It’s an odd fate that seems to have befallen 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, the film opened to positive reviews (it’s still sitting at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes) and decent audience response, but very quickly, pretty much by the end of that year, the negative opinion initially voiced only by more hard-core Trek fans seemed to be the common consensus. It now appears to be thought of as a bad movie with dubious political undertones, a poorly handled “twist”, and a shameless recreation of one of the series’ most famous moments leading to a cop-out ending. What was at first a fresh and exciting new take on the classic Star Trek now seemed in need of course correction by film number three.
And that’s pretty much what Star Trek Beyond looks to be trying to do. Director J.J. Abrams and writer Roberto Orci are now only producers, with Fast & Furious 3-6 director Justin Lin taking the helm and star Simon Pegg co-writing with Doug Jung. The film makes no mention of the events of Into Darkness, which is probably for the best as it saves them the trouble of having to explain away that film’s ludicrous ‘death cure’ moment, a seriously silly misstep that would be quite the challenge to write around.
Speaking as someone who isn’t really a Trek fan (not that I dislike it, I’ve just never watched that much), my biggest disappointment with Star Trek Into Darkness was how much of it took place on Earth, I wanted to see more of the outer space adventures the show was based around. In that respect, Beyond is a significant improvement, taking place three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, I’ve seen several Trek fans liken this to an extended classic episode, Kirk even makes a little quip about how the mission is feeling “episodic” at the start. The film doesn’t have any Earth-bound scenes, instead revolving more around a massive, and wonderfully designed space station called the Yorktown which the Enterprise arrives at near the start.
There is one thing that the film does have in common with Into Darkness (and 2009 Star Trek) though, that it seems to feel the need to destroy the Enterprise. This does so within its first act, and while it’s a little frustrating to see them leaning on this yet again, it’s admittedly a fairly spectacular action set-piece; the kind of scene you’d be hoping for given Lin’s hiring. It’s not the action highlight of the film though, there’s a fun sequence involving some goofy sci-fi tech and a motorcycle, and later a spectacular attack soundtracked to The Beastie Boys, a move that the film manages to pull off despite it sounding like a grating mismatch.
Big action scenes shouldn’t be what Star Trek is all about however, and while this film does seem to perhaps over-emphasise them, the characters are all there too. A little disappointingly, this doesn’t feature a great deal of Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) interaction as they’re separated for the majority of the movie, they get one great exchange in a lift near the beginning but that’s about it. It makes a decent stab at compensating for that by having Spock team up with Karl Urban’s McCoy and the pair demonstrate a good level of buddy-comedy chemistry. There are also strong moments for Scotty (Pegg, who doesn’t ever feel like he’s indulging his own character with his script), and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) who spends a lot of the first half teamed up with Kirk. Unfortunately Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) both feel a little side-lined, ending up very much as supporting characters rather than part of an equally featured team. There is at least a little compensation for this in the form of Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), a new character Kirk meets when stranded who comes to be a great addition to the team (not to mention, thankfully not just a love interest for Kirk).
The villain is also a new character named Krall, played by Idris Elba in heavy prosthetics. While Elba sounds like an ideal choice, and gets a great introduction in the film, he ultimately comes across as a fairly generic villain out to just kill everyone. I’ve heard some make the case that this is a deliberate choice to prevent him from stealing the show from the main crew, but there could have been some happy medium. There’s also a twist regarding his character that I, and I’m sure many others, saw coming a mile off. At least the film doesn’t rely on it too much. The final showdown between him and Kirk comes after the aforementioned big attack set-piece and can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic.
Star Trek Beyond also has the shadow of not one but two major actor deaths hanging over it, and it addresses both extremely well. First Leonard Nimoy, whose character of ambassador Spock is revealed to have died within the film’s timeline, gets a touching tribute from Quinto as his character learns of this. And then Anton Yelchin, who died just months before this film’s release, gets the most wonderfully subtle tribute; as Kirk makes an in context toast “to absent friends”, the camera cuts to a quick shot of Chekov raising his glass; it’s perfect. The film ends with a dedication to them both.
So while Beyond strips away a lot of the baggage of Into Darkness, what we’re left with primarily feels like a well put-together action/adventure blockbuster that just happens to take place in a science-fiction environment. There aren’t a lot of big sci-fi ideas here, and it seems more focused on spectacle than anything else, but I suppose that’s today’s blockbuster environment for you. It’s faint praise considering how low the standard has been in 2016, but this is one of the better big studio movies in a bad summer season.