It’s difficult to imagine the recent abundance of spacefaring films existing without the success of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. Since then, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Martian, and more, have boldly gone where Gene Roddenberry went first. The latter film especially, displayed the same ambitious vision of humanity as the original series: an unfailingly diverse set of people, using their problem solving abilities to save people, inspiring the planet at the same time. As much fun as Abrams’ first film in the franchise was, it’s always been more Star Wars than Star Trek; Into Darkness may as well have been any post-9/11 fear-infused action film, despite its ill-founded homaging of Wrath Of Khan. After that slight misfire, Paramount chose Justin Lin to replace Abrams. As a director known best for his orchestration of the unabashedly silly Fast & Furious films, it would be easy to dismiss him. It would also be wrong. Star Trek Beyond brings the en-vogue Pop fun of Guardians Of The Galaxy and the same hopeful attitude that The Martian wowed audiences with. It’s undeniably a modern blockbuster, yet it’s also the most classically Star Trek thing to wear the label in decades.
Just under three years into their five-year exploration mission, and the crew of the starship Enterprise is feeling the monotony of their job. None moreso than Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), making a pointed comment to a higher officer how things have begun to feel “a little episodic”. He’s contemplating leaving his command early, while his first mate Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) deals with his own crisis of faith. But when a distress call arrives from a strange, dislocated planet, the crew find themselves attacked by a terrifying alien fleet led by Krall (Idris Elba), who has a vendetta against everything the Federation stands for. Stranded without their ship Kirk and his crew must find a way to reunite and defeat their new foe.
You can immediately tell that Justin Lin wants to distinguish this Trek from Abrams’, and tie the nu-Trek universe closer to the prime one. What could have been an action sequence, drawing on Indiana Jones like Into Darkness, turns into a great gag, and allows Lin to segue into a restrained, thoughtful opening. Kirk’s narration of his Captain’s log feels endearingly like a “Previously on”, but intentionally devoid of the crew’s exciting exploits. As he tells Scotty “I tore my shirt again”, you immediately understand that this is all too familiar. Even the Enterprise itself feels dull. There’s a truly gorgeous profile shot of the ship warping through deep space, parting constellations and nebulas as it cleaves across the screen; yet the ship’s not heading out, its retreating to a safe Federation port. The interiors meanwhile, are bright and clean, wider corridors full of the faces of extras, looking for all the world like they’re heading for lunch in the company cafeteria, not as if they’re on a spaceship.
It’s hard to believe this is the same man who opened Fast & Furious 5 with a vehicular train heist, but if anything there’s more awe and wonder in Beyond’s first act than there is glee in the entirety of that F&F entry. The Enterprise’s arrival at the Federation’s waypoint Yorktown (an incredibly relevant, entirely intentional name) sees Lin’s camera float through the moon-sized space-station, all gravity inverting planes and skyscrapers whose points scrape each other. It’s joyous. We see not just the ambition and hope of humanity here, but the diversity and acceptance that we demonstrate at our best, with alien species scattered throughout the crowds. All of this in the opening, which makes it clear that Lin is seriously in touch with Star Trek. He’s building his film around characters with arcs about life purpose, and mortality, as well as a solid thematic discussion (and proof) of humanity’s unity in diversity, versus an autocratic, homogenised rule, focused on struggle.
This is all in the film, and most of it established cunningly in the first 20 minutes, because once the Enterprise gets destroyed (in a phenomenal sequence), you’ll be hard pressed to notice them. On next to no occasion do characters stop to monologue about themes. Instead, writers Doug Jung and Simon Pegg treat us to a separation of the crew, as they all pair off in unfamiliar ways: Kirk with Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Spock with Hank ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with Sulu (John Cho), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) with a new ally on the alien world named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Every one of the cast bring their A-game, and when the (packed, if well-structured) script allows them their moments, they sink their teeth into it. Cho’s Sulu has a few particularly satisfying ones, and Pegg remains a perfect comedic foil to basically anyone his Scotty is onscreen with, but the highlight has to be the double-act of Spock and McCoy. Lin’s use of them brings the classic trinity of Bones, Spock, and Kirk back to the big screen, without feeling anachronistic. The biggest laughs of the film all originate from that odd couple’s relationship, as they go past their posturing banter to expressing genuine affection.
Then there’s Idris Elba’s Krall. He’s an interesting one, a villain in search of a MacGuffin that does a thing which kills a lot of people, while spitting hellfire at his captives. Frankly he should be a bore, as interesting as some of the Marvel villains who offered only physical threats, with no character alignments with those film’s heroes. But Elba simply has so much presence: so vociferous in his hatred and opposition to a Federation and a mission that we’re already suspicious of and distanced from, that we can’t help but be intrigued. What happens with the character is bold, but it works, and on reflection it allows Star Trek Beyond to feel even more relevant to the politically fraught, divisive climate of 2016, when right-wing monsters perpetuate conflict and secession through their dialogue. It won’t be for everyone at first, but it works.
Lin’s understanding of Star Trek is matched only by his handling of action and pace – this movie is so much fun. It barely ever feels rushed, it’s never slow, and every scene following the ship’s crash works to develop character or plot, occasionally both. The set-pieces are terrific – besides a stylistic choice for more intense, handheld and quickly cut fight scenes, there’s no reason to complain. A prison breakout has the vibe of a great heist or caper film, with multiple elements coming together at the right moment, and a final act usage of a classic Beastie Boys song feels inevitable and perfect, not overused. Yes, the film is thoughtful, but as the aforementioned scene shows, it’s not above making things blow up in gloriously over-the-top fashions. It’s everything that summer blockbusters should be, whilst perfectly honouring the spirit of Gene Roddenberry.
Star Trek Beyond, directed by Justin Lin, is distributed in the UK by Paramount Pictures, Certificate 12a.