Star Trek Beyond might be the Star Trekkiest film of the new, J.J. Abrams-ified Trek era. That is to say, it’s the one that feels the most like a turbo-loaded episode of the original series, and has at least some of that classic spirit of exploration and derring-do. That’s not to say the film is cerebral, mind you; the Abrams reboot pretty much did away with the allegorical, topical angle of Gene Roddenberry’s creation, cross-breeding it with Star Wars–style space opera. The Trek of the so-called “Kelvin Timeline” that we’re now in is less about traveling to distant worlds to learn valuable lessons regarding society and more about running through corridors and leaping off big, high moving things before the madman destroys the city/planet/space base/cosmos/whatever. This one still falls heavily on action-adventure, as Hollywood demands of all modern blockbusters. But somewhere in there, you can sense a template taking shape for how this series might proceed — and it’s a familiar, welcome one.
Director Justin Lin's main claim to fame is being the guy who helped turn the Fast and Furious series from a tired, gearhead B-movie franchise into a knowingly cartoonish, wildly profitable action fantasy. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that he slows things down in Beyond. In Abrams’ two Trek films, even the ostensibly “quiet” moments moved with a kind of breathlessness, the camera whip-panning and caroming down hallways and highways and across space — almost as if the director wanted to exorcise the calm, downright stagy earnestness of the original series. (In his first Star Trek, this worked marvelously; in the second, all the screaming and running and jumping started to get tedious.)
This time, especially early on, the story lets the characters reflect on things like duty, identity and regret. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) gets practically existential as he stalks through the USS Enterprise watching his crew go about their lives (in slow-motion!) and notes, in voiceover, that “it can be a challenge to feel grounded when even the gravity’s artificial.” He then asks, “If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something that is forever out of reach?” Pine sells these cornball ruminations better than William Shatner ever did.
Kirk’s feeling restless; now a year older than his father was when he died (which also happens to be Kirk’s birthday — see the first movie), the captain wants to leave space exploration and become a vice admiral. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is still mourning the loss of his planet Vulcan (again, see the first movie) and is faced with his own mortality when he learns of the death of his much older, alternate-reality self, Ambassador Spock (if this confuses you, don’t even ask ... but yeah, see the first movie). Their melancholic reveries are interrupted by the arrival of an alien claiming to be a survivor from a science mission trapped deep inside an asteroid-filled nebula.
So, off the crew goes on its rescue mission ... and I’m not giving anything away by saying that it all turns out to be a trap. And I’m not giving too much away by saying that the film’s first act ends with a heartbreaker, as a terrifying swarm of tiny, claw-like spaceships destroy the Enterprise. That's not exactly new territory for Star Trek — or blockbusters as a whole, whose creators in recent years have proven nauseatingly obsessed with stakes-raising. But there’s still something genuinely moving about watching that beloved old ship sliced and diced — and much of its crew sucked out into space. These harrowing moments also pay off those earlier, oddly indulgent slo-mo shots of the crew.
Most of the surviving crew is then imprisoned by a mysterious alien named Krall (played by Idris Elba, hidden under layers of makeup that would make Oscar Isaac’s purple pharaoh of doom in X-Men: Apocalypse tsk). The planet they’re on is woodsy and craggy and sometimes even kind of fake-looking — which I’ll choose to interpret as an homage to the original series’ cheap sets and not a failure of production design or special-effects work.
The rest of the film follows Kirk, Spock and others’ attempts to save their colleagues, get off this deadly planet and foil Krall's dastardly plan. Said struggle also involves a beautiful, rogue, hip hop–loving alien named Jaylah (the Algerian dancer and actress Sofia Boutella, who played the whirling, blade-footed assassin Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service), an old space ship, a vintage motorcycle, some creative teleporting and judicious use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” which may be the unofficial anthem of the rebooted Star Trek movies. (A 10-year-old Kirk blasted it from a stolen car in the first film.)
I’m not sure there's anything particularly original about any of this, but Lin thrives on making clichés breathe again; he proved with his Fast & Furious films that he knows how to convince audiences of the sincerity of pre-packaged Hollywood sentiment. (This time, I was half-expecting Kirk to start talking about his “familia.”) And while he may have seemed like a counterintuitive choice to take over a Star Trek movie, Lin is absolutely in his element whenever the film becomes about bodies and vehicles moving swiftly through space — which is often. Part of the climax involves a dizzying, elaborate, multi-vehicle chase in an ornate interstellar settlement whose gravitational structure seems to have been designed by M.C. Escher. It’s gonzo silliness, but when a director has this much fun, it’s hard for his audience not to.