The Star Trek film franchise has always had a hard time balancing the ideas and humanity of original series swith the high-powered action that cinematic audiences expect in a sci-fi film. While it’s much easier to get this equation right in the relatively more restrained frame of television, what works on the small screen doesn’t always work on the big screen. J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the series back in 2009 sought to free the film side of Star Trek from its reliance on a television series analogue, trying to rebuild the series from the ground up, and often pushing the very human ideals that are the hallmark of the series aside for action set pieces. The response to that has been…shall we say…mixed.
Abrams turned over director duties to Justin Lin for Star Trek Beyond when Abrams himself got too busy rebooting that other beloved sci-fi film franchise. While this third entry in the new series still hasn’t quite found that perfect balance of ideas and action, it’s getting closer. Small steps for mankind and all that.
Based on a script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, when Beyond opens, the Enterprise is in year three of it’s five-year mission, and their most recent discovery is ennui. Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown bored with the “episodic nature” (his words) of his mission and is considering giving up his captain’s chair for a cushy and stationary vice-admiral position. While he contemplates this, the Enterprise is dispatched to an uncharted planet to help rescue the crew of a ship that was attacked by the galactic warlord Krall (Idris Elba), who has a grudge against the Federation. En route, Krall’s forces attack, capturing most of the crew and tearing the Enterprise quite literally to pieces. Stranded on the unknown planet, with no ship and no help aside from the aid of a similarly stranded warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the crew of the Enterprise must rely solely on their wits and skills to survive.
Captain's log: down, not out, still looking fine.
That last part helps define the film and sets it apart from the two that preceded it. While the previous films had galaxy-spanning narratives involving epic threats to the Federation, the vast majority of Beyond’s action takes place on the uncharted planet the crew crashes on. And while Krall has grand ambitions, the main struggle isn’t necessarily to stop his schemes but to escape his grasp. There is a much higher value placed on how individual crew members operate in a crisis and how they interact with others, with the action scenes acting more as emphatic highlights rather than the meat of the narrative. Pegg and Jung’s script evokes the spirit of the original Trek without ever satirizing it, paying homage that goes beyond a few winks and shout-outs. It’s a noble attempt to find some kind of middle ground between the series’ ideals and cinema’s demands, and it mostly works. Mostly.
Justin Lin might seem an odd choice to helm a Star Trek movie, as he’s known mostly for doing several of the films in the Fast & Furious series. Lin seemingly commits to his assignment, and it’s clear he’s trying to do his best, but he hasn’t quite mastered the language of sci-fi yet. Say what you want about J. J. Abrams, but the man knows how to compose a thrilling action sequence. Lin’s action, on the other hand, is often confusingly edited and arranged. The choreography and staging is solid, and there's a clear feeling that a lot of planning went into each scene, but the execution tends to be lacking, leaving the scenes muddled and relatively inert. The one time this works in the film’s favor is during Krall’s initial attack on the Enterprise, which leads to the ship being boarded in the most invasive and purposefully chaotic manner possible. It's all claustrophobia and misdirection, tense in all the right ways.
Part of that action-film schizophasia may also be at last a little due to Pegg and Jung’s script, as it’s the first time either man has done a film of this scale. Pegg’s previous scripts have all dealt with conflicts on a microcosmic level, such as the brilliant small-town shoot-outs in Hot Fuzz or the epic bar brawls in The World’s End, and the beats of those smaller-scale films don’t always sound the same when they’re transposed to a larger canvas.
Pictured: small-scale conflict.
Where Pegg’s script does soar and connect, however, is in the scenes just featuring the characters being and acting as themselves. Pegg, who also plays engineer Montgomery Scott, fully understands what makes the crew tick, and he’s well aware that the reason people love Star Trek is the people who run the ship, not the ship itself. The script especially shines in the middle act, where the main bridge crew is split up into four pairs, each trying to do their own part to help remedy their situation. Every character gets a chance to shine both dramatically and practically; Pegg highlights the skill sets of each character in a realistic way that helps us understand why the crew works so perfeclty as a unit and how none of them are as valuable as the sum of all their parts.
The cast by and large does their jobs well if not admirably, and in most cases, they get to show off a new facet to a character or get to explore deeper into their relationship to their shipmates. Of all the cast, the most interesting interactions occur between Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose relationship seems seated in a mild and mutual form of friendly antagonism that’s played for genuine comedy and genuine drama in equal measures. At the same time, the romance between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is thankfully shoved to the background, allowing Uhura to exist more independently as a character. Even Chekov (Anton Yelchin, in his last Trek film due to his death in June) gets an extra layer of depth, which makes Yeltsin’s death even more sad and unfortuante since this feels like the first Trek film where he’s completely and totally clicked with the role.
I am curious: vulcan.
One interesting aspect of Beyond is how it portrays its female characters as independent and not defined by their relationships with men. Even though the on-again/off-again romance between Spock and Uhura does qualify as a minor plot point, it’s never really more than window dressing, and Uhura’s role is much larger than simply being one-half of that pairing. Similarly, Jaylah is presented as her own person and not as a romantic prospect. Played with the same cool, restrained grace that Boutella brought to her role as the villainous Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Jaylah is never sexualized or infantilized, and this allows her more room to breathe and develop as a fully-fleshed character of her own. Her growing friendship with fellow engineer Scotty is, like the effortlessly organic interactions between McCoy and Spock, one of the best parts of Pegg’s script.
Sadly, whenever the movie shifts the focus away from the Enterprise crew and to the actual plot, things tend to slow down. The scenes with Krall sometimes seem like they come from an entirely different film. Idris Elba is unrecognizable under twenty pounds of prosthetics and fangs, and while the look is impressive, it also serves as a nearly impenetrable barrier. Any energy or charisma Elba tries to bring to Krall gets muted by the make-up to the point where it’s left to wonder why they would hire an actor as electric as Elba at all if he's going to get lost in all the alien drag. On top of that, Krall’s motives are never fully explained until the final act, and then only during a massive info dump in the middle of the climatic battle that makes little sense given the 90 minutes that came before. If any seeds for this revelation are planted in the film, Pegg and Jung’s script hides them a bit too well, and the final act reveal asks far more questions than it answers.
Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of latex?
But this film isn’t about villains. It’s about heroes, and it’s about how those heroes persevere under crisis without compromising themselves. More so than either one of the J. J. Abrams’-directed films in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise, Beyond explicitly invokes the very human vibe that made the original series connect with audiences 50 years ago and that typifies the best entries in the film canon. Had the whole film focused on that, it might have come out a bit better than it did. The mix of action and character doesn’t quite work nearly as well as it should, but it’s still a bold step in the right direction.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-