The latest big-screen Star Trek finds comfort in familiarity and action
Until recently, Star Trek has never been an action franchise. While the original series might have featured Captain Kirk in a fight to the death with a Gorn, philosophical and moral questions were more frequently the norm. As the series progressed through the decades, with new captains and adventures, a wealth of good movies and some not so good ones, the franchise maintained its mission of discovery and goodwill, but it inched ever forward towards spectacle and Hollywood space opera.
When J.J. Abrams took the helm in 2009, he abandoned much of what Gene Roddenberry built, crafting a slick action film with plenty of lens flares and a convenient timeline reboot in order to move the franchise in a boldly new direction. The players were all still there—Kirk and Spock, Bones and Scotty, green skinned aliens and dangerous enemies. But it had the spirit of George Lucas—Abrams even admitted that he wasn’t a much of a Trekkie.
When he directed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens it seemed that Star Trek was a field test, an audition for his true passion. Abrams followed Star Trek with 2011’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was more space community theater than space opera, and then left the series behind.
Into that void has stepped Justin Lin to direct Star Trek Beyond, who is best known for taking over the Fast and Furious franchise. For those that aren’t fans of films about thieves driving souped-up Hondas, Lin might have raised a few eyebrows. However, while Star Trek Beyond continues in the action movie direction since the reboot, it is the best film in the trilogy.
The writing is what sets the film apart from the previous two. Star Trek: Into Darkness went wrong by attempting to shoehorn well-known storylines from the original films into the new universe, retelling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan awkwardly. It was pure fan service that fell flat due to choices made by the writing team that were out of step with the previously established characters.
Star Trek Beyond is a completely new adventure, one that takes place during the original five-year mission of the Starship Enterprise. It is without a doubt a strong step forward in establishing a universe. The purpose of creating an alternate timeline in the 2009 film was to open up the franchise, erasing what happened before and giving the writers a clean slate to create.
Simon Pegg and Doug Jung took the step that the Damon Lindelof didn’t and forged their own story. The story isn’t groundbreaking—the crew is sent into an uncharted nebula to rescue a lost crew only to find a danger beyond their imagination and must overcome incredible odds to save Starfleet. But given the past two films, Star Trek Beyond feels new.
The characters, save for Leonard “Bones” McCoy, also appear to be better rounded. This timeline’s Spock may still be the most the emotional Vulcan ever put on film, the decision to explore the struggle with his human side is more frankly compelling that his usual stoic characterization. Kirk is less sure of himself, more open to self-criticism, which also makes him more relatable.
This isn’t to say that the film spends much time developing characters—it is an action movie after all. And what an action movie it is. There is very little downtime. The film leaps from thrilling scene to thrilling scene, but at no point does it become repetitive. The film manages to satisfy the attention spans of both adults and children, with very little either group would find objectionable.
Of course, the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin casts a pall over the success of the film. His portrayal of Chekov was a major highlight of all three films and, as such, is absolutely irreplaceable. Yelchin already had an impressive career before his passing, including the lead role in this year’s sleeper horror film Green Room, and it’s easy to see that there was much more to come from such an impressive actor were it not for his terrible accident. It makes sense for J.J Abrams to not recast his role. But the franchise itself will continue.
Let’s hope it continues to boldly do so.