Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Starring- Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy
Director- Justin Lin
PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action and violence
While responding to a request for assistance from a downed ship full of scientists, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise fly into a trap set by a mysterious warlord named Krall (Idris Elba). Separated from one another and stranded on an alien world, they must find a way to return to Federation space before Krall uses an ancient artifact to destroy a space station housing millions.
Star Trek Beyond gets closer to the spirit of the original series than any of the other rebooted Treks, which is both its standout quality and possibly its Achilles’ heel — even in its best moments, it reminds you that perhaps Star Trek truly does belong on television. It’s a good movie, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more in the middle of a full season than on its own.
The “nuTreks,” as I’ve seen them called, have always had a bit of a tormented relationship with their source material. It started with J.J. Abrams being more on the Star Wars side of the aisle and steering the new series in that direction and continued with Roberto Orci stuffing the sequel with his 9/11 truther BS. The characters were strong, and the cast had great chemistry, but they weren’t the Kirk, Spock, and Bones that we knew and loved. Basically, the series has been trapped in an awkward place between fidelity to the original series and becoming its own thing, that conflict reaching its apex with Star Trek Into Darkness, where Abrams tried to glue Star Trek positivity onto a cynical Orci/Alex Kurtzman script that didn’t remotely understand the inclusive optimism in the show’s roots.
Star Trek Beyond is, in a lot of ways, the course correction nuTrek needed. It feels like the end result of a successful compromise between completely aping the source and striking out on its own, i.e. it feels like Star Trek but not so much like Star Trek that it starts to feel like an inferior copy. It’s still a touch action-heavy for my tastes; the series had plenty of sci-fi adventuring, but the constant, furious slam-banging of this movie tends to feel like too much (especially since the edits are so quick and the camera is so close to the action). Even so, Star Trek Beyond marks the point where nuTrek, at last, more or less occupies its own niche. It’s a modern blockbuster in all the old familiar ways, but it restores the U.S.S. Enterpriseto its original directive of exploration and discovery and adopts a fundamentally optimistic worldview, despite its occasional forays into appropriate darkness. It almost feels like a direct answer to the criticisms of Star Trek Into Darkness — thematically, the film is specifically about the strength of unity in diversity over enforced, insular uniformity. (Once again, 2016’s movies, filmed at least a year ago in most cases, sure are doing a great job of speaking to 2016’s problems.)
The characters reflect a similar sort of compromise. Star Trek Beyond seems to have accepted that these are different actors and different stories and as such, they can never completely recreate the magic of the original series. They have to find their own angle. So the movie advances the characters to a point where it’s plausible that they might be younger versions of their prior selves but they’re also distinct in a way. After all, it’s a different timeline, broken off from that of the original series — things aren’t exactly the way they once were. The movie successfully maintains the strong cast chemistry of its predecessors and also manages its characters fairly well — the separation of the crew as they crash-land on the planet allows each of them to shine in individual moments, and it isn’t maintained for so long that you start to miss their interactions with one another. It’s good fortune that Chekov, in particular, gets to do as much as he does, in light of Anton Yelchin’s recent untimely death.
Not all’s well just yet. I still feel like this series doesn’t quite know what to do with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who generally hasn’t interested me in these movies. It’s also struggling to establish an iconic villain of its own — Krall doesn’t have a particularly interesting personality (his motivation pretty much boils down to “war is awesome, we should have one”), and Idris Elba’s normally commanding screen presence is lost under several pounds of makeup. I can’t say the movie really played on my emotions either — I like the central theme and what it represents as a mission statement of sorts for the series going forward, but it always seems like it’s hovering somewhere outside of the characters and the relentless action, touched upon but never really felt.
But like I said earlier, the movie’s tonal closeness to the original series, strangely enough, may contribute to my lukewarm feelings toward it. It’s not that it’s a bad direction or that it doesn’t work but that it starts feeling as though it belongs on television, as part of a series. On one level, I appreciate the low-stakes feel of Star Trek Beyond, but that also fights against its needs as a movie.
Television and film are different mediums. They function differently. They tell stories differently. The line between them has become increasingly blurry of late, which is starting to rob them of some of that nuance. Television is long-form. You can tell the smaller, lower-stakes stories because you have the space to explore them while building them into a much larger whole. An episode of a television show doesn’t have to change all that much on its own — the approach to the story’s arc is much more gradual. Movies are short-form. And given the complications involved, audiences go years between installments of their stories. As such, in my opinion, they should be considered events, and I don’t mean that in the sense of an “event movie” — a massive, sprawling, spectacular thing where the whole world is at stake. Rather, I mean that an individual movie, broadly speaking, should represent a significant change in the lives of the characters or in the story arc of the overall series (assuming there is one). A film like Boyhood, for instance, may be relaxed, mostly non-narrative, and without a whole lot at risk in its story, but it nevertheless hones in on a really important idea and drives it home.
On the surface, Star Trek Beyond has huge stakes — not only the lives of the characters, but the fate of an entire planet. But for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, that’s Tuesday. That the movie is contained, that it has a smaller scope, that the setting is limited, that most of its run-time is spent on Kirk and Co. vs. the elements, none of that is a problem on its own. It’s that none of this appears to change the story overmuch, that the film feels like a pretty standard day in the life of the characters, that the character development is extremely minor, that the movie ends in a place so similar to where it began.
That sort of incremental change in a TV show would be more than enough, and as an episode in an ongoing series, Star Trek Beyond would have a shot at being a fan-favorite. But as a movie, blown up on the big screen with all this spectacle and significance, it leaves you thinking, “That’s it?” It’s still fun, funny, tense, and filled with all kinds of awesome sci-fi wonders, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the heart. It’s a perfectly entertaining sci-fi romp, but it’s hard to imagine people thirty years from now talking about it the same way we talk about The Wrath of Khan. Still, Star Trek Beyond is a good time at the movies, and if only for the single best musical cue of 2016, I’m glad I caught it on the big screen.