others, have all taken a turn), but unfortunately an equally long-standing pattern of largely wasting them, and Elba doesn’t buck the trend; Krall is an underwhelming “episode of the week” villain who could have been played by anyone.  Somewhat more impression is made by the other “guest star”, an almost equally unrecognizable Sofia Boutella (the blade-footed henchwoman in Kingsman: The Secret Service), who nicely fits the “exotic yet sexy alien warrior woman” mold (the movie also leaves the door open for her to return in the next installment, though considering Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus has vanished with no explanation, it remains to be seen whether we’ll see Jaylah again).

Out of the three reboot films so far, 2009’s Star Trek remains unseated as the strongest installment.  While not perfect, it was an exuberant joyride that was fun and easy to sit through and enjoy.  Into Darkness had its highlights but was overly bogged down in a reworked Wrath of Khan rehash, and now Beyond has not recaptured the freshness and energy of ’09.  In fact, the energy level feels lower here than in either of its predecessors.  A fourth installment is already in the works, and hopefully the long-running franchise can bounce back from an underwhelming episode as it has done several times in the past (including ones that, in fairness, were far worse than this one).  In any case, the cast and crew has again brought Star Trek back into theaters, but it hasn’t gone Beyond.

* * 1/2