Star Trek Beyond
I do want to go back and watch the classic “Star Trek” TV series, along with “The Next Generation,” but there’s so much on my plate to watch that I may be retired by the time that happens. And I can’t even say I’ve seen all of the movies with those respective casts. The cast that has manned the starship Enterprise since 2009, however, has had my undivided attention since JJ Abrams first put them in space in that great reboot of the franchise. 2013’s “Into Darkness,” however, undid a lot of good will for the new take on the franchise when it tried to essentially do it’s version of the iconic “Wrath of Khan” with this new cast. With “Beyond,” writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung resolved to return to the things that made the franchise so durable, and enduring, as it prepared to celebrate it’s 50th year of existence. The result is one of the best adventures the crew have gone on over the past half a century, and probably my favorite film of the ones made with this cast. Given that the 2009 film is not just great “Star Trek” but great sci-fi, that is a tall order.
The film begins as the crew of the Enterprise are in year three of their five-year mission, and after a peace negotiation between alien races goes poorly, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, who’s been fully in charge of the role since that first Abrams film) is heading to a new space station, the Yorktown, and is dictating into his journal of what he’s witnessed from his crew, and their travels. He appears particularly pensive about himself, due likely to two factors: 1) he has applied for a Vice Admiral position, and 2) his birthday is coming up, which brings to mind his father, whom sacrificed himself for his crew, along with the newly-born James and his mother, on that day, which we witnessed in the early moments of the 2009 film. He has yet to tell Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), and confides this instead in Bones (Karl Urban). Spock has much on his mind, as well, with the Vulcan population still dwindling after the events of the first film. Vulcan’s heritage is a primary issue, especially as he learns of the passing of his elder self, Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, paid elegant tribute here), and he is considering a couple of moves towards playing a main role in that, one that leads to him breaking up with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) when he decides, for the sake of his species, he should marry a Vulcan woman. That’s a lot of baggage in the air when a distress ship comes racing to the Yorktown about a ship that was attacks on the other side of a nebula. The only Federation ship that can make it through that is the Enterprise, and so Kirk and the crew go to investigate, only to find themselves similarly attacked, the Enterprise destroyed, and the crew either captured or separated by their attackers, led by a vicious being named Krall (Idris Elba). Scattered, and unsure what they have really flown in to, Kirk and co. must not only find a way to their crew, but also prevent Krall from launching an attack on the larger starfleet, which will require them finding a new ship to take them off planet.
One of the most surprising things about “Star Trek Beyond” is how, truly, going in knowing as little as possible helps this film as much as trying to protect its secrets hurt “Into Darkness.” Much credit must be given to Pegg, Jung and director Justin Lin (who helped the “Fast & Furious” franchise become must-see cinema) for rewarding our uncertainty of what to expect with a story that truly feels like it goes where no man has gone before. Based on my limited experience with the TV shows, this feels much closer to a big-screen episode of the show rather than a big-budget franchise film, which is good, and what prevented “Into Darkness” from taking off. After being unable to hide the nature of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in “Into Darkness,” mad props for being able for giving us only minimal clues about Krall beyond being the villain. Though it feels like a waste of Elba’s considerable presence to hide him under prosthetics, there is a reason they did so, and the character’s presence matters as much as his motivations. I would argue he is one of the strongest villains we’ve seen in a “Star Trek” film since the original Khan, and easily the best in the films with this cast. Just as intriguing is the character of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who has been stranded on the planet for a long time and lost her crew to Krall prior to this film. How much she can trust the Enterprise crew, and in particular, engineer Scotty (Pegg), who comes across her on the planet, and how much our crew can trust her builds a lot of the second act tension beyond everyone being separated on the planet, and if it weren’t for Elba playing Krall, Boutella steals the entire movie with her well-balanced performance and compelling character. There’s nothing motivating Jaylah but survival, but when Scotty and, eventually, the rest of the crew come into her life, that changes, and she has to decide if she wants to be part of the larger world. It’s a fascinating arc usually given to one of the main characters, but one of the best parts of Pegg and Jung’s script is how it gives everyone important to this story an important role, and something to learn about them. That’s a big part of why splitting up the crew works so well. Some character dynamics bring expected, and entertaining, moments, like the Bones/Spock scenes where Quinto and Urban take full ownership of those roles from Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley, but even Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) together makes us think about what kind of bond they have as crew members. Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are the other pairing, and they give us unexpected insight into Chekov’s look at Kirk’s leadership in a way that makes Jim think about what his legacy should be. These were easily the hardest to watch knowing that Yelchin, who tragically died in a freak accident a few weeks ago, would never be playing this role again. He and Pine are a great team in these scenes, and I can’t imagine who else could take his place in the role, which is a great credit to how well he played it in only three films.
Growing up, I’ve always been more “Star Wars” than “Star Trek.” I enjoyed my encounters with Gene Roddenberry’s more philosophical sci-fi adventure series, but the mythological saga of George Lucas’s vast, but intimate, world won out. It’s funny that now, both are important parts of the genre landscape again thanks to successful returns to the big screen, and both of those were helmed by JJ Abrams, who bowed out of this film to do “The Force Awakens.” Lin is not a step down, though, and while it’s easy to make light of the “Fast & Furious” series, he brought a level of gravity to that storytelling that blended nicely with the action sequences those films centered on. Here, he brings that same balance to a script by Pegg and Jung that is as much fun to watch as a fan of fantasy adventures as it is compelling from a narrative standpoint. I really want to see him continue, hopefully with Pegg and Jung writing again, with these characters, and see what else they can come up with as the crew continues it’s five-year mission. With a score once again by the great Michael Giacchino, “Star Trek Beyond” feels both like a natural ending of one time for this crew, but also the start of another era for them. Wherever we go from here, I feel like this series is in good hands, and I hope we see what’s beyond “Star Trek Beyond” sooner rather than later. There’s still strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations to discover. I’m ready to follow them as far as we can on that trip.