Has a movie ever suffered such a remarkable reverse of opinion as Star Trek Into Darkness? Critically lauded upon release in 2013, the first sequel in the JJ Abrams-rebooted franchise brought a new legion of fans to the Trek universe but left purists underwhelmed. They even voted it the worst Trek movie ever, such was their disappointment with its dour tone, illogical plotting and heavy leaning on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Arriving slap bang in the middle of the franchise’s 50th anniversary year, Star Trek Beyond feels like a mostly-successful bid to finally win over those diehard fans. Combining blockbuster scale and popcorn spectacle with the fun and optimistic tone of the original series, the Starship Enterprise’s latest space adventure often feels like the best of both worlds.
The story itself has the air of a classic episode from the ‘60s TV show as it largely centres around one sprawling, previously undiscovered location and an overreaching theme of togetherness. Even the sets look like they’ve been made out of paper-mâché, just like the shonky production work of the original series.
We rejoin the crew past the halfway mark of their five-year mission with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) starting to feel the mental strain of endless days spent exploring the vast emptiness of space. After a brief pit stop at the Federation’s shinny new outpost (picture Elysium trapped in a giant floating snow globe), the crew is dispatched to rescue a spaceship stranded in an uncharted corner of the cosmos. That distress call turns out to be a trap orchestrated by Idris Elba’s gravel-faced baddie Krall, who unleashes a hive of spiky fighter-ships to destroy the Enterprise and send it plummeting into a deserted planet.
That dramatic crash-landing is actually the set-up for many of Beyond’s funniest moments as it splits the crew into unexpected odd-couple pairings. Kirk lands alongside Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin); Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Chu) find themselves in Krall’s clutches; Scotty (Simon Pegg) is rescued by native survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, an excellent addition to the core line-up); while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) try to evade capture after a particularly bumpy ride. It’s this latter pairing which proves to be most uproarious with Spock’s grating rationalism providing the perfect foil for the pessimistic sarcasm of Bones, who gets the lion’s share of the funny lines as a consequence.
With so many characters in play it’s inevitable that few of them are served with fulfilling narrative arcs. While each crewmember gets an opportunity to showcase their action hero credentials, there’s very little meat on the bones of their individual stories. As a result, the action often lacks the necessary sense of peril.
It’s a problem symptomatic of a script which sticks too close to sci-fi epic formula. Few surprises await here as you will instantly predict how each conflict will resolve the moment it is posed. This predictability is most keenly felt during a final act which hinges heavily on Into Darkness’ climatic scenes with yet another futuristic city threatened with annihilation and Kirk once again risking his life to save everyone else’s. Screenwriters Pegg and Doug Jung admittedly had little time to fine-tune the script after parachuting in for a complete re-write mere months before shooting began, but the run-of-the-mill plotting nevertheless saps much of the energy out of the movie.
Though best-known for his outlandish work on the Fast and Furious franchise, director Justin Lin – taking over the reins after Abrams boarded a certain other space epic – keeps a tight leash on the action beats, making them bold and energetic without feeling overblown. The disintegration of the Enterprise is a particularly breathless and arresting spectacle.
It’s not all expensive explosions and witty repartee, of course; Beyond is more than willing to show-off its cerebral side. Be it Kirk’s deep-space malaise, Spock’s grief or Krall’s disregard for the Federation’s core principles, there are many thought-provoking themes that are sure to resonate with a modern-day audience. Kirk’s existential wrangling over his father’s legacy feels especially poignant with Pine giving his best performance yet in the role, adding a gritty world-weariness to the Captain’s swaggering charm.
Less impressive is Elba as Beyond’s chief antagonist Krall. After making a suitably bombastic entrance, the character’s natural menace is never built upon. Throughout his motivation remains unclear and the point of his grand scheme frustratingly hard to grasp. Unfortunately for Elba, despite his nightmarish look and actions, Krall is a rather forgettable foe in the mold of Eric Bana’s placeholder villain Nero rather than a seething scene-stealer like Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison.
Regardless, by refining the formula to blend blockbuster-style adventure with the light-hearted, thought-provoking tone of the original TV series, Star Trek Beyond succeeds as a movie of which Trekkies both old and new can find something to be proud.
Runtime: 120 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi; Released: 22 July 2016;
Director: Justin Lin; Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung;
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana