“I don’t know why they called it Star Trek Beyond,” said a surly nerd walking out of the screening in front of me. “They didn’t go ‘beyond’ anything!”
Actually, I would argue that they went beyond multiple things — and the most important of those things is the idea that this rebooted franchise needs to be constantly going “beyond.” So much sturm und drang has been expended establishing that this new Star Trek is the same-but-different (a nifty trick, I’ll grant) that in two full films, it’s never had the chance to just relax and enjoy itself.
At the beginning of this third movie — or 13th, depending on how you’re counting — Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) complains that the ship’s mission has started to feel “episodic.” It’s a cute reference to the series’s small-screen past (and future), but it’s ironic given that Star Trek Beyond is one of those Star Trek movies that’s content just to be essentially a super-sized TV episode.
Mysterious nebula? Check. New alien race? Voila! Away team? Yes, on epic scale. Danger to crew, galaxy, and abstract ideals of unity through democracy? You know it. All that’s missing, really, is Prime Directive hand-wringing, but we had enough of that in the last movie.
What seems to have most disappointed the guy in front of me is that Star Trek Beyond amounts to a “planet episode”: the crew spend much, though certainly not all, of their time hopping around a terrestrial landscape. (Canada plays the role of the alien setting, and if the nebula wasn’t blocking news from the outside world, the characters might well have decided to stay there.)
Their antagonist is Krall (Idris Elba): a bitter, elaborately textured villain who stays alive by literally sucking the life out of his prisoners. His twisted personal goal is to destroy all life as we know it, yadda yadda — yes, we’ve seen it before, but that means we get it, and we don’t need constant interludes of exposition.
The movie works its way through knots of plot-induced inconvenience in classic Star Trek form. Beyond is full of moments where mortal danger looms until Scotty (Simon Pegg, who cowrote the script with Doug Jung) looks at some screen and exclaims that the crew can get out of it, if only they can manage to pull off some kind of crazy stunt that just happens to be extremely camera-friendly!
Eventually, the crew get divvied up in pairings and trios that allow for some very casual character development. Odd couple Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) get a lot of the screen time here, while Scotty gets to bond with alien warrior Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) and Kirk hangs out with Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin, to whom, along with Leonard Nimoy, Beyond is dedicated).
In a reboot series distinguished by the kinetic movement it’s infused into what was formerly a lovably static franchise (now, when the Enterprise gets hit, the camera is both shaken and stirred), it made sense to tap Fast and the Furious vet Justin Lin to direct. There’s a superabundance of zipping and zooming in this film; when someone gets beamed, it’s while falling through midair, and shuttling between the planet and orbit happens amid violent atmospheric friction.
Krall’s signature weapons are referred to as “bees” for the way they swarm about their prey, showcasing just what today’s Cs can GI when you really juice them. Perhaps the film’s niftiest invention is a sprawling space station encased in a transparent sphere; since the direction artificially-generated gravity varies from deck to perpendicular deck, characters are able to jump among the decks by catching a “gravitational slipstream.”
The whole thing is a big silly spectacle, a film that remembers that a typical episode of the original series involved some highfalutin principles, a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, and a fistfight on the rocks. Pass the popcorn, please.