Chris Pine film

STAR TREK BEYOND Review: That's More Like It

Monday, July 25, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Enthusiastic earnestness is the opposite of cool. It is engaged with the task at hand. It cares about the outcome because it has skin in the game. It wears its feelings on its sleeve. Star Trek is traditionally all about that enthusiastic earnestness, even if it loses “cool” points along the way.

Or at least the Star Trek series was about that dorky optimism, until 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which upended the series’ core ethos in favor of paranoia and distrust, with everyone and everything conspiring to get the crew of the USS Enterprise. Corruption isn’t a problem to overcome in Into Darkness because it is a matter of fact -- everyone is corrupt in it, except, somehow, for the Enterprise crew. The fact that Into Darkness also happened to be a flat and poorly executed science fiction adventure film, full of limp callbacks to better moments from the series’ past, just added to the failure. It left the Enterprise crew in a world where cooperation was something to scoff at, so why bother? “Cool” came at a steep price.

But Star Trek Beyond rejects that detached pessimism. In doing so, it recalls the series’ core values. Its characters, though, begin their journey having a tough time finding that enthusiasm, giving the movie an arc of positivity. Beyond picks up in year three of their five-year exploration through the galaxy. Their days are monotonous, illustrated gracefully by Captain James T. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) disappointed exhale as he views his closet, stocked with a never ending rack of identical yellow Starfleet sweaters. His restlessness is only broken up by relatively low stakes adventures along the way, like the hilarious opening sequence in which he attempts to present an official gift to a species of lizards, who are none too happy about the situation or the captain’s presence on their planet. When Kirk is beamed back aboard the Enterprise, the crew can barely contain their smirks at the sight of their captain having had a tussle with cat-sized reptiles and still coming out on the wrong end of it.

Those brief character moments make all the difference when the crew gets sent into uncharted space on a rescue mission, only to be ambushed. These refreshing changes from the recent films are a direct result of the new screenwriting team of Simon Pegg (pulling double duty here because he also plays Enterprise engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Doug Jung, who intentionally and wisely ratcheted down the stakes for Beyond. Gone are the existential threats to the galaxy that had made up the first two films of the rebooted series, which began with 2009’s J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek. In their place is a more personalized threat to the crew we actually care about. The rest of the galaxy theoretically would keep on keeping on if Beyond’s villain, Krall (Idris Elba, The Wire, Pacific Rim), were to succeed with his plan -- the galaxy would surely be damaged, but Krall’s not necessarily powerful enough to wipe out existence. Pegg and Jung build empathy with the people we spend the most time with rather than lazily saying, “The whole world, filled with people you don’t care about in the context of this movie, will be gone if this plan goes through.”

Instead, these core characters are thrown into a fight for survival. The Enterprise crew, split up after their ship crash lands on Krall’s planet, form distinct groups on their way to meeting each other in order to formulate an escape. Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin in one of his final completed performances before his accidental death earlier this summer) are stuck with an alien scientist who may or may not be lying to them. Scotty meets Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), a local who is no fan of Krall’s. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are the highest ranking members of the Enterprise crew held captive by Krall’s forces. By far the most entertaining pairing is an injured Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), whose constant misunderstandings lead to them butting heads as often as they help each other. These team-ups shuffle the film’s cards in ways previous movies in the series did not -- we already know the Kirk-Spock dynamic. As you can see from the length of this paragraph, it is a complicated situation, and it could easily devolve into sloppy incoherence. But it does not. The effect instead is similar to a long running sitcom changing things up for an episode by pairing characters who don’t normally interact. They discover chemistry they may not have otherwise known was there, and their teamwork reinforces the oldest themes of the series: When you put people together, even ones who seemingly have nothing in common, they can achieve great things.

While Beyond’s script shines most of the time, the direction is hit and miss. Justin Lin, making his Star Trek debut after directing four Fast & Furious films, sputters when shadows are involved, such as when Spock and Bones must fight a pilot of one of Krall’s ships -- they become nothing more than dark shapes and the editing is too quick for anyone to understand who is punching whom. Lin works best with a lot of light, like a thrilling (daytime) jailbreak sequence at Krall’s compound featuring a bunch of holograms of Captain Kirk riding a motorcycle -- a nifty throwback to Lin’s Furious movies -- or an assault on Krall’s air forces that becomes one of the most purely fun movie moments of 2016 once the Beastie Boys take over the soundtrack -- bonus points for giving “Sabotage” an actual story reason to show up on the ship’s stereo. But the climactic action sequence, in the center of a space station with dizzying and wonky gravity, relies too heavily on Scotty talking on the phone to Kirk to explain what’s happening and where Krall is going. If Lin had simply tracked Krall’s movements clearly, none of the clunky exposition would have been needed, allowing the scene to grab hold of the audience and not let them catch a breath until the visceral, suspenseful sequence ended.

Despite weaknesses, Star Trek Beyond never stumbles for long. It has an infectious gung-ho attitude about exploration and discovery. The characters become addicted to learning and seeing more, and they care more about each other with each passing moment. The movie arrives like a megaphone shouting into the sky, teaching about dropping divisive rhetoric so we can move forward to fix the problems ahead of us.
Director: Justin Lin Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Simon Pegg Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five Available in theaters now

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