It’s been interesting to watch the trajectory of the Star Trek franchise over the last seven years. When J.J. Abrams rebooted the series back in 2009, it was with a shiny, brand new look to fit with the modern sci-fi aesthetic. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness that followed in 2013 more or less picked up the torch, albeit with a far inferior story. For Star Trek Beyond, we took yet another step away from the 2009 film with Fast & Furious director Justin Lin taking the reins. In some ways, Lin did an admirable job delivering a fast-paced and exciting action flick. It’s only when you measure it against what makes Star Trek such a unique sci-fi franchise in the first place, you begin to see the cracks in the veneer.
Star Trek has always been the more cerebral, thinking man’s alternative to the decidedly more action-oriented Star Wars saga. It’s always had the requisite space battles, fight scenes, and exploding starships, but at its core, the Star Trek story has always been about exploration, diplomacy, and the human condition. To Star Trek Beyond‘s credit, co-writer Simon Pegg’s screenplay does everything it can to capture that essence. Where it stumbles is in the constant wrestling between Pegg’s adherence to the classic Star Trek aesthetic, and Lin’s action-centric approach to directing.
The result: A movie that’s constant at odds with its own tone. In one moment, we’re treated to a quiet, introspective commentary on the vast frontier of space. The next, Chris Pine is riding a motorcycle during a shaky-cam fight scene where we can barely keep track of where anybody is in relation to each other.
In fairness to Lin, this is exactly the sort of movie he was tasked with directing. If someone were to ask, “What is a Justin Lin Star Trek movie supposed to look like?” this would be it. Frenetic, often thrilling action sequences are kind of his thing. There’s no sense in faulting Lin as an artist for making a film in line with his own personal style. In a vacuum, Star Trek Beyond is a passably exciting action movie with just enough to keep you engaged for the full two hours. Unfortunately, that’s not how the third installment in a well-loved series gets evaluated.
Measured up against the rest of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond Beyond ventures a long way from home. We get not one, but two Beastie Boys songs prominently featured as actual plot devices, enough computer generated imagery to make your head spin, and a commitment to things exploding on a scale we’ve rarely seen in a Star Trek film. There were certainly moments where Pegg’s writing tried to drag the story kicking and screaming back toward a quiet corner, but those moments were tragically brief.
Critic Josh Larsen summed it all up perfectly in his own review, citing the film’s “inoffensive and uninspiring” feel throughout. “The third film in the franchise reboot that began in 2009, Star Trek Beyond has the feel of an obligatory installment, an effort aimed mostly at meeting a summer release date and fulfilling cast contracts,” he wrote.
It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Star Trek Beyond is merely going through the motions. The story starts during a failed diplomatic mission, transitioning quickly into a monologue from Captain Kirk about the monotony of exploring the infinite reaches of space. A distress call then leads the crew of the Enterprise through an uncharted nebula and straight into a trap set by villain, Krall, who is played by what remains of actor, Idris Elba under six tons of prosthetics and makeup.
(An aside: The trend of burying world-class actors under prosthetics really needs to stop. X-Men: Apocalypse wasted a perfectly good Oscar Isaac, and in Star Trek Beyond we see Elba, the same guy who played Russell “Stringer” Bell on The Wire barely able to move his face enough to emote anything more than heavy breathing.)
From there, the story runs paper-thin. The villain’s motivations are never really made clear, and much of the latter plot movement hinges on forced “aha” moments concerning futuristic technology that every character is inherently a genius at operating. And sure, much of the original Star Trek aesthetic is rooted in gloriously pseudo-scientific techno-babble, but when your film’s dialogue is practically a super-cut of just that, it’s hard for the viewer to get invested in the story.
In the greater scheme of the sci-fi and fantasy genre, we’ve seen a strange differing in philosophies between Star Trek and Star Wars. While the latter has found its groove by leaning toward a classic feel, the former has started to lean away. Star Trek Beyond eschews the depth of its source material in favor of a summer popcorn flick feel. All the while, Lucasfilm is doing everything it can to show a commitment to the original series. Perhaps CBS’s new TV show will take Star Trek back to its roots, but in the meantime, it’s clear that the saga has strayed far from its origins.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Star Trek Beyond will depend on what you look for in a Star Trek movie. If you want a light-hearted, easy-to-digest action movie, then sure, this one might be for you. But if you’re a stalwart of the franchise (particularly The Next Generation audience), you’ll probably find yourself walking out of the theater scratching your head. For what it’s worth, the movie is currently rating in the high 80s to low 90s on Rotten Tomatoes, so take that for what you will. Just don’t expect too much of the classic Star Trek you know and love when heading into the theatre.
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