Earlier Star Trek films were led by JJ Abrams, a man who cut his teeth in TV and transplants that kind of storytelling into his movies whether it’s warranted or not. Though Abrams stays on as a producer, Star Trek Beyond has no use for mystery boxes and thorny plot mechanics. Led by Lin, best known from the Fast and Furious franchise’s most-admired entries, this film can be expected to have strong action, and that expectation is fulfilled. The decimation of the Enterprise feels coherent despite happening on such a vast scale, and smaller set pieces in the wilderness have the thrilling sense of competence porn with a sprinkling of heist dynamics. The big finale is kicked off with a great callback to the original that loses nothing if the reference is missed, and then continues in a sustained jolt of adrenaline that powers the film through to the end credits. Lin is the right director for the job here, as he focuses less on franchise unification and fan service and more on mastery of whatever is happening right now. Despite having skipped his Fast and Furious entries, I have no problem hailing Lin as an action titan, Bay without the leering horniness, Emmerich without a hatred of national landmarks.
Lin is aided in his spectacle by a script from Simon Pegg, who also plays chief engineer Scotty, and Doug Jung. Like Lin, Pegg brings expectations with him, namely for crackling dialogue and work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is not the tone that Abrams established for the franchise, but Star Trek Beyond’s humor is its greatest surprise. The film engineers ways to randomly pair off the crew, and each pairing allows for greater familiarity with the characters and new dynamics that the series hadn’t earlier explored. Kirk gets put with ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Spock and ship doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) pair up, Sulu and Uhura find themselves in Krall’s clutches, and Scotty encounters a native (Sofia Boutella) who’s also fighting against Krall. While Pine and Yelchin have an appealing older brother/younger brother dynamic, it’s Quinto and Urban who are the most fun to watch, a result that is the least expected because they both function as skeptical straight men when with the rest of the cast. Spock’s unflappability and McCoy’s irritability are played off against each other to great effect, and the film knows this to such an extent that it contrives a way to get them back together as the film nears its end.
Simplicity is an appreciated trait in Star Trek Beyond’s story at this point in the franchise, and though it mechanically revolves around a MacGuffin chase, it’s still complex enough to interrogate itself. If a Trek die-hard would most complain about these movies’ betrayal of the Star Trek ethos, Pegg’s and Jung’s script pretty much agrees. Krall is revealed to be a long-lost human general, stuck in a period of space exploration that revolved less around diplomacy and more around militarism. He hates the present incarnation of the Federation and plots to destroy it, voicing the repeated motto of villains everywhere about conflict breeding necessary toughness and strength. Krall essentially stands in for a perceived public that will only show up for the spectacle, instead of the lower-stakes drama that I would absolutely watch this cast execute. A film that contains constant life-and-death stakes and epic swaths of destruction isn’t the best platform for a pushback against warfare and combat as the most compelling parts of human endeavor, but Star Trek Beyond is pulling a ‘do what I say, not what I do’ in an inoffensive way and refutes Krall’s brutality. That economics demands the film occur in a period of danger for the crew of the Enterprise and not on one of those glossed-over diplomatic missions is knowledge one takes for granted, but Pegg, a lifelong Trekkie himself, gets some subversion in where he can.
Star Trek Beyond is the whole package, satisfactorily checking all possible boxes. It even adds an extratextual level of pathos to itself with the tragic death of Yelchin around the time of the film’s release, and the more predictable but still sad loss of Leonard Nimoy while it was in production. Quentin Tarantino has bandied about the possibility of making another of these, and this cast bantering across a table like something out of Inglourious Basterds is enticing. However, Star Trek Beyond is a high note worthy of going out on. B+