By: Daniel Reynolds
Though it’s hard to deny the power death has in shaping our fears, there’s something to be said for being afraid of a routine life. As illogical as it sounds, people tend to react to this onrushing inevitability — with its promise of safety, if not excitement — in some irresponsible ways. Even if you’re Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk, a man whose life has had its share of wild adventures and death-defying moments, the desire for comfort can be overruled by this dread. Not even existence in the 23rd century can change that. I mean, what’s getting lost in space when compared to the ennui of endlessly just going through the motions?
That’s where we begin with Star Trek Beyond, the 13th film in the venerable franchise, and the third produced under the stewardship of J.J. Abrams. In this latest outing for Kirk and the gang however, Abrams is merely a producer. He’s handed the directorial reins over to series newcomer Justin Lin, whose chief claim to fame is shepherding the Fast and Furious series into the global behemoth it is today. I suppose both directors were looking to shake things up in their lives; Abrams is all-in on Star Wars now, while Lin is working on the no less important Space Jam 2. Anyway, that’s all supplementary. What it means onscreen is a new energy, one that feels less reverent — in both good and bad ways — to what typically makes Star Trek Star Trek. It just so happens this dovetails nicely with Kirk’s latest in-film crisis — one of the mid-life variety.
In the midst of a five year mission, Captain Kirk (a stolid, if not charming Chris Pine) is bored. His crew of pros — a returning Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban, still the best), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin, RIP) and Sulu (John Cho) — are so on top of things that a life in deep space has gotten to be a bit routine. The offer of a vice admiralship promises to push Kirk even further away from any spontaneous action. Can you picture him working solo behind a Starfleet desk? For Kirk, it’s a step away from admitting death. Fortunately (so to speak), while on shore leave on the wondrous planet-sized Yorktown space station, a jettisoned escape pod comes drifting out of a nearby nebula with a living distress call: an alien woman named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) needs the Enterprise crew’s help. Her ship and its crew are stranded on a planet within, which is just the kind of surprise Kirk needs in his life — a rescue mission that doubles as an exploration into the unknown. As Star Trek plots go, this one is decidedly lightweight; still, to its benefit, we recognize the driving emotion at work.
But before you can say “set phasers to stun,” the Enterprise is downed by a bee-like swarm of alien ships, the crew is separated and stranded on the very planet they were meant to do their rescuing on, and there’s an angry villain after them. This time out, our big bad is Krall (an unrecognizable Idris Elba), a furious cross between the Elephant Man and a (blue) Ferengi. He wants something Kirk has (isn’t that always the case), and spends most of the film alternatively threatening and chasing various members of the ship’s crew to get it. The good guys are put in a tight spot, but this is, of course, where the fun comes in. With a script written by Pegg and Doug Jung — rather than, say, Damon Lindelof and pals — greater attention has been paid to whip-crack dialogue and humour, and a little less to convoluted narrative logic. This isn’t to say there aren’t still moments of incoherence — editing that moves characters to and fro in jarring ways, supporting roles left semi-explained even as they’re drawn into focus, and enough fast-and-loose jargon to make your ears hum — but it’s the kind of stuff that can get glossed over easily by action. And with Lin at the helm, you know the issue isn’t going to be action.
Opting to set most of the film on this new planet, Lin largely eschews the usual naval battles of Star Trek yore to have fun with these much-loved characters in a different context, and in some new combinations. To that end, we get the Spock-McCoy buddy comedy we’ve always wanted, reason enough to see the film; Uhura and Sulu work together to do some thankless expository work; meanwhile Scotty, Chekov and Kirk hatch escape plans, and meet a new ally in Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to help enact them. (It’s also Jaylah’s job to introduce the apparently mandated throwback element that just has to be present in every new Star Trek film; talk about routine.) There’s not a ton of emoting to be done here, nor much cerebral contemplation, but zooming in on planetside stuff allows for more character — rather than ship — detail to be sketched in. And while there are still space battles to be had, featuring that funky aforementioned swarm, the ground-bound interplay is a delight. In a twist, however, it also starts to feel like the film’s undoing.
The irony of Star Trek Beyond is that for all its supposed new and edgier ideas, it begins to feel rote in its execution. A problem pops up, there’s a beat of confusion, a flurry of dialogue, and a solution. Rare are the moments when actual danger or tension are developed. The speed of the film, which was originally touted as an antidote to the usual Star Trek turgidity, ends up making everything too easy. That’s not to say there are no stakes in this film, or a lack of conflict; many phasers are still fired, there’s a surprising amount of martial arts, and space ships do explode. But we are never made to feel as though the outcome is ever really in doubt. What’s worse, by the time Kirk is chasing Krall around the Yorktown environs (an impressively choreographed sequence to be sure), it turns out Lin has merely taken a new route to the same old destination. If you recall, the previous Star Trek instalment had Spock in a climatic footrace with Khan instead. Different in some ways, sure, but maybe more familiar than we thought.
It’s admirable to try for something new with a franchise that is now over 50 years old. While Star Trek as a brand is still valuable, it has never been able to shake that whiff of stodginess in comparison to other sci-fi media over the same period. It’s never quite been cool — which, yes, is partly by design. Star Trek Beyond does its best to address that particular issue by doing things like using Beastie Boys music as an in-film solution, rather than through actual inventive plotting. We know at the outset there’s no way Kirk is going to take that desk job. Just like we know there’s no way his crew will do anything too wildly out of character. There’s a comfort in that, I guess. And yet, we’re still waiting for this reborn franchise to boldly go somewhere it hasn’t already been.