This year marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, one of the most unique franchises in terms of the sheer variety of TV series, feature films and other media. STAR TREK BEYOND is the third film since J.J. Abrams rebooted the original characters in 2009, and for this milestone year action director Justin Lin has taken the characters back to basics. The balance mostly works too, with the recent films having mostly been about the immediacy of the moment.
Picking up three years into the U.S.S. Enterprise’s historic five-year mission, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is mulling over a Vice Admiral’s position while Spock (Zachary Quinto) considers devoting his time to rebuilding Vulcan. However, when the crew is attacked by a mysterious wave of hive-like aliens led by Krall (Idris Elba), they are forced to leave the ship and survive on a distant planet. Thanks to Scotty’s new friendship with alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), they must work together and defeat the seemingly unstoppable menace.
“Things have started to feel a little episodic,” muses Kirk in a contemplative opening about the monotony of space. The winking reference to the television origins of the characters acknowledges two simple truths: that there has been a fair amount of ground already covered by the hundreds of hours of serial drama already made, and that these newer film entries will never be satisfied with the repetition of cerebral space exploration. So STAR TREK BEYOND wastes very little time in turning into a full-blown action film, igniting the ship and placing every crew member in peril.
The space scenes are visually stunning, albeit chaotic and stomach churning in the ubiquitous 3D. Lin is ironically on firmer ground when he plays with gravity on the wonderfully Escher-inspired Yorktown space colony, and there’s a gorgeous climactic sequence of Kirk and Krall engaging in zero gravity combat. There’s a current of tension that runs throughout the film, clashing with the fertile groundwork laid down about Kirk’s early mid-life crisis, and as such the film functions best when it abandons the contemplation completely.
Yet for a film that has an underlying message of the strength of unity, it certainly spends a lot of time keeping its principal players apart. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock make a wonderful team-up as usual, and co-writer Simon Pegg builds upon the heroic Scotty persona from Star Trek Into Darkness, even if some of the other cast are rendered perfunctory by the introduction of Jaylah. However, there are also frustratingly few scenes where the entire crew comes together as one, a reality of the perils of ensembles whose individual stars have risen significantly since the first entry. This unnaturally elongates the otherwise straightforward narrative to the point of frustration at times.
Even with some of these quibbles, STAR TREK BEYOND has some amazing world-building and visuals that continue to give the series a terrific energy. The attempt at an old-fashioned focus on character definitely gives it some of the flavour of the original ‘Trek series, even if it lacks the nuanced approach that has been a staple since Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s as if they tried to combine Insurrection with the action elements of First Contact. The direction of the film franchise is unclear, especially with the untimely death of actor Anton Yelchin just prior to the release of this film, yet Star Trek itself remains in safe hands with the launch of a new ongoing series next year and inevitable sequels. If this is to be the last of this era of the rebooted film universe, then it definitely goes out with a bang.
STAR TREK BEYOND is in cinemas on 21 July in Australia, and 22 July 2016 in the US, from Paramount Pictures.
2016 | US | DIR: Justin Lin | WRITERS: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung | CAST: John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella | DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes | RATING: ★★★