Star Trek Beyond Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban. Directed by Justin Lin. Rated PG-13. Now playing citywide.
One of the major complaints about the lower-rated movies in the original and Next Generation Star Trek series is that they resemble extended episodes of a Trek TV show, but for the reboot series, which has worked to transform Trek from cerebral sci-fi TV into big-budget action filmmaking, resembling a Trek TV episode is actually a refreshing change. Star Trek Beyond, the third movie in the series that began with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, has a comparatively smaller-scale plot than its predecessors, with a villain whose evil plan is more contained. But in getting the crew of the starship Enterprise to tackle a more manageable (but still life-or-death) crisis with new alien enemies and allies, Beyond returns Trek a bit closer to its origins while also relying less on reimagined versions of old characters and storylines.
It’s also the first of the new Trek movie series to actually take place during the five-year exploratory deep-space mission that was the main concept of the original series. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) notes in his captain’s log at the beginning of the movie that, nearly three years into the mission, it’s started to feel a bit “episodic,” and Beyond gives a sense of the Enterprise crew having been through many of the more mundane adventures that might have shown up in TV episodes. There’s a lived-in feel to the character interactions after three movies, and it’s grown in the time that’s passed since the events of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. After all of those episodes that took place offscreen, the Enterprise crew is ready for a movie-level adventure.
And Beyond delivers that, for the most part, although like the 2009 film, it suffers from an underwhelming villain who’s never half as interesting as the main characters. A supposed rescue mission turns out to be a ruse masterminded by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba, behind tons of makeup) to obtain an ancient artifact the Enterprise is carrying, which he plans to use to build a doomsday device. Krall destroys the Enterprise with his cool-looking swarming weapons (this is now the third Trek movie to feature the destruction of the Enterprise), stranding the crew on an abandoned planet, where most of the movie takes place.
Splitting up the characters for a large portion of the movie allows director Justin Lin (a veteran of the Fast and Furious series who takes over for J.J. Abrams) and screenwriters Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung the chance to explore new dynamics, and Beyond is as much about relationships as it is about action. The cast that Abrams assembled for the first film remains excellent, making these characters their own while retaining essential elements of the previous versions. There’s a bit of melancholy to the portrayals in this movie, as Spock (Zachary Quinto) contemplates his future in light of the death of his alternate-universe self (the original Spock, played by the late Leonard Nimoy), and Kirk likewise wonders whether captaining a starship is all he wants out of life. Karl Urban hones his version of Dr. McCoy into a comic delight, and supporting players Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana and the late Anton Yelchin (in one of his final performances) all get their moments to shine.
Sofia Boutella makes for a welcome addition as the no-nonsense alien warrior Jaylah, who helps the crew against Krall, but Elba, for all his formidable talent, is mostly wasted, with Krall’s eventual motivations revealed as a bit pedestrian. They do allow for some familiar Trek philosophizing, though, in a less heavy-handed (but also slightly shallower) manner than the social commentary of Into Darkness. Lin has plenty of experience staging action sequences, which he does effectively, especially in the more close-range fight scenes (some of the space battles are a little murky). But Beyond works best as a rousing adventure story that celebrates the power of capable, dedicated people working together. In that sense, it’s just like a Star Trek episode—in only the best way.