I have to begin by quoting the opening of Janet Maslin’s June 4, 1982, New York Times review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “Now this is more like it.”
Star Trek Beyond is the movie that we should have gotten three years ago, instead of the sloppy, ill-conceived, and overall frustrating Star Trek Into Darkness. After seeing Into Darkness, I wasn’t sure I would ever find myself looking forward to any further installments of the rebooted series, which began in 2009—especially if they were made by the same creative team. Well, that particular aspect is no longer a factor: director J.J. Abrams is gone, now functioning solely as a producer and replaced by Justin Lin, who has directed the most recent Fast and Furious movies. Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci (who was originally supposed to direct this new movie before a creative falling-out with Paramount), and the notorious Damon Lindelof are also absent this time out, with Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung taking on responsibility for the script. The end result is something that places Lin, Pegg, and Jung among the ranks of Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer—namely, people who came in and saved Star Trek when the franchise really needed it.
Star Trek Beyond is a love letter to Star Trek, its characters, its history, and its legacy—which is only appropriate, since the series is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The film embraces all aspects of Star Trek’s vast canon, and is sprinkled with references, in-jokes, and Easter eggs that should delight longtime fans without leaving newcomers in the dark. It’s also got a lot of heart, presenting the characters in the best possible light, giving them room to breathe and to function as people—and very likable ones, at that. The film sets out to capture the spirit of the original television series, and succeeds. One imagines what Gene Roddenberry and his team could have accomplished if they had a comparable budget and special-effects arsenal back in the 1960s.
Without giving too much away, the story finds the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise about halfway through their five-year mission of exploring the galaxy. Some of the senior officers are facing major personal and professional turning points, but these considerations are put on hold when the ship is assigned to a rescue mission that takes them into unexplored territory. After venturing through a perilous nebula, they find themselves totally unprepared for what they encounter on the other side—in particular, a hostile combatant named Krall (played by Idris Elba) and his loyal minions.
The film fixes some of the key problems I had with Into Darkness. Namely, Chris Pine is finally getting the chance to play Captain James T. Kirk, instead of a second-rate Han Solo wannabe. Pine’s Kirk is no longer a thickheaded fratboy horndog who thinks with his fists and whose top priority seems to be getting laid by multiple alien women at the same time. Kirk is now more contemplative, more insightful. He’s smarter, more clever, more sly, and more forward-thinking than in either of the previous films, and therefore far more deserving of his post as the captain of Starfleet’s flagship. Pine demonstrates that he really is up to the task of filling William Shatner’s boots.
I was happy to see the film acknowledge, at least to some extent, the emotional connection that Kirk has to the Enterprise. I do wish they emphasized it a bit more—the Kirk of the original series was borderline obsessed with the ship, feeling more love for it than he ever would for a flesh-and-blood woman—but it’s certainly touched upon, at long last.
I also appreciated how Dr. McCoy’s importance has been restored. In the previous two movies, Karl Urban’s McCoy was sidelined to a certain extent, a result of Zoe Saldana’s Uhura being elevated to a level of prominence that was unprecedented in the history of the series. It is McCoy, not Uhura, who is the third point of Star Trek’s Trinity, serving as Kirk’s emotional conscience just as much as Spock serves as his guide in logic. I particularly enjoyed a scene early in the film, between Kirk and McCoy, that follows a Star Trek tradition dating all the way back to the original 1964 pilot episode “The Cage”: The captain confiding in his chief medical officer over drinks, expressing what’s really going on in his mind and in his heart.
The relationship between McCoy and Spock is also addressed in this film, after having been neglected, for the most part, up till now. Urban and Zachary Quinto are wonderful together, and you’re tempted to ask aloud, “What took so long to make this happen?”
I still think Quinto’s Spock is way too emotional, but at this point, that doesn’t seem likely to change. The bottom line is, Quinto is not playing Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, he’s making the character his own. It still takes some getting used to.
The rest of the cast is in fine form. All the hubbub about John Cho’s Sulu turning out to be gay is really much ado about nothing. It doesn’t play into the story in a big way, it doesn’t really change Sulu or the way Cho portrays him, it’s just something that’s thrown in, pretty much as an aside, to add an extra layer to his character and to be inclusive of all facets of our society. If you’re still bothered by it after seeing it, then, no offense, but the problem lies with you.
There is an unavoidable sense of loss and sadness throughout the film, what with the passing of both Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, who played the rebooted Pavel Chekov. Suffice to say that both men are honored beautifully by the filmmakers.
Of the new characters, the most impressive is Jaylah, an alien woman played by Sofia Boutella. She adds the same kind of breath-of-fresh-air, rogue quality that Kirstie Alley’s Saavik brought to The Wrath of Khan, and that Michelle Forbes’s Ensign Ro brought to Star Trek: The Next Generation.
For me, the only real disappointment was the main villain, Krall. Elba is certainly good in the role—I would expect no less from him. But, much like Eric Bana’s Nero in the 2009 movie, the character is undercooked. I found his motivation to be very run-of-the-mill, nothing we haven’t seen before—too much, actually, as far as I’m concerned. Without going into details, I was hoping he would have more of a philosophical or ideological reason for his actions, rather than what’s ultimately revealed in the film.
Aside from that, Lin, Pegg, and Jung seem to really understand Star Trek and how to make it work on the big screen in a way that appeals to both old-timers and new arrivals. They also know how to bring out its humanity and emphasize the characters, while still delivering plenty of the over-the-top action and pyrotechnics expected from a modern-day blockbuster. There were at least two moments where I actually teared up. That hasn’t happened to me in a Star Trek movie for a long, long time.
Paramount has already announced plans for another film starring this cast, set in this rebooted universe. Unlike the way I felt three years ago after the release of Into Darkness, I’m actually enthusiastic about that prospect.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2016.