Review: Star Trek Beyond

The rebooted Star Trek universe has not always gone down well with die-hard Trekkies
(or Trekers, whatever you want to be called. In fact, let’s just put an end to the animosity right here and create a new term, like ‘Trekites’ or something). Anyway, Trekites have had more than a few bones to pick with this new, supposedly more mainstream, franchise. From the perceived Star Wars- ification of the lore, to the mishandling of certain key characters, not to mention the over-reliance on repeating old material, there’s been no shortage of controversy.

It got so heated that fans even voted the second instalment, Into Darkness, as the worst Star Trek movie of all time. There are a few potential reasons for this. Firstly, and for full disclosure this is my own personal take on the situation, they all suffered collective head trauma and simultaneously forgot that Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek VThe Final Frontier, and Star Trek: Insurrection ever existedSecondlythey may hold such vitriolic contempt for Into Darkness, because it was possibly the least true to the spirit of the original series.

Said TV show centred around optimistic notions of togetherness, conquering diversity and a hopeful tomorrow. Into Darkness contrastingly prophesied a future of intergalactic terrorism, governmental corruption, and a universe on the brink of war. That’s about as far from the up-beat spirit of Star Trek as you can get. Fans were likely so pissed at how this, that they threw objectivity out of the window when it came to casting their vote. I mean, have you actually seen The Final Frontier?

Alas, when the first trailer landed for the Thirteenth Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, the hostility remained intact. This time it was less to do with the darkness, and more to do with the apparent high-octane style brought by new director Justin Lin. A veteran of The Fast and the Furious franchise, it was assumed that Lin would be unable to return Star Trek to its original form. After all, how could this pyrotechnic obsessed car-nut hope to explore the more character driven and thoughtful material inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s original creation? Sure enough, the trailer seemed very action-packed, suggesting that the new helmer had simply translated his Fast and the Furious method over to his new gig. It all seemed poised for Beyond to take Into Darkness’ crown as the least faithful Star Trek instalment yet. Things were gonna get messy.

Then something promising happened; early word got out from critics that the film was actually rather good. And lo-and behold, they were right. Star Trek Beyond is definitely one of the most easygoing blockbusters in ages. There’s barely a shade of darkness, both in terms of lighting and actual narrative content. There’s no need to cram in new characters and exposition. No need to set up an extended universe or a legion of sequels. Nope. Instead, we have a refreshingly bright, self-contained adventure, that simply does everything it needs to in order to entertain. And that’s honestly enough.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Credit: Paramount Pictures

In a summer that could generously be deemed lacklustre, Star Trek Beyond hits the spot and provides solid escapism, grounded by strong characterisation. Indeed, it’s the dynamics between the various members of the enterprise crew that really excel here. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s tight screenplay smartly keeps character interaction at the forefront of the narrative, with a simple storyline that sees the crew left scattered on an uncharted planet. What this means is that we see a collection of unlikely pairings; Kirk and Chekhov, Sulu and Uhura and best of all, Spock and Bones. We thus get to see our characters in a new way, satisfying a nerdy desire to see relationships that we could only speculate upon previously. Just how does Spock feel about Bones? How would Kirk and Chekov interact away from the bridge? It’s such a refreshing change for a series so commonly focused on a key trifecta of characters.

This was likely one of Pegg’s geeky contributions, as it’s basically the stuff fanficiton is built upon; ‘what would happen if ‘x’ was left in the company of ‘y’ for a day?’ The same ‘what-if’ approach extends to the film’s opening, which shows us what a 5 year space-voyage is like in between all the exciting bits. It’s these kind of intimate touches that make this the most character driven blockbuster of the year so far. Additionally, it gives the supporting cast a chance to really work with stronger material, instead of just spouting technobabble at Kirk every now and then. As a Bones fan, it was particularly nice to see Karl Urban’s fantastic portrayal get more screen-time than ever before.

So kudos to the script, and also to the cast (by now you know they’re all good), but what about the direction? Well it’s pretty strong actually. As you’d expect, Lin knows how to pull of a good set-piece when he needs to, and he gets plenty of opportunity on that front here, but he’s also surprisingly adept at capturing the essence of the original series. More so than Abrams, Lin seems eager to explore the kind of ethical territory that Star Trek is known for. What exactly does the Federation stand for? Does Spock’s duty to his species outweigh his personal feelings for Uhura? What purpose does a military man serve in peacetime? These are all questions that are touched upon and explored in a way that isn’t too heavy handed or obtrusive, meaning that you can invest in them as much as you want.

The new director may lack the magic touch of Abrams, but he’s a more than satisfactory replacement and he knows how to create interesting visuals. For example, an early wide shot of the ship travelling at warp is remarkably striking and I really liked the frequent use of mounted POV cameras on the Enterprise, which made the CGI ship feel like it had a real tangible presence in the frame (it also makes one cliff-side set-piece feel all the more exhilarating and immersive). Lin even manages to pull off a restrained and touching send off for Leonard Nimoy, one that deftly avoids feeling cheap or emotionally exploitative.

Elsewhere all of the technical elements are executed well. The visual effects are excellent, Michael Giacchino’s score once again proves to be an invigorating blast, and the visual design is bold and interesting. Gold stars all round then? Not quite.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Credit: Paramount Pictures

As is sadly becoming the norm with this kind of film, the villain (played by Idris Elba) is sub-par. He sorely lacks clear motivation for the first two thirds of the film, and even when it is finally provided, it feels a little thin. I won’t spoil anything, but I didn’t really buy his hatred for Starfleet, nor did I find him particularly threatening at any point either. While the rest of the film feels like TOS in a positive sense, Krall emanates from the bad side of Television. He’s reminiscent of a one-off disposable villain that’s barely suited to carry a single episode, never-mind a full length feature. He’s bland, unmemorable and just a bit naff.

Another criticism I have is with the mano-a-mano climax of the film, which falls a little flat in comparison to the previous spectacle sequences. Still, these nitpicks don’t change the fact that Star Trek Beyond delivers the goods in a summer that desperately needed a proper hit. It’s fun, it looks great, it’s well written, and it is pleasingly character driven. Most impressively of all however, it captures the Star Trek spirit and merges it brilliantly with a modern blockbuster style.

RATING: 8/10- While it may not be perfect, Star Trek Beyond stands out as a great popcorn film in a summer of underwhelming disappointments. 

Star Trek Beyond (2016) is directed by Justin Lin and is distributed in the the UK by Paramount Pictures, Certificate 12a.

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