All the best parts of a summer movie, all the worst parts of a Star Trek film.
It takes a little bit of guess work to figure out the population of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond. According to special features on the previous films, there are about 1,100 individuals on board the ship at any given time. While this might seem high to fans of the original series – whose Enterprise had a population of about 400 at the time of the show – it does seem to align with the version of the Star Trek universe that J.J. Abrams created. In the first Star Trek film, for example, Bruce Greenwood’s Christopher Pike credits George Kirk with saving over 800 lives with his quick thinking as the captain of the USS Kelvin. As an early montage shows, the Enterprise is a ship teeming with life.
Or at least for the first thirty minutes. If those numbers are correct – if a thousand Starfleet officers sounds about right – then I’m not quite sure Star Trek Beyond was prepared to deal with the amount of bloodshed it unleashed upon the franchise. By the time the movie shifts to the action-packed third act, only a few dozen members of the Enterprise crew are accounted for. The rest have been shot, blown up, or sucked into the vacuum of space during an early battle with enemy forces. And while this death does not match the carnage of, say, a movie like Man of Steel, it still goes to show that Star Trek Beyond is caught between the language of Star Trek and the language of the Hollywood summer blockbuster. Life is precious to the denizens of Gene Roddenberry’s universe. Life is cheap to the showmen of June and July.
Granted, Lin and Pegg have done their best to move the franchise back into familiar territory. Star Trek Beyond skips forward a little from the previous film, opening with Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban) and the whole Enterprise crew three years into their five-year mission. The intervening years have been healthy but uneventful. Each officer has begun to itch for changes that involves leaving the Enterprise behind. Kirk has put in for a Vice-Admiral position that would keep him tethered to a forward outpost; Spock has recently ended his relationship with Lieutenant Uhuru (Zoe Saldana, still under-utilized) and is weighing an offer to return to New Vulcan and serve his people.
When the Enterprise is tasked with a relatively routine rescue mission, each man seems resigned to this mission representing one final hurrah; that is, until an ambush from an alien species cuts the Enterprise right out from under them, forcing the survivors to crash-land on a planet obscured by a local nebula. As the dust settles and the cast pairs off for their individual rescue narratives – Kirk and Chekov, Spock and Bones, and Scott and Jaylah each dive into fistfights and shootouts with the enemy while Sulu and Uhura look vaguely concerned in the background of scenes – Star Trek Beyond stumbles gamely into its action-packed third act. The attempts by Scott and Jaylah to restore the archaic Starfleet vessel offer some of the film’s best moments; meanwhile, the garbled attempts by Krall to explain his hatred of the Federation and his animosity towards Kirk do little to justify the attempt at a big reveal.
What Star Trek Beyond brings back to the franchise is a sense of energy and life missing from the previous film. Lin’s direction in particular splashes the screen with primarily colors too-long absent from the Star Trek universe. The Enterprise travels through space not in a void of colors but in an excess of them; bright purples and greens swirl around the ship as it leaps from point-to-point. When the action moves down to the planet floor, daylight and disruptor fire add even more elements of brightness to the film. These are not the dull browns and blacks of the Klingon planet in Star Trek Into Darkness; so much of the visual palette for Star Trek Beyond simply pops on the screen, and it is a welcome reminder of the kind of future we seem to only find in the Star Trek franchise.
The actors, too, seem more comfortable with their characters. Much has been said about how Star Trek Beyond feels more like a standalone episode of the original series than part of a continuing cinematic arc, and this is good news for the characters. Freed up from the burden of hitting their developmental marks, the cast of Star Trek Beyond are able to develop a rapport that feels more organic. The big winner here is Karl Urban, whose Dr. McCoy is able to firm up his place as the moral center of the franchise. Since Pine and Quinto still have next to no chemistry together, Urban steps in as a buffer between the two, allowing each character to reflect on their relationship with the other without actually having to muster up any false camaraderie between the two leads. And while Jaylah may be less useful than the trailers and teasers would have you believe – she is mostly there to put Pegg’s Montgomery Scott in his place – she is a welcome addition to a cast still feeling out the dynamic of its updated characters.
Unfortunately, even if the visuals and performances are more in line with what we expect from a Star Trek film, the story and characters are most certainly not. The alien leader Krall – Idris Elba, though the makeup and vocal affections required of him give him little room for personality – has in his position a seemingly endless supply of individual attack ships, each of which can withstand direct impact with a Federation starship and maneuver with impossible precision due to a synthetic hivemind. What more does a man need to defeat his enemies? I am sure that a dedicated fan could explain why Krall needs a space MacGuffin or why the transporter technology in Star Trek Beyond is so noticeably absent during the film’s climax – after all, I once explained to an astronomy professor why the Kessel Run dialogue in Star Wars was more accurate than it sounds – but each of the little lapses in judgment chip away at the integrity of the film as a whole.
Star Trek has always been a series that bartered on plausibility; while there may be value in being one of the smarter movies of the summer season, you’re still being graded on one hell of a curve. For each of the little things that Star Trek gets right, it is bogged down by the destructive language and excess required of any tentpole summer movie. Star Trek Beyond makes for pretty fun summer entertainment, but if you’re looking for anything more than that, it may be best to hold out for whatever the new television show has to offer.