The first two of the new Star Trek movies were deeply indebted to past stories. The first had to reestablish the crew, and the second was practically just a new take on an old story. With Star Trek Beyond, the franchise finally travels into the unknown, telling an original story set within this new timeline. It still suffers from some of the failings of the previous two films, but in being largely free from the weight of legacy, the film manages to be the most of fun new Trek movie to date.
Three years into the USS Enterprise’s five-year mission of exploration, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling restless, and starting to doubt the value of their efforts. At the same time, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is reconsidering his role in the further survival of the Vulcan people. These issues are put aside temporarily when the Enterprise is sent into an uncharted nebula on a rescue mission. When they get there, they are attacked by a superior force that leaves the Enterprise damaged beyond repair. The crew is separated and stranded on an unknown planet that is ruled by a vicious warlord who seems to bear a grudge against the Federation.
Like the previous two movies, this story suffers from villain problems. The people behind the movie are probably too in love with the main characters at this point to really come up with a worthy adversary. Krall is a villain that enjoys explaining himself a little too much, and he ends up spending a good chunk of the movie looking for a doomsday weapon that he doesn’t really need. One would think that his swarm of killer spaceships would be enough to achieve his meager goals. The film basically contrives the tension of its final confrontation through the use of an unnecessary McGuffin.
But otherwise, this film is a hoot. It’s the funniest Trek movie, first of all, which is probably owed to the writing of Simon Pegg. The film has a distinct personality, one that clearly separates it from the rest of the franchise. And that’s a good thing. And in spite of the lame villain, the film is really solidly structured. This might sound basic, but it’s important: the film set ups things and pays them off in the end. The two main characters have simple, but totally grounded arcs. This is Screenwriting 101, but a lot of mainstream blockbusters seem not to bother with these basic concepts. The film elicits triumph through this simple execution.
Director Justin Lin takes over for J.J. Abrams, and he brings plenty of his action movie experience to the fore. The action is mostly crisp and impactful. There are a couple of scenes where it becomes a little difficult to keep track of where the characters are, but things move quickly enough that it hardly matters. The cast is only getting better in these roles. Chris Pine’s Kirk is a completely separate character at this point, the actor really making it his own. Zachary Quinto’s Spock continues to be a fitting tribute. Karl Urban’s McCoy remains a highlight. And one has to make mention of Anton Yelchin, a truly gifted actor who made Chekov much more than an accent. His role is ultimately small, but he imbues it with such true humanity in every single moment. The actor will be missed.
Star Trek Beyond still doesn’t quite live up to the heights of the series as a whole. It doesn’t quite have the ambition that the best Star Trek stories have. But as a tentative step into the future of this new franchise, it mostly works. At the very least, it feels like a film with a personality of its own. It is still beholden to what’s come before, but it also has touches that distinguish it from the lengthy, burdensome past. If nothing else, it gets one excited for what else might come.