In 2009, J.J. Abrams made a bold reinvention of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” While it was light on the social commentary that made “Star Trek” a cult success on television, it introduced a new generation to the adventures of Captain James Tiberius Kirk and the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise.
With director Justin Lin taking the helm of “Star Trek Beyond,” replacing Abrams after the disappointingly by-the-numbers “Into Darkness,” the franchise briefly touches upon Roddenberry’s original vision of a utopian future with the help of a stellar cast. Unfortunately, “Beyond” falls flat as both an action film and a science fiction fable, neither completely honoring classic “Trek” nor embracing the wild space fantasies of Abrams at his best.
The soul of the original “Star Trek” had always been with the crew, and one of the highlights of “Beyond” is that the story gives each member of the Enterprise crew plenty of time to shine. The plot focuses around the Enterprise crashing on a planet after an attack led by alien character ‘Krall’, played by Idris Elba. The crew is separated, leading to character pairings that forge new dynamics which had not been previously explored in the new movies.
The efforts of the cast are noble considering the sameness of the story. Zachary Quinto, who plays Commander Spock, stands out as his nuanced performance both honors the legacy of Nimoy without feeling like a mere impersonation of it. A tough humanoid alien named Jaylah, who is played by Sofia Boutella, is introduced in the film as the franchise’s newest heroine. She quickly joins forces with Simon Pegg’s Montgomery Scott (who also co-wrote the film) to help fix a fallen starship. While she’s a step-up from Alice Eve’s character Carol from “Into Darkness” (who seemingly was cast purely as eye candy), Jaylah feels more like an emulation of Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games” and Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” than an original creation in her own right. Despite Boutella’s best efforts, Jaylah feels like a missed opportunity to introduce a fresh new character element, not unlike the rest of the film.
“Beyond’s” primary problem is that for all of its talk about peaceful cohabitation and strength through diversity, it lacks unique insights of its very own. The brunt of its themes are the tenants of the Federation, which for those not in the know is basically the United Nations on a galactic scale, and how these philosophies bring species from across the universe together in a galactic union. If Lin had the courage to stick with the conceit of “Beyond” being a throwback to old-school “Trek,” this would be a step in the right direction. Instead, establishing the Federation and its peacekeeping ways just feels like an excuse to jump off into yet another fluffy action-adventure spectacle that lacks human interest.
This could have been alleviated if the antagonist was more psychologically complex, but like many “Trek” films before, Idris Elba plays a villain who hates the Federation and wants to see it blown apart. While a reveal in the third act gives his motivations appropriate heft, the crux of the plot comes down to yet another bad man wanting to make things go boom for ill-conceived reasons. It would not be so noteworthy if this wasn’t the third time in under a decade that a “Star Trek” film made its entire conflict about a tortured soul blowing things up in order to get back at the good guys who then aggressively neutralize him.
The conflict of the story does not stem from people with different ideals grappling with social issues that have no easy answers, as the best “Trek” installments often do, but by there being an enemy armada that needs to be blown up before they blow other things up. All of the attempts to capture the original show’s spirit adds up to nothing more than an action setpiece that lacks tension or a sense of real consequence.
“Trek” has been able to talk about important issues while dressing the discussion up as a space adventure show for decades. In 1986, the Enterprise crew spent one of their big screen adventures traveling back in time to save humpback whales. In 1991, “The Undiscovered Country” tackled racism head-on as Captain Kirk made speciesist remarks about Klingons that later comes back to haunt him as it is used as evidence against him in a murder trial concerning the death of the Klingon High Ambassador. Kirk had to come to terms with his own bias, realizing that in order to step forward into a better future, he has to bury long held prejudices.
With the political landscape what it is in 2016, the world is rife with material for new “Star Trek” stories. In 2009, making a simple and accessible “Star Trek” movie that emphasized the characters over a hard science fiction story was a fresh take on an old franchise, this approach now feels routine.
“Star Trek Beyond” is passable popcorn entertainment with a likable ensemble, but fans will find it is boldly going nowhere.
The whole enterprise is out of warp and in desperate need of a course correction.