Star Trek Beyond Review
And so Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and it should come as no surprise that the new film just came out to coincide with this important anniversary. The original ten-film series, spanning two generations of Enterprise crews, would grace big screens in years 1979-2002. It was never a massive franchise on the scale of, say, Star Wars but one that nevertheless has a devoted and passionate fanbase. Many would argue that the Enterprise crew belongs on small screen, where it can explore its themes and worlds in much more detail. That discussion became even more fuelled upon the arrival of J.J Abrams sequel/prequel/reboot in 2009. The new films amplified and sped up almost every single aspect and tried to connect the somewhat more restrained series with requirements of a massive summer blockbuster spectacle. And while both Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness received solid critical response, the fans would debate whether they even deserve their titles. The new film is supposed to bring back the old school Shatner/Nimoy series vibe while also serving as a direct sequel to those new films. Is it even possible for it to be both at the same time?
The answer is… somewhat. Unlike its two predecessors, Star Trek Beyond takes place in outer space. The Enterprise crew is halfway through its 5-year mission and every single person aboard feels alienated and weary of constant space travel. Kirk considers giving away the Enterprise in pursuit of a more stable vice admiral job, Spock is going through a similar personal turmoil upon receiving some upsetting personal news. On top of that, his relationship with Uhura comes to an end. And as our characters recharge their batteries aboard the Starbase Yorktown, the strange spacecraft approaches its destination with alien Kalara on board. She claims to have lost her crew and ship on planet Altamid. As expected, Enterprise ventures into uncharted territory in a rescue mission attempt. Things get more complicated, however, when their ship gets attacked and destroyed by the villainous Krall and his swarming fleet. As a result, they are now also stranded on the strange planet with no way to communicate the Federation...
The plot is very straightforward and relatively thin and that is both good and bad. The film resembles Star Trek of old where our heroes explored uncharted territories and encounter new lifeforms. But, at the same time, there isn’t much attempt being made to actually explore its themes. In the promotional materials leading up to Beyond’s release, much has been said about how the film is about Federation’s purpose. And while that point is brought up by several characters over the course of this story, it never really registers or hits home. It’s mostly being dealt with on a very superficial level and that’s the problem with this film as a whole, It’s a nostalgic stylistic trip that gives as all the easter eggs and references to commemorate Star Trek’s big anniversary... but doesn’t really ever try to explore much new. The film’s title feels almost ironic, given that it’s still very much feels as J.J. Abrams’s Earth-bound take in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.
While there is some attempt to explore a bit more galaxy and species in this new film, the SF aspect is once again suppressed by the necessity of making a grand action summer blockbuster. Star Trek always was epic in scope and its ideas but it never before had so much need to rival its competition in coming up with ridiculous stunts and high-wire action-adventure antics. It was always a bit more grounded in its restrained and intellectual pursuit. Of course, that had something to do with more modest budgets more than anything else but this new incarnation doesn’t feel that much different from any other franchise these days. And it definitely compromises the series’ unique identity in pursuit of greater financial profit. Having said that, the numerous action sequences are skilfully executed by director Justin Lin whose experience on Fast and Furious franchise is clearly on display in a couple of crucial exciting moments.
The film’s major visual eye candy is Yorktown, a gravity bending city-bubble in outer space that serves as a Federation’s base. It’s concept is interesting to the eye but it doesn’t take away from the fact there’s not that much stylistic difference in design from already established San Francisco locations that we already know from two previous films. That means the entire place still feels somewhat anonymous and over-familiar. Ironically, the monotone grey rocky planet Altamid ultimately ends up being more appealing to the eye, probably because it actually feels like a real place.
Despite its slightly breezier touch, Star Trek Beyond finds its strength in its ever-reliable ensemble cast. The younger cast members might never quite reach the appeal of their older counterparts but they’re likeable and manage to meet the requirements of their roles very well. Chris Pine, while still looking a tad too young to be a believable starship captain, has the charisma that makes him a very engaging Kirk in this series and he brings a bit more dignity into his portrayal this time. Zachary Quinto’s role seems to be slightly diminished as compared to two previous film. Having said that, the human side of his character is on display more often which actually might a slight departure from a much colder Spock we know from older entries. For better or worse. One actor who perfectly inhabits his character is Karl Urban in the role of Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy. He has the dry wit that actually makes him a very suitable replacement for DeForest Kelley’s much-loved interpretation. As expected, Simon Pegg’s Scotty gets a lot more to do in this film, given his screenwriter status, and he does a solid job with it as well.
The newcomers are somewhat less visible. Idris Elba portrays his second major villain on screen this year, after The Jungle King, and his performance of Krall is somewhat obscured by the obligatory alien make-up. On top of that, his motivations remain unclear for the majority of film’s running time and that makes it incredibly hard to care about his revelations later on. As a result, late attempts to make his underwritten part bit more relatable are commendable but arrive a little too late. Sofia Boutella in the role of Jaylah doesn’t really receive that much meaty material to sink her teeth into, which is bit unfortunate, but the character design is really nice to look at.
The series has become surprisingly meta in how it decides to deal with some real-life events. Hikaru Sulu, once played by George Takei, is now officially gay in the Star Trek universe (something Takei wasn’t too happy about), and Leonard Nimoy’s recent passing is also addressed in Star Trek Beyond. While it’s appreciated that the franchise (as helmed by Lin, Abrams and Pegg) is trying to honour its past and legacy, there is a sense that it might be a bit on the nose sometimes and it’s probably for the best if fiction runs its own course. Having said that, it’s nice to have this film being dedicated to the memory of both Nimoy and Anton Yelchin (who died tragically last month).
Star Trek Beyond is an entertaining and energetic film that wants to be both a nostalgic trip and a satisfying action romp in its own right. The truth is that those two ingredients often somewhat cancel each other out. The film’s more technical and s-f elements might alienate some general audience members who require a smooth ride from start to finish. On the other hand, the crowd-pleasing high-octane action sequences will probably dissatisfy the original core fanbase that might dismiss them as sign of franchise’s intellectual decomposition. For it tries to accomplish, the film generally manages to serve its purpose well enough. The strong and likeable performances from principal actors once again save the day, even if the script they’re given doesn’t quite come together as well as expected. In the end, it’s all fun but bit too weightless.