Star Trek Beyond is a fine entry in a venerable franchise that’s celebrating its fiftieth year. The movie is colorful and clever, with effective adventure sequences, cool visual concepts, and the core intelligence mixed with compassionate character moments that have allowed this whole endeavor to endure, from its original 1966 TV show through five more series and 13 movies with more on the way. Through its ups and downs, the late Gene Roddenberry’s creation remains sci-fi’s shining beacon of utopian spirit. What a pleasure in these dark times, when the world feels irreparably torn by forces of division, hatred, fear, and anti-intellectualism, to settle in for a journey to a possible future where the values of science, progress, and unity have built a better society. The values are comforting, but no less an adventure when the noble crew of the starship Enterprise find themselves drawn into a conflict in uncharted space. It’s a series that dares to dream of a better tomorrow, not one without conflict, but one in which the better angels of our nature can succeed through cooperation between heart and logic.
Beyond continues the recent string of Treks set in an alternate timeline of the first series, with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 entry sending time travel ripples imagining new rebooted, recast stories for familiar characters while avoiding tampering with or otherwise erasing classic lore. This time around director Justin Lin, fresh from making four Fast & Furious movies (including a few of that series’ best), takes a step back from his predecessor’s Into Darkness, a fast, exciting movie that was nonetheless more militarized, destructive, and paranoid than the franchise’s comfort zone. Lin’s film is more in line with the show’s original goals – to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before – in a movie that’s slightly smaller in scale, like a pleasing two-part episode with action blown out to blockbuster proportions between small character work and a journey through an alien landscape. Lin gets the spirit of the enterprise, and the simple appeal of sending a likable crew into a difficult situation and watching them think their way out.
It begins with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feeling that life in year three of their five-year exploration mission is growing “episodic.” (That’s a cute meta wink.) He’s starting to doubt his desire to captain. Likewise, his crewmates, like stoic half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) and irascible doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), wear the weariness of space heavily on their shoulders. The ship docks at a Federation station in deep space – a wondrously imagined thing that’s an idealized spacious metropolis complicatedly constructed on the inside arcs of a gigantic sphere, the tops of skyscrapers nearly meeting in the middle – for some rest and relaxation. But they must cut their vacation short when a distress call comes in from beyond an uncharted nebula. Duty calls, and so off they go, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and the rest, straight into an ambush. A mysterious creature calling himself Krall (Idris Elba under layers of grayish-blue makeup) attacks them with swarms of bug-like ships, which results in the crash of the starship and the capture of most of the crew.
The screenplay by Pegg and Doug Jung is a little undercooked, but still a cleverly paired down and contained conflict of a familiar Trek kind. The crew must learn about this strange villain’s behavior – why has he captured them? what does he want? where is his army headed next? – and explore the planet to figure out how best to escape and warn Starfleet that this unknown being is bent on its destruction. There are lengthy sequences of dazzling spectacle, Lin bringing considerable visual energy with shiny future surfaces, baroque CG fleets of vessels, and complicated layers of lights and screens. With his usual cinematographer Stephen F. Windon he finds freedom in the floating vacuum of space to turn the camera topsy-turvy, then locks down in the craggy terrain of the unknown planet. But it all depends in the downtimes on the chemistry between the loyal friends aboard the Enterprise, separated in the crash and trying to reunite with each other, trade the information they’ve gleaned, and escape the villain’s evil clutches.
Through three films together, this cast has gelled naturally. Pine’s brash Kirk, Quinto’s logical Spock, and Urban’s crackling McCoy are a perfect Trek trinity, not merely resting on nostalgia for the old cast’s interpretations, but with distinct familiarity of their own. Cho’s Sulu and Saldana’s Uhura are allowed shadings and complications on the margins that make them fresh, while Yelchin (despite his appearance tinged with melancholy brought on by his untimely death) is fun comic relief as the lively and irrepressible Chekov. He gets a moment where he taps his foot to a catchy tune while he confidently pilots the Enterprise just ahead of a wave of fiery doom, a fun needle-drop melded with a fleeting grace note. Lin’s confidence as an action filmmaker is easy to spot, but it’s his light touches with actors that really animates the thrills. Here it’s a pleasure to see this ensemble reunite, and new additions – like a young tough alien scavenger woman also marooned on this planet (Sofia Boutella) – quickly fit right in with the team. Even Elba is allowed just enough brief moments to take a seemingly one-dimensional MacGuffin hunter under a pile of makeup and project his charisma and compelling fascination through it.
Lin knows it’s the eye on humanity that makes for good Star Trek and here he delivers the goods. Beyond might be smaller and thinner than you’d expect after the more slam-bang large-scale entries that came before, but there’s a bright throwback appeal and energy to the whole piece similar to spotting an old rerun while flipping channels. The characters and their world are so engaging that I couldn’t help but be drawn in, intrigued to see how they were going to outsmart their attackers and keep the galaxy safe. In the end the dazzling action climax – zipping in and around an outer space locale in supremely clever use of its lovingly imagined structure – isn’t only about shooting and punching, but more importantly thinking through the best course of action and executing it to perfection by luck and by pluck. There are no grand character arcs or overly heavy thematic preoccupations. It’s simply good old-fashioned space adventure that’s light on its feet, loves its characters, and can tap into the uniquely Star Trek sense of exploring the galaxy with a group of likeminded individuals committed to caring.