REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: July 22nd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Justin Lin
Writer(s): Simon Pegg & Doug Jung / Gene Roddenberry (television series “Star Trek”)

“The poetry of fate”

After an auspicious reboot that erased every movie in the series before it (save the travels of Leonard Nimoy‘s Spock) while ensuring each one still remained in canon, J.J. Abrams stumbled a bit by recycling one of those films’ most acclaim stories for the follow-up. I’ll be the first to admit that Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t all-bad upon a second viewing three years later, but it’s neither unique nor consistently exciting enough to sustain its massive runtime. Unsurprisingly, Abrams decided to take a backseat to reignite another revered franchise by recycling a previous story (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) so Fast and the Furious mainstay Justin Lin could deliver a different brand of blockbuster action. What did surprise, however, was handing script responsibilities off to Simon Pegg.

I’m not saying this was the wrong decision. On the contrary, by removing the saga from the hands of those who more or less ran out of ideas already in order to pass it on to someone with the imaginative capacity to deliver something new, Paramount may have saved Star Trek Beyond from being the final nail in a gradually closing coffin. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung may not move things all the way back to the political, racial, and social underpinnings of Gene Roddenberry‘s original vision, but they do at least provide a story that lets his characters work to their strengths. It’s not about a nefarious enigma at the center playing both sides—wronged or otherwise. It’s about a Starfleet family uniting to fulfill their mission.

What made Star Trek (2009) so successful was its introduction of the USS Enterprise’s crew as a ragtag bunch of elite officers willing to do whatever it took to save lives. It showed how they could pool their talents together and defeat an enemy that had prepared for almost three decades to ensure no one could. I get the desire to flip that notion on its head by turning the sequel into a revenge mission, but such heroic anger only feeds a tried and true action trope that isn’t interesting on its own. Love and hope had been replaced by rage and violence to the point where this Spock (Zachary Quinto) became a pawn to simply “surprise” us with emotional outbursts. It felt manufactured to fit a mold.

How do you combat that? You return to hope and provide a new terrain. Pegg and Jung’s script may be heavy-handed in its constructing crises of conscience and identity on behalf of Spock and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), but you cannot deny its effectiveness to teach how Star Trek isn’t about the Enterprise. It’s about the crew, these irreplaceable figures drawn in three dimensions that have each other’s back and provide criticism. Kirk isn’t the Captain of a vessel; he’s the leader of people who would do anything to protect him as he would they. So when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) sends them to the uncharted Nebula to continue their five-year mission exploring the unknown by saving a stranger’s (Lydia Wilson‘s Tyvanna) crew, it’s inevitable their spacecraft falls.

Finally we get an entry where the majority occurs on a foreign planet. The crew is split into small teams after the crash to ensure everyone has an important task: Karl Urban‘s Bones and Spock providing oil and water camaraderie, Zoë Saldana‘s Uhura and John Cho‘s Sulu gaining insight into the enemy as POWs, Kirk and Anton Yelchin‘s Chekov desperately working to reunite the team, and Pegg’s Scotty with newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) scavenging a means to escape when the job’s done. These pockets gradual converge while the enemy led by Idris Elba‘s Krall proves weirder and more unpredictable by the minute with immortality, ancient bio-weapons, and an impressively fierce armada. Cue some ham-fisted “democracy” versus “dictator” themed arguments, but also some massive set pieces for explosive adventure.

While Beyond is a breathe of fresh air in a series that started lacking spontaneity, however, it’s far from being a singularly peerless endeavor. The design of Yorktown—the Federation’s latest deep-space base of operations—is clearly cribbed from Elysium as far as infinity loops of gravity within a spherical shape go visually and much of the plot where Krall is concerned directly borrows from Danny Boyle‘s underrated science fiction masterpiece Sunshine (so much so that an identical beat with a video recording revealed the hidden truth way before it probably should have). You could do a lot worse than the latter, so kudos on choosing a great contemporary to model yourself on. In the end that puzzle piece is less important than the one it ultimately opens.

Krall’s entire being—who he is and what he’s trying to accomplish—is really the catalyst to jumpstart Kirk’s self-discovery. He joined Starfleet to do right by his hero father and won back his captaincy through actions that began with him letting his emotions take control much like a prototypical villain would. Neither of those versions of Kirk was his true self, three years spent away from Earth as a diplomat shows this to be true. Where he shines brightest by forgetting who everyone else wants him to be is in the midst of chaos. That’s when he’s operating at full capacity with empathy, courage, and the confidence to do the right thing. Pegg and Jung throw him into that fire and he does what he does best.

The final showdown gets heavy-handed again, but that appears unavoidable in today’s Hollywood. The score hits notes of profundity as each character becomes cognizant of his/her own personal epiphanies and it drags just as it does when everyone finishes each other’s sentences to explain what they’re about to do rather than doing so visually in the moment. It often thinks it’s smarter than it is in these instances, but thankfully it always ends up entertaining us regardless. Couple that energy with some tastefully somber goodbyes (Nimoy and Yelchin, the latter coincidentally shown or purposefully recut to be seen right after Kirk toasts his “fallen comrades”) and Beyond officially severs ties with its conflicted past. The show’s ready to boldly go on. Let’s hope they don’t screw it up.

courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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