It seems like there’s hundreds of blockbuster franchises now. Some are good, like the “Fast and Furious” saga and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most aren’t—“X-Men,” “Transformers 2-4,” “DC Extended Universe” and others— but the blockbuster format lends itself to that low quality. J.J. Abrams’ rebooted “Star Trek” series has always toed the line between good and bad. The first was an interesting modern take on the universe, but by the second it had lost much of its novelty, resorting to overwrought storylines and obvious fan service.
The franchise was in much need of a fresh spark to capture that same wonder from the first film, and somehow, they accomplished that with “Star Trek Beyond.” At the helm now in place of Abrams is “Fast and Furious 3-6” director Justin Lin. The new “Star Trek” films have always been heavy on action, and Lin is a perfect choice to take over. With “Fast and Furious,” Lin resuscitated a faltering series by pushing the boundaries of his action without being redundant. He does something similar here, though his job was a lot less difficult this time around.
Lin’s directing is certainly the highlight of “Beyond,” as the film zooms from set piece to set piece at a brisk pace.The common fallacy among blockbusters is that bigger is better and that more destruction means better action. And while it would be silly to say Lin’s action isn’t on a massive scale, it’s the way he wields that largesse to create memorable, well-choreographed moments that makes his films stand out.
A common complaint among fans of the original show (personally, I am not a Trekkie) is that the new series focuses too much on action and not enough on the exploration and philosophy that show creator Gene Roddenberry loved. “Beyond,” written by long-time fan and cast member Simon Pegg along with Doug Jung, has more of this, with hit-or-miss results.
The movie picks up three years into the U.S.S. Enterprise’s five-year journey. When a scientist is found floating into Federation space with a story of her missing crew, the crew of the Enterprise goes to investigate. In the course of doing so, they’re ambushed, their ship is destroyed and the gang is stranded on a mysterious planet with a dangerous enemy.
Immediately, there’s more of a focus on the unknown universe. It genuinely feels like we’re discovering a new world with the crew, and their resourcefulness is put to the test. The script often wastes this good set-up though by focusing on character interactions that are trying so hard to be clever or funny but only get there half of the time. Characters are initially paired together on the planet, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) receiving the most screen time. What could have been an interesting combination of very different characters ends up being the two waxing poetic and trading one-liners. None of it really works, and Urban is especially insufferable in the movie.
Much of the dialogue ends up this way, like the script is winking at us and saying, “These are the characters you know and love!” Even though the general tone and attitude of the movie is in the right place, the writing never elevates the characters beyond their pre-established roles—Scotty calls the female character Jaylah “lassie” approximately one million times. And like “Into Darkness,” the big bad of this movie, Krall (Idris Elba), is underdeveloped and uninspiring. His entire backstory is jammed into the last 20 minutes like an afterthought. Likewise, the talented Elba received the Oscar Isaac in “X-Men Apocalypse” treatment, being coated in so much makeup and effects that his performance never really shines.
Despite the lackluster writing, “Beyond” gets everything right for a blockbuster. Its action is amazing, and the movie itself is plain fun. Its story evolves just enough to feel somewhat fresh, even if the characters don’t. The universe seen is by far the best of the new “Star Trek” series, and a further emphasis on exploration of the unknown would serve the franchise well. “Star Trek Beyond” may not be essential viewing, but Trekkies and summer blockbuster fans alike will be pleased with the results.