REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek marks its 50th Anniversary with Justin Lin’s summer blockbuster. But will it please the fans? Oscar beams in to find out.

Star Trek Beyond started off a bit awkwardly with the very first teaser trailer. People feared that it represented the nadir of the newly-rebooted Star Trek film franchise, seemingly becoming a mindless action fest that lacks any of the cleverness, subtlety and charm of The Original Series or even the finer qualities of the first film directed by J.J. Abrams (now producer). Having seen the film, I can now confirm that those fears were completely unfounded. What we have here is a finely-directed, well-written and rather grand space opera which manages to walk the tight line of representing the original show and updating it for a wider audience.

Three years into its five year mission, the USS Enterprise arrives at the massive space station Yorktown to resupply the ship and provide shoreleave for her tired crew. Struggling to find continued meaning in their mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has applied for a promotion to Vice Admiral, torn between honouring his father’s legacy and building up a name for himself. He recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as the new captain of the Enterprise, having amicably ended his relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Spock also receives word from New Vulcan that Ambassador Spock (a.k.a Spock Prime, played by Leonard Nimoy) has passed away.

A damaged escape pod drifts out of a nearby nebula. The survivor, Kalara (Lydia Wilson), claims her ship is stranded on a planet in the nebula, and the Enterprise is dispatched on a rescue mission. The rescue turns into an ambush when the Enterprise is easily overwhelmed by a massive swarm of ships and is quickly torn apart. The swarm’s alien commander, Krall (Idris Elba), and his crew board the ship, and unsuccessfully search for an alien artifact called the Abronath that Kirk had obtained on a recent mission. The swarm demolishes the Enterprise, and the saucer section crashes to the planet as the crew abandons the wreckage in escape pods. Uhura and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) are captured with most of the surviving crew and held captive by Krall. Spock escapes with Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) but is severely injured, Kirk, Kalara and Ensign Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) manage to land safely and try to restore power to the Enterprise’s bridge to locate the crew, while the ship’s chief engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters a stranded alien warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), with the two teaming up to rebuild an ancient downed Federation starship in order to escape.

Being an ensemble piece, every actor is able to bring a great deal of personality to the film. Pine is a fairly standard lead, channelling some of William Shatner’s swagger and confidence onscreen. Quinto continues to be a worthy successor to Nimoy, projecting just the right amount of the original Spock’s dry wit and intonations. As usual, Urban nails the expressions and Southern inflections that made DeForest Kelley’s McCoy so memorable; he absolutely came into his own in this film. Saldana is once again dependable as Uhura, and delivers on both the emotional scenes with Spock and the action scenes against Krall. Pegg is a delight as Scotty as usual, bringing a lot of heart and comedy to the film. Boutella surprised me as Jaylah; I expected a fairly two-dimensional baddass female character, but she does have dimensions of her own and a particularly endearing friendship with Scotty. Cho is decent as Sulu, though admittedly has the least amount of screentime in the film. Elba does fine as the main villain Krall – he is intimidating and fierce but not much else. I was worried he would just be a generic doomsday villain with no depth, but you do eventually discover that there is a little more to him. After the tragic passing of Anton Yelchin, I was worried how Chekov would be used in the film, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised as he had plenty of material to work with and was present through much of the film. It was an excellent send-off for an actor who left this world far too soon.

The action is very kinetic, flashy and intense, though a lot of it is shot at close quarters with fast editing similar to the previous films, and that can make it difficult to follow what’s happening. At first, I was concerned that the use of dreaded shakycam was coming back in force, but it never takes away too much from the viewing experience. Action does not make or break a movie, and it can drive character beats that then fuel the action scenes, moving the plot in interesting ways. This is certainly the case in Star Trek Beyond.

The visual effects are certainly creative; there is a lot of solid CGI with only a few exceptions such as when Kirk stages his rescue mission at Krall’s base, involving a motorbike and a hologram projector, which looks a little ropey. If I were to nitpick, I would say that some of the mountain landscapes have that slight CG glow to them. However, that is easy to overlook. There are, of course, plenty of physical location shoots and sets, as well as a lot of stunts that often blend well with the visual effects. The space station Yorktown is a sight to behold, not just in the insane level of detail in the visualisation, but in the way it twists and turns within its own artificial gravity field, almost like a classic illustration of the future from the 60s brought to life. The swarm effects were also impressive. The costume and visual style echo the appeal of the series and it’s not as desaturated or as “realistic” as previous films, having just the right amount of 60s flavour without feeling too dated. The cinematography is very bright, colourful and clear, and Lin is able to frame his scenes with a lot of creative flair.

Michael Giacchino returns to compose the score and delivers on another solid entry. It excels in underscoring the quieter, more emotional scenes between the characters with soft piano music, and delivers on the grander, inspiring, brassy cues of the Federation with lovely choir accompaniments. You really get a sense of the peaceful, multicultural world the Star Trek universe conveys. The theme from The Original Series returns to close out the film, and Giacchino’s original theme from the 2009 film makes plenty of welcome reprisals. It’s the kind of score that succeeds in putting the listener in a good mood.

As a major Trek fan, Mr. Pegg  took on the job of main screenwriter alongside Doug Jung (after giving Kurtzman and Orci the boot) and the dialogue is a joy to listen to, with subtle bits of fan-pleasing world building and plenty of clever humour that flows naturally from the characters and the situations. The plot is admittedly very straightforward; an evil alien overlord wants an object of great power to take over the galaxy and the crew of the Enterprise have to stop him. It is a plotline we’ve seen time and again on Star Trek, as well as in other movies in general. But just because something has been done many, many times in the past does not automatically make it bad – how it is executed is key! In this case, simplicity is key to the film’s success, as it serves as a backdrop for the character interactions.

On the whole, this is perhaps the most pure Star Trek movie we’ve gotten in many years, perhaps more so than the very well-received first Abrams film. There are plenty of callbacks to the 2009 entry, setting the film up more as a direct sequel to the first film and never once referencing Into Darkness. At the same time, it never does anything to directly contradict the events of the proceeding chapter, but there is certainly the option to skip it on your next franchise marathon. It felt in many ways like a big-budget adaptation of The Original Series, without feeling like a very long, boring episode. Each of the cast members have enough screentime to shine, and every minute they’re onscreen feels just right for this film.

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of humour, specifically the interactions between Quinto and Urban as well as Spock and McCoy. They had me chuckling from scene to scene, and laughing out loud in others. You really get the sense that this crew are family to each other, with Kirk sort of being the father to his crew, and growing from being a cocky frat boy with an attitude into an esteemed captain in his own right. The first twenty minutes is certainly less action-heavy than the rest of the film, but the personal moments and character development is always part and parcel of the Star Trek franchise. The way they handle Nimoy’s death in-universe is also very tasteful and heartfelt, and there are only a handful of references as to not dominate the film, but it does help Spock’s character development. In the first, Spock Prime had given the younger him the chance to live his life on the Enterprise by helping the surviving Vulcans to rebuild, and when we learn that Spock Prime has passed away, the weight of the younger Spock’s choice to leave Starfleet is all the more pronounced.

There is a contrast between the ideals of the forward-thinking optimism of the Federation, which sees strength in unity of various races and beliefs, and Krall who represents a cold, militaristic form of galactic order that doesn’t allow for change or difference. Yorktown could well be seen as the culmination of the humanism and cosmopolitanism ideals of Gene Roddenberry’s vision in The Original Series; a gathering of races and cultures from across the galaxy. I don’t understand why this trend of villains’ motivations being developed in the third act is so persistent. For most of the film, Krall comes off as a typical antagonist who hates Starfleet and, by the time he gets interesting, it’s almost too late. My issue with it is that it’s ultimately window dressing, and not the central theme of the film, though it certainly could be. The main thrust is the cast; they are the strength through unity that the film espouses, more so than the aliens and humans at Yorktown.

Star Trek Beyond embraces the strengths of the first two films (yes, Into Darkness did have some strong points) and embraces the charm and hopeful nature of the 60s classic. It combines enjoyable action, flashy direction and a spirited ensemble. Here we have a great cast and a tone that celebrates the fact that it is Star Trek. For the 50th anniversary of this much-loved film and television franchise, that is a worthy gift.

To Leonard and Anton: Your memories shall live long and continue to prosper.

Checkout our 50th Anniversary Star Trek podcast series:

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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