Star Trek Beyond
As I’ve said before, it’s been a long time since what I consider the real spirit of Star Trek has been in the property for quite some time. It hasn’t bothered me that J.J. Abrams has turned his rebooted movie series distinctly towards action-adventure, partly because there’s always been a bit of adventure in Trek, and partly because the ideas had been replaced by serial space-opera long ago. So when it was announced that the next installment would be directed by Justin “Fast and Furious” Lin, and people complained that this was a further step in the wrong direction, I was still fine with it.
Which is all to say that I walked into Star Trek Beyond expecting little but another romp, but I walked out pleasantly surprised that Lin has actually turned the series back towards, well, actual Star Trek. It’s not quite the veiled criticism of the original television series, nor the Great Society utopianism of The Next Generation, but it does capture something of the feel of the first series of movies. It’s an original story built around an actual philosophical point, rather than just paying homage to what has come before the way the other two entries in the reboot series have.
And that point stems from an important question in a modern, secular, progressive world: from where do we derive meaning in our existence? There are all sorts of high-minded platitudes we could throw out, but we must start with the actual human subject of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who finds himself leading his ship through the unknown universe, where there are no signposts that clearly indicate direction.
He considers resigning his command and taking a position on the new starbase Yorktown. Maintaining an established order at least offers some structure, and that sense of meaning can be comforting. In our own history, institutions like religions or militaries have offered many people similar pre-packaged answers to the question of meaning. A large swath of modern conservatism is defined by people who cling to such established signposts, and who demand that everyone else do the same.
Spock (Zachary Quinto) is struggling with a similar question, though at a much grander scale. Most of his race and culture were destroyed along with Vulcan, leaving him unmoored, and reconsidering his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in light of his responsibilities to New Vulcan. The death of his alternate-timeline alter ego (Leonard Nimoy) comes as an extra blow, leaving him wondering about his place in the universe.
All this is put on hold when a ship comes into Yorktown. The single occupant pleads for help; the rest of her ship went down inside a nearby nebula, and they need rescue. The Enterprise is the only ship capable of navigating in that area, so it gets the job. And it heads straight into an ambush, which separates and strands the crew on the planet below, just as so many others have before it. Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) end up in one place; Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) in another; Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) are captured by the alien commander Krall (Idris Elba). Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg) lucks out, meeting the previously marooned Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who has been living in a crashed Federation starship from the early days of Starfleet.
The philosophy largely gets shelved after the opening act, making way for the main action-adventure story and returning at the end. That said, it’s not like The Wrath of Khan spent much more than the setup and conclusion on its Moby Dick references. And The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home were fine without a lot to offer in the way of Big Ideas. Held up against the actual canon, Star Trek Beyond is more a return to form than some further, sacrilegious divergence.
As an action movie, however, it can be disappointing. The Enterprise does get blowed up real good, and there’s some spectacularly fun work in the climax. But for an off-ship episode the personal-scale action is underwhelming. There’s a lot of shaky-cam, and the choppy, close-up editing doesn’t allow a good sense of space in the fight choreography. The camera pans around a lot in these close-ups, too, with lots of bright lights in the background. It gets disorienting enough in regular-size 2D; I can only imagine what it would look like in the IMAX 3D format.
But while this may fall short of the action in the Fast and Furious franchise, what Lin brings to the table is fun, and a lot of it. The core cast feels more than ever like the same sort of extended family that the Fast and Furious crew became under Lin’s direction, and we can see the story’s ideas playing out in terms of the actors’ performances and character work more than the monologues that often characterized the classic Roddenberry-era entries. Abrams may have known how to tell a good story and get this new branch of the world set up, but Lin may be just what we’ve needed to get Trek back on track.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.