STAR TREK BEYOND * * *
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba. Screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Directed by Justin Lin.
J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot is probably my favorite blockbuster of our current franchise era. Fleet-footed and extremely well cast, what it lacked in the allegorical aspirations of Gene Roddenberry’s original series, the film made up for with a similar swagger and sense of goodwill. Star Trek still plays great on constant cable airings because it’s a hugely entertaining picture that’s just plain fun to watch, which you can’t say for Abrams’ shockingly unpleasant 2013 follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness. A glum, militaristic attempt to remake Wrath of Khan with 9/11 truther overtones, it’s one of those sequels that so fundamentally misjudged the appeal of the original you’re baffled as to how the same creative team was involved. The Enterprise crew didn’t even seem to like each other very much.
In many respects Star Trek Beyond serves as a welcome righting of the ship. The screenplay –which co-star Simon Pegg wrote with Doug Jung– understands that we came to see Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the gang cracking wise and enjoying one another’s company. All that great chemistry squandered in the sour second installment returns to the forefront here, Pegg and Jung providing the cast with more zingers than you’ll hear on an entire season of most sitcoms. It’s a very funny movie, and a welcome reminder that summer tentpoles need not be so gloomy all the damn time. Star Trek, in its many permutations and generations, is supposed to be about optimism, inclusiveness and faith in the future. That’s something this picture gets right, and it’s no small thing.
Wisely choosing to pretend Into Darkness just never happened (because who wants to deal with the crazy aftermath of Dr. McCoy discovering how to resurrect the dead by injecting Khan’s blood into Tribbles?) Beyond picks up three years into the U.S.S. Enterprise’s five-year mission, with Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk suffering some birthday-related malaise, noting things have become a bit “episodic” lately and pondering a promotion to a Starfleet desk. Meanwhile Zachary Quinto’s Spock, saddened by a death in the family, is likewise considering a career change. The two awkwardly attempt to share their existential blues in a droll elevator scene so perfectly played and instinctively *right* by these iconic characters, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. We’re back in capable hands.
Abrams has moved on to another interstellar saga with the word Star in the title, so the hands this time belong to director Justin Lin, a former Sundance wunderkind who more recently transformed the Fast & Furious movies from cheap Point Break knock-offs into a sprawling, cheerfully ludicrous Hong Kong soap opera. (His Fast Five is the best John Woo movie John Woo never made.) If at first the muscle car dude might seem a strange choice for Trek, remember that he’s coming off of four films in which a diverse ensemble accomplishes impossible feats thanks to friendship and teamwork, so when you stop and think about it he’s pretty much the only guy for this job.
The Enterprise crew’s shore leave on a shiny new space station is interrupted by a distress call just beyond a pesky, nearby nebula. Soon they’re attacked by a locust-like swarm of space drones, ripping the ship to shreds and stranding our gang on an alien planet where a seething warlord under heavy makeup (Idris Elba) is looking for some sort of thingamob that fits onto a whatzit and makes a biological weapon that will somehow destroy the Federation. Put it this way, plot is not exactly this picture’s strong suit.
The pleasure, as it should be, is seeing old, beloved characters brought to life once more by an enormously appealing young cast. Paired off in odd couples across the hostile planet, there’s scads of funny bickering from Quinto’s deadpan Spock and Karl Urban’s blustery Bones, plus stalwart heroics from John Cho’s Sulu and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. Kirk and Chekov (one last adorable performance from the late Anton Yelchin) try to salvage what’s left of the Enterprise, while Pegg’s Scotty ends up befriending the wild, striped indigenous lady Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who just might know the secret history of Elba’s snarling despot.
I’m sure I won’t be the first to point out that Star Trek Beyond is best when it feels like an extra-long episode of the original 1960s series, and I assume those amusingly cheap, fake-looking rocks scattered around the expensive sets are a deliberate homage. There are also a couple of “classical music” cues that made me as giddy as anything I’ve seen all summer.
But it’s worth remembering that aside from 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the old movies were never big-budget affairs. Featuring very little action, they mainly relied on the familiar camaraderie of the crew. Star Trek Beyond is packed with insanely elaborate special effects sequences so overloaded with CGI they become almost numbing, and a little boring. Lin’s Furious films pulled off some novel, gravity-defying feats, but this one is shot too close and cut too quickly to tell what’s going on a lot of the time. You can’t wait for everyone to stop running away from explosions and go back to bantering with each other.
Star Trek Beyond is a bombastic spectacle picture with the heart of an intimate character comedy. Endearingly unsubtle messages of positivity and unity get hammered home almost as much as folks talk about “family” in Lin’s other franchise, and I happen to find such feel-good sentiments especially comforting at our particular moment in history. I love spending time with these characters, and I was so overjoyed by their quips I could tolerate the F/X overkill.
Still, I wish there were some way we could see Kirk, Spock and the gang more often and in smaller-scaled adventures. You know, maybe like a TV show?