There was a lot of concern when Justin Lin was announced as the director of “Star Trek Beyond,” and it was amplified when the action-oriented first trailer for it dropped. It turns that some new blood and a fresh perspective was exactly what the franchise needed. Free of the origin story requirements of “Star Trek” (2009) and the sloppy fan service of “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2012), it also sets the Abramsverse free to (finally) chart its own course.
The Trek films have always walked a fine line between slick action/SFX beats and brainy introspection, and Lin (best known for sequels 3 through 6 of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise) proves impressively adept at finding the middle ground. Yes, there’s still formula film making going on, but Lin, co-writers Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, and the cast keep it fresh for the most part.
This time around, the crew of the starship Enterprise are just past the halfway point in their first five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy in the far reaches of space; as exciting as that sounds, ennui has nevertheless begun to creep in. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is already burnt out, reflecting heavily on the fact that he is now one year older than his late father lived to be and is struggling to find his own path now that he can no longer just follow in the old man’s footsteps. Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the passing of his alternate timeline self (the original, as played by the late Leonard Nimoy), and must decide whether his duty is to Starfleet or in rebuilding the endangered Vulcan race; his uncertainty has damaged his relationship with Lt. Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana).
With this weighing on their minds, they and the rest of the respond to a distress call regarding the marooned crew of a science vessel in a remote nebula. Naturally, it’s a trap, one set by Krall (Idris Elba), an alien warlord with a mysterious background and secret agenda. The crew are stranded and scattered across the planet with no help coming anytime soon, and are forced to rely on their wits, each other, and another castaway – a tough alien woman named Jaylah (an almost unrecognizable Sofia Boutella, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”).
Beyond is the trekkiest movie since the early ’90s, with a straightforward by carefully plotted story that feels like a throwback to Trek‘s classic era. A big chunk of the credit for that goes to Jung and Pegg (who also returns as chief engineer Montgomery Scott), who bring back the philosophical nature and core ethos of Gene Roddenberry’s creation: that a bright future is an inherently inclusive one. (Indeed, Krall is driven by the paradoxical belief that unity is unnatural, and that eternal conflict is the only way a civilization can thrive.) The movie’s tone is a big shift away from the morose cynicism of “Star Trek Into Darkness”.
Which is not to say that ‘Beyond’ leans more toward the clunky intellectual musings of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or (gag) “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”. Lin, Pegg, and Jung know better than to beat the audience over the head with ideas, and keep the action moving forward. Action, of course, is Lin’s bread and butter, and believe it or not he aims even higher in scope than J. J. Abrams; thankfully, he manages to rein in his signature bombast to fit the universe he’s playing in.
While the novelty of seeing new actors play such iconic characters has worn off, the cast has uniformly managed to settle into their roles while making interpretations of them, though Sulu (John Cho) is given little to do this time around.
‘Beyond’ also serves as a touching tribute to Nimoy, who died last year before production began, and it is dedicated to both him and Anton Yelchin, the young actor who played Ensign Pavel Checkov and who was tragically killed in a freak accident one more before the movie’s release. Their passings cast an inescapable tinge of sadness over the film, especially in scenes featuring Yelchin at his most ebullient. “Star Trek Beyond” is a fitting memorial to both, though it was not originally intended as such.