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My relative objectivity for a movie like Star Trek Beyond is very limited. I have a deep affinity for all things Star Trek and, as such, my desire to like Star Trek… stuff… can cloud my judgment about what is good and what is not so good. I am relieved, therefore, when something with “Star Trek” in the title is good, pleased when it’s great, ecstatic when it’s excellent.
Star Trek Beyond falls somewhere within the great to excellent range. The only element holding it back from complete excellence is a factor that seems to trouble many movies of this type – Star Trek and otherwise: creation of a meaningful and credible adversary. It’s instructive, I think, that the most universally praised Star Trek movie of them all – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – doesn’t truly feature any kind of personified antagonist and that most Star Trek films have a hole where a compelling adversary should be. More on that later.
Everything else in the movie works. Big time.
For fans of the original series less than enchanted with the so-called “Kelvin Timeline” who have expressed a desire for these movies to return to exploration as opposed to another return to Earth, writers Simon Pegg (great again as Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung heard you. They have constructed a mission for the Enterprise and her crew that resonates with the episodic (pun intended – if you’ve seen the film, you caught the reference) nature of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation without the film seeming (at least to me) like an extended of a television show. Pegg and Jung manage what earlier writers of this reboot (and, if we’re being honest, of most of the prior Star Trek movies) did not: they make the movie about exploring strange, new worlds, seeking out new life and going where no one has gone before. That is no mean feat. They accomplish not only that but, in Star Trek Beyond, they create a movie about the final frontier which actually manages to touch on the likely effects of a long, deep-space exploration assignment in ways even the original series did not. This was most impressive.
The Enterprise is two-and-a-half years into its five year mission and the crew is showing the wear-and-tear of the voyage. Captain Kirk in particular wonders what Starfleet in general and the crew of the Enterprise in particular is accomplishing, especially after his latest mission – the sequence that opens the film – ends in something less than success. Chris Pine is no longer the fresh-faced young, rebellious Kirk of the last two movies. These Star Trek films have had longer production lives between them (perhaps accounting for something of a drop-off in interest in the series if box office numbers are indicative of such things), the first rebooted Star Trek coming nine years ago and Pine has aged appropriately into his role. In fact, he is now 35, the same age as one William Shatner during the first year of the original series. The Kirk that Pine portrays is accomplished, seasoned and reflective – he’s reflective about his prospects, reflective about father and reflective his friendships, especially his friendship with Commander Spock.
The connection between Kirk and Spock, and the chemistry between Pine and the excellent Zachary Quinto, has been a strength of these movies and writers Pegg and Jung do something very smart. They separate the two leads for the first and second acts of the movie.
One of the many things that really works in this movie must have come out of a story meeting in which Pegg and Jung said something like: “hey, let’s break up the crew into smaller units and put people together who haven’t had much time together before… that would be so cool!” I can almost hear their voices.
They were right. It was cool. Rather than Kirk and Spock, we get Sulu and Uhura, Spock and McCoy and Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin was either particularly good in this movie or I was simply moved by his performance because of his recent passing). The interplay among the characters – especially that between McCoy and Spock – is well written, well acted and a hell of a lot of fun.
John Cho is great and the movie doesn’t slam on the brakes to let us know his Sulu is gay. Well done! I was very glad to see this addition to the Star Trek universe. Zoe Saldana has become a big star since the first Star Trek film and, though she’s got the least screen time among the major characters, she absolutely makes the most of it.
Karl Urban has been the unsung hero of these movies and Star Trek Beyond knows this. Urban’s McCoy is terrific, needling Spock, hectoring Kirk, caring for all. Of all the portrayals of characters from the original series, Urban’s hews the closest to the source – DeForrest Kelley – and his work is all the better for doing so.
But everyone is good and everyone gets a moment or two to shine which is a challenge in a movie like this. Director Justin Lin handles the quiet character moments of the movie extremely well, at least as well as he handles the outsized science fiction action. Let me tell you, there is a space battle in the movie that is unlike anything ever seen in a Star Trek film.
Add to “the magnificent seven” a very engaging new character, Jaylah played by Sofia Boutella. She is well drawn and a character I cared about before the final reel. I cannot say that about other supporting characters introduced in previous movies. Charming and accomplished, Jaylah is a welcome addition to the Star Trek universe.
I wish I could say all the same things about Idris Elba’s Krall. Elba is no doubt talented and I don’t wish to say that talent is wasted here. It’s not. He’s absolutely committed to the role and he’s certainly a match for Pine’s Kirk and crew. He speaks with gravitas, poses a threat and has some menace about him. What he’s not (even with the late movie twist considered) is particularly distinguishable from any other disposable action film adversary. While his lines indicate something of what could have been an interesting motivation, the movie doesn’t spend enough time dealing with the ramifications of it and the character suffers. By the end of the third act, Krall has simply become another villain intent on destroying… the Enterprise (no, already did that)? civilization? the universe? Doesn’t matter. Krall doesn’t reach Khan or Borg Queen levels of interest or menace. Even with Elba inhabiting him, he doesn’t come close.
However, Star Trek Beyond is so much fun. It’s witty and clever. It takes its characters on arcs of discovery. It tells a complete story that doesn’t seem to be in service of any planned sequels (though one was announced the day the movie opened). It pays tribute to Leonard Nimoy sweetly and profoundly. It adds to the Star Trek mythos, pleases fans and non fans alike and is one of the better reviewed movies of this pretty dismal summer. It’s positive. It’s exciting. It’s Star Trek.
How could you possibly go wrong buying a ticket to this one?
STAR TREK BEYOND receives FOUR AND A HALF Beastie Boys songs out of a possible FIVE.