Star Trek means many things to many people, and what the brand means to you heavily influences how you react to the direction it takes going forward. I can understand why so many were disappointed with JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but as someone with no real connection to the brand (to the probable minor chagrin of my father, who was well versed in both but raised me a Star Wars kid), I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable popcorn movie. On the other hand, I found the second “new” Trek, Into Darkness, to be a ludicrously dumb, bland, and creatively bankrupt endeavour, clearly trying to mine the success of its predecessors but without any spark of its own. Trek, as my more well-versed friends say often, is better known for big ideas rather than action movie spectacle. Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.
The ideas that lie barely under the surface of Beyond are timely, with the Federation being set up as a stand-in for globalization and Idris Elba’s villain Krall representing all the mistrust that prevents such movements from going over smoothly. Notably, the Federation representative rides in a united vessel (the Enterprise), while Krall’s fleet is a swarm of individual ships, working together but clearly sovereign. Krall, naturally, views the Federation as an enemy that must be crushed, and to do so requires a weapon (read: MacGuffin) currently in the posession of the USS Enterprise. In a bold move, the Enterprise is destroyed in the first act of Beyond as opposed to being more-or-less obliterated in the final battle, marooning the crew on an uncharted planet. The planet is briefly noted to be the home of many shipwrecked crews, which is an incredibly interesting scenario that is immediately forgotten about. One could imagine a movie about these foreign crews working together against the oppressor who brought them there, but outside of a resourceful lone wolf named Jaylah, the idea that others exist is quietly pushed aside.
Jaylah, played by Kingsman: The Secret Service standout Sofia Boutella, isn’t a particularly well drawn character, but nonetheless is the best part of the movie thanks to Boutella’s screen presence. She is mostly paired with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, and while Pegg is normally a refreshing presence in anything he’s in, he goes a bit over-the-top here, and calls Jaylah the dimunitive “lassy” a rather infuriating number of times. Most of the actors chew scenery in showy ways, especially Pegg, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the normally reliable Karl Urban as Bones. Idris Elba is buried under a mountain of mo-cap, rendering his villain unrelatable and unmemorable. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are once again given very little to do. Chris Pine is at least a decent leading man, with a lot of soul in those baby blues, but not enough to effectively work as the centre of the movie.
The sci-fi ideas of Beyond are mostly half-baked as well. While I’m generally willing to accept nonsense if enough effort or technobabble is inserted such that it feels legitimate, very little is halfway justified in Beyond. A starship jumpstart is among the dumber moments, clearly designed as an insert-thrill-here type of scene, but without the requisite “a-ha!” moment to make it coherent. Ancient alien technology plays a big role, but is never explained or even pondered (for example, why does Krall look they way he looks, and where does his energy-sapping ability come from?). In one great moment, technobabble flies left and right as the crew comes up with a plan, but its deflating by it being an incredibly cheesy, groan-inducing plan (hint: it involves the power of music saving the day). The Federation city of Yorktown is marvellously designed, evoking the geography of Halo or the Citadel of Mass Effect turned up to eleven, but it definitely feels of a piece with the design of other modern sci-fi movies such as Inception and the upcoming Dr. Strange.
These are mostly all problems that were present in the 2009 Star Trek, but here, even the action doesn’t really work. Instead of tactics winning the day (aside from the power of music), pretty much every turning point of Beyond seems to come down to a fistfight, which quickly grows tiring. The climactic action sequence revolves around what is becoming an increasingly familiar blockbuster trope, where our hero must race above a big city to prevent a villain from getting a MacGuffin into a pipe or something like that, and despite the neat city design, Beyond doesn’t do anything new with the format. Director Justin Lin, known primarily for the Fast and the Furious franchise, films the action scenes jerkily, with nary a static shot in sight, trying for a mile-a-minute thrill ride but reducing the narrative thrust to an indecipherable blur.
Star Trek Beyond has more going on creatively than Into Darkness did, but is unable to capitalize on any of its ideas, instead favouring most unsatisfying action sequences. The cast, full of actors who have previously proven themselves time and time again, are either overly hammy or completely ignored, and the sci-fi world building is treated as completely secondary. There still might be some juice in this crew, but as long as Trek keeps trying to be a top summer blockbuster, I don’t see it producing anything of value.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Dir. Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)