“This is where the frontier pushes back.”
Directed by Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba
Technically, Star Trek Beyond is not itself a reboot and follows only three years behind the last entry in the ongoing series, but until I get around to reviewing 2009’s Star Trek, this will be the placeholder for the ‘alternate timeline’ series. The new Trek continuity pretty much typifies the in-universe, soft reset school of franchise reboot also used by the X-Men series. Faced with the leviathan that is Trek fandom and its understanding of the original series timeline, JJ Abrams sent a Romulan dreadnought back in time to knock down that sandcastle so he could start over. The result was well-received; 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness less so, with its white Khan and murky, grey Federation. Star Trek Beyond is, however, the film that takes the Enterprise back to its original five year mission, so in that way it is its own sort of reset.
For the handful of readers recovering this from the unearthed servers of the Wayback Machine in 2263, Star Trek began life as a three season TV series about the crew of a starship, exploring the unknown frontiers of the galaxy on behalf of the United Federation of Planets. After its cancellation there was an animated series, then four movies, and then a second series set about a century after the first, with two more movies produced concurrently with that series. Then a third series spun off from the second, and after The Next Generation ended that crew headlined four more movies while two more series – the last set a century before the original were made. Small wonder that Abrams, charged with reviving the now flagging franchise by replacing the beloved but rapidly dwindling original series cast, chose to nuke the timeline.
The Enterprise and her crew are three years into their five year mission, and beginning to get a little stir crazy as they approach the advanced outpost Yorktown, a space station with an artificial sky and a stardock inside its graceful, curving boulevards and canals. Here, as Captain Kirk (Pine) and his first officer Spock (Quinto) consider their futures, one faced with the anniversary of his birth and the death of his father, the other with the news of the death of his Prime Universe counterpart, they are mustered for a mission to rescue a science team stranded on a planet within an unstable nebula.
It turns out, however, that the distress call is a trap, and the ship is destroyed by a swarm of lethal fighter craft. Most of the crew are captured or killed by the forces of Krall (Elba), a profoundly social-Darwinist alien warlord who condemns the Federation’s ‘peace’ as a source of weakness. These captives are led by helmsman Sulu (Cho) and comms officer Uhura (Saldana), who enters into a struggle of ideology and wills with Krall.
With limited resources, Kirk and his tactical officer Chekov (Yelchi), Spock and medical officer Dr McCoy (Urban), and engineer Scotty (Pegg) and local girl Jayla (Boutella) must come up with a way to rescue the crew, restore an ancient starship, and keep Kraal from unleashing an ancient and terrible weapon on Yorktown and the entire Federation.
What’s wrong with it?
Writing a review, I feel like I ought to explain who the characters are, but damn it feels weird doing that for Trek.
The denouement borrows its method from Mars Attacks! or possibly from ‘Revelation of the Daleks’.
It’s unclear what makes the MacGuffin such a horror. It’s a nasty biological agent, but it needs to be introduced into the heart of Yorktown’s life support system. Surely, if you can get to the heart of the life support system, the nastiness of the bioweapon is kind of academic? Certainly it seems less intrinsically destructive than rock and/or roll, and his ‘bees’ were much scarier.
Once again, we learn that the term ‘classical music’ has been transposed to mean the music of the twentieth century (once more borrowing from Doctor Who, this time ‘The Chase’, possibly the silliest of all Doctor Who stories.)
Kraal is woefully underdeveloped, and thus fails to be all that he could be. Ideally, he would have had a bit more time to monologue at Uhura and demonstrate the nature of his science vampirism more clearly.
What’s right with it?
Where Star Trek was very character driven, and Into Darkness was about the corruption of the Federation ideal, Beyond really gets back to first principles. Yes, Kraal is another vengeful antagonist bent on undermining the Federation’s principles of peaceful co-existence, but as a more external threat he allows the nature of the Federation to stand opposed to him. Uhura in particular gets to be the voice of those principles, as well as kicking a little ass, the film makers obviously aware of the backlash to her reduced role in Into Darkness.
The by now almost routine destruction of the Enterprise feels almost too easy, but later developments reveal that Kraal has been preparing for a very long time, including spying out the secrets of the ship.
The reveal of Kraal’s nature is hinted at, both directly and subtly, as when he not only speaks English, but recognises ‘Nyota’ as a first name.
I like the fact that Krall’s story is basically a reverse Prime Directive situation, and also not dissimilar to a scenario in one of the better Voyager arcs.
The effects are, of course, gorgeous.
The film just drops in Sulu’s husband and daughter, and that’s kind of lovely. It also puts a stronger resonance on the arrival at Yorktown, and provides a personal connection to the potential horror of its destruction.
Pegg and Boutella manage an affecting non-romance between Scotty and Jayla in the limited screen time they have to work it, and I like that they don’t try and rush beyond a shared affection as they bond over repairing her ‘house’.
How bad is it really?
There was a lot of smack talked about Justin Lin going into this, but the film is a deft, pacy job of work. Kraal could do with more build up (Jayla is all ‘no-one gets out alive’ and then everyone gets out alive, and it’s not clear what’s so badass about him beyond mere physical strength,) but the basics are there enough for the film to work with and the result has been pleasing Trekkers and lay viewers alike.
Best bit (if such there is)?
For all that it’s an insane conceit, the rock and roll assault is beautifully done, especially when the crew pass on the signal to Yorktown, and the entire artificial sky bubble pulses like a bass woofer and atomises wave after wave of the enemy fighters.
What’s up with…?
- Kirk beaming in on a moving motorcycle? Did he ride it into the transporter chamber? Or did they try some sort of insane point-to-point with a rickety old freight transporter just for the sake of style?
- Death by rock and roll?
- Ensign Hidey-Head?
Production values – Top-tier blockbuster effects, although the sound – especially the speech – seemed a bit wobbly from time to time. 6
Dialogue and performances – The reboot cast are assured in their roles by now, enough to really be putting their own mark on each character. That we will not see any more of Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is gutting. Despite a good pedigree, the script never dazzles, although it is perhaps to its credit that it never eclipses character or story with flashy one-liners. 4
Plot and execution – The film is pacy and involving, although the reboot series is really starting to glut on revenge plots. Unfortunately, Krall is never given quite enough time to establish his presence or the potential of his wapron. 8
Randomness – Why does no-one ever have any music from between now and the future? Was there a complete creative drought? Nothing but advertising jingles on the radio until 2250? 3
Waste of potential – Given how insane people though Justin Lin’s take on Star Trek was going to be, the resulting high-octane love letter to the franchise’s founding principles is a great relief. 6