After three Star Trek films, we finally have a Star Trek film.
I believe that the Star Trek franchise is one of the most important that exists, because I believe in the power that media has to elevate. Roddenberry’s vision, and the vision that the best of those who have followed in his footsteps, is that humanity could one day overcome their divisions and prejudices and reach the stars. And slightly for Star Trek and hugely for Star Trek Into Darkness, its greatest sin the dark cynicism it held about future humanity.
In what could perhaps be charitably called a time of need, there’s something immensely admirable about the fact that Star Trek Beyond chose this moment to return the franchise to its optimistic heyday. To boldly go where no man had gone before, to explore strange new worlds, and, more importantly, to understand that the world is better in peace and in unity.
Also, the fact that it actually has the feel of an old-school pulpy The Original Series episode doesn’t hurt.
We join the crew of the Starship Enterprise on the third year of their Five Year Journey exploring strange new worlds, led by the good Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). A distress call from inside a dangerous nebula leads our crew to the world ruled by the iron-fisted Krall (Idris Elba). They get to said world when Krall’s Bees, a group of ships and soldiers unquestioningly controlled by him, destroy the Enterprise and leave our crew stranded.
The crew is divided. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) searching for the rest of their crew and keeping the ancient weapon that led Thrall to them safe. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) stranded with an injured Spock trying to find their way out of the wilderness. Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are captured by Thrall and have to uncover his plans from the inside. And Scotty (Simon Pegg) teams up with the mysterious Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to find their way off the planet and take Jaylah’s revenge for the death of her family.
Had I replaced a few of the actor names up there, this easily could have been a two or three part episode of Star Trek. The series seems to have obtained a reputation for philosophizing and deep discussion since The Next Generation, but that always looks past the fact that yeah, the original Star Trek had ideas, but it was wrapped up in a pulpy adventure story exterior. Kirk was a captain of a starship envoy from an idealistic utopian future, but he also knew that sometimes you need to punch a lizard alien and seduce a green woman to get things done.
I always loved the fact that Star Trek was an adventure story with ideas (which is why it remains my favorite of the series) and that’s what I so admire about Star Trek Beyond.
It’s first and foremost a blast of fun. Director Justin Lin, coming in from the Fast and Furious franchise, brings an able directorial hand and a (mostly) clear sense of action as propulsive force. Beyond has some of the series’ most inventive action beats, including the current winner of the best needle drop of the year.
Far from bringing the (wrongly) perceived stupidity of Fast and Furious, he brings its sense of pounding pulse and surprising heart grounded in the camaraderie between its characters. Lin quietly made some of the best ensemble films in modern action filmmaking and he brings that strength here.
It almost wouldn’t matter if Lin was particularly good at it though, given how spot-on and bursting with chemistry this cast is naturally. That’s the J.J. Abrams hand, one of his few unabashed successes, that lingers in casting a group of characters who seem to legitimately like each other and who we as the audience really like as well.
Urban’s Bones and Pegg’s Scotty continue to embody the spirit of those original characters better than anyone else while still bringing their own little tics that make them the actor’s own. Seriously, Urban delivers lines better than anyone else in this film and no one does the technobabble like Pegg (perhaps owing to the fact that he co-wrote the film). Quinto is a worthy successor to Nimoy’s Spock, a point the film drives home in the wake of Nimoy’s death. Yelchin makes us feel his loss as one of the brightest young actors. And Pine finally feels at home as the roguish Kirk, and one who finally seems to love what he does.
Of course, Cho’s Sulu and Saldana’s Uhura still go underutilized (come on Hollywood, you can do better especially given that Lin’s Fast and Furious already does better), but the two get their moments, the nice thing is that everyone does. The new additions even get their chance to shine. Sofia Boutella continues to kick ass, and gets a turn that proves even under makeup she has a certain power that’s gonna make her a blockbuster star. And Idris Elba is a badass. Nothing more to be said.
Pegg’s and Doug Jung’s script along with Lin’s direction make these cast members oh-so-important. Their chemistry drives home the central thought on the mind of the film, which is the progress that unity brings us. There’s a unique power in a film that embodies it over simply saying it. Moreover, there’s an importance to this utopic vision.
It’s important because it presents a world of exploration. Where we’re curious about the cultures beyond our reach, and where discovery is the ultimate goal of humanity. We’ve moved together to the stars, and there’s still awe at what we find.
But more than anything, what makes Star Trek Beyond so damned admirable is that the series finally feels in line with Roddenberry’s original vision in simply finally presenting a version of the future that we can aspire to, where the film wants to show a better way. It’s not like Into Darkness’ cynicism and 9/11 conspiracy theory underbelly. This film understands that Star Trek is optimistic at its core, and it wants to show us a better way. That doesn’t mean the guns and the fists don’t fly, but rather that they fly to do what is good, and for no reason other than that.
It’s that unabashed drive to do good that makes Star Trek Beyond so necessary right now. A world where we’ve come together, not continued having the same battles that tore us apart. A world that says we’re better as one, not better in conflict and hate. That it’s damn fun to boot is just the kind of surprise Star Trek is capable of.