Ever since the new Star Trek came out in 2009 offering a return to blockbuster thrills of the past, we’ve been waiting to find out where this rebooted series would boldly take us. A clean narrative slate and energetic, fresh versions of the characters provided plenty of potential. Star Trek Into Darkness however saw the series drop out of warp; offering little beyond action and fan service, and leaving fans of more cerebral trek exasperated with the re-treading of old ground and some ridiculous plot contrivances. Observations that the film series was starting to resemble ‘Fast n Furious in space’ seemed further compounded by the news that Justin Lin (director of said franchise) was on board for the third film; and that trailer (the Sabotage one) sadly seemed to confirm it.
It’s a big relief then to discover that, alongside screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, Lin has steered the ship back on course and headed in the right direction at full impulse. Star Trek Beyond is the return to form we needed; capturing the spirit and feel of the original series of films (as well as nods to the various series’ including Enterprise) while acknowledging that, for better or worse, Star Trek is now a box-office friendly action movie franchise. Cerebral? No not really, however Pegg’s screenplay, in demonstrating a much better understanding of the universe and its characters, achieves a highly enjoyable compromise.
We start three years into the ship’s five-year mission; with Kirk engaged in diplomatic missions; narrating a ‘Next-Gen’ style tour of life aboard the USS Enterprise; and ruminating about life with Bones over a scotch. A stopover at Yorktown station (a vast Federation Starbase like something from an Iain M Banks novel) allows for some stupendous and imaginative sci-fi visuals and a refreshing change from Earth. For the first time in these newer films, we get a sense of the scale of the Federation and what it’s capable of; a glimpse of the utopia Gene Roddenberry always envisioned. It’s here that Kirk and Spock- each feeling the pull of other responsibilities- consider their future in Starfleet and ultimately their place in the universe. We even get to meet Sulu’s family, in the series’ first ever depiction of LGBT parenting. Not that the film has an agenda; it’s low key and sweet.
Niceties are quickly interrupted however when Enterprise becomes embroiled in a desperate and deadly rescue attempt in a nearby nebula. What follows is one of the most visceral and dazzling action sequences in any trek film. While nothing that comes later tops it, plenty of adventure soon ensues as the crew, now marooned and separated on a desolate planet, attempt to reunite and find out who attacked them and why. Splitting everyone up also allows for some great character exchanges, the best of which involve Zachary Quinto’s Spock and a scene-stealing Karl Urban as Bones McCoy; as well as introducing a new alien character, Jaylah, played by Sophia Boutella. Her interactions with the crew (especially a love-struck Scotty) are affectionate and cute, thanks to her misunderstanding of names and her musical choices. Oh, and she kicks ass too. Uhura, Sulu and Chekov get less screen time but aren’t wasted either. It’s an ensemble piece, and yet at the same time very much focused on Chris Pine’s James T Kirk. With both the character and the actor now seasoned veterans, we get to see a much more mature Kirk (certainly more in line with Shatner’s version). Whereas before he questioned if he was ready for the Captain’s chair, now he’s questioning if he actually wants it, or ever did. He’s still a man of action and very much in command, but the reckless egotist of the last two films is long gone. And about time too.
The villains of the piece don’t impress quite so much and feel overly familiar; Generic-looking Trek aliens; swarms of CG craft; and a main antagonist called Krall (Idris Elba) who- you guessed it- has a grudge against The Federation. While there’s a twist in his story that offers some plausible motivation (and a sympathetic backstory to the character) we still seem to be stuck in villain-of-the-week territory. The planet-bound scenes also lack momentum and feel small in scale (comparisons to episodic Trek are felt here), but the film does eventually return to high warp.
An energetic finale resolves the film with breathless intensity, giving rise to a poignant yet upbeat conclusion (including a wonderful time-delay sequence) that leaves us ready to beam aboard for further adventures (now with a new character in tow and also, sadly, some absent friends). In conclusion then, Justin Lin leaves the franchise in better shape than he found it and there’s no reason now why the series can’t live long and prosper.
Warp factor 8