The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.
Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.
This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.
“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.
After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.
This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.
The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.
This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.
By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.
So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”
7 out of 10 stars