There’s a line on the new Star Trek movies, one I have used myself, that they don’t really belong in the Star Trek family. They are STINOs, Star Trek in Name Only. That what makes Star Trek unique is the cerebral nature of Starfleet’s mission, and the intellectual curiosity of the Enterprise’s crew. What J.J. Abrams has done to the series, this line follows, is dumb down the property that was once known for smart, high-brow sci-fi.
But I have come to realize in recent days that is all bullshit. This notion of Star Trek as mentally rigorous and not dependent upon action and brawn is true of exactly one Star Trek property: Star Trek: The Next Generation. The rest of Star Trek, the original TV show, the ensuing films, and the post-TNG series, have been mostly about space battles and weird/fun alien races and James T. Kirkian philosophy.
The world of Star Trek is heady at times, but it is brawny, too. And lovers of TNG (like myself) should just accept that what J.J. Abrams built in the Star Trek reboots is just as Star Trek as any other Star Trek.
Which brings us to Star Trek Beyond. The third installment in the most recent reboot of the franchise, this time directed by Justin Lin, fits snugly into the Star Trek Family tree right at the roots. This is as close to the original TV-show Star Trek as any of the films have been since before Picard became Captain.
It has all the parts of a classic Star Trek saga. Beyond starts with Kirk and his crew interacting with a funny alien race, before introducing a philosophical quandary for Kirk and Spock that carries them into the action. Beyond features Kirk and his crew facing off against a stock Star Trek villain (bad guy wants revenge against Starfleet because ________, played vivaciously by Idris Elba). The film also sees Kirk and his crew enlisting the help of a beautiful alien woman, and Kirk and his crew (SPOILER ALERT) all manage to survive this cataclysmic threat, in order to boldly go where no one has gone before for at least one more film (recently announced!)
There are some updates on the traditional themes. In Beyond, the beautiful alien woman, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) kicks ass, is never hit on by Kirk, and never becomes a romantic love interest. John Cho’s Sulu is now gay, a change that was far more momentous online than in the film itself (seeing John Cho in a Justin Lin directed film, by the way, did make me wish I was watching the director’s excellent debut, Better Luck Tomorrow. If you haven’t seen it, do so). Overall, though, we are dealing with the classic, traditional Star Trek beats. All the nostalgia shows up: Kirk is Kirk, Bones is Bones, and Scottie says “reroute the power” about a dozen times.
But what that adds up to is a movie that is, quite frankly, beyond comprehension.The screenplay, written by Simon Peg and Doug Jung, is full of good jokes and worthy one-liners; but they serve a story void of dramatic tension or interest or coherence. That Spock and Kirk both have existential crises in the film’s opening act provides plenty of opportunity for a lost in space quandary. But that’s all left behind for the more important part of the franchise: cool shiny stuff and badass action scenes.
Despite all the franchise complaints and story problems, this movie is really damn cool.
Beyond might be the most visually dazzling Star Trek story ever made. Justin Lin understands action directing and has a visual command in his filmmaking that rivals the best of Hollywood’s big-budget franchise directors. His vision of Yorktown, the giant space station that defies gravity in every sense of the word, is disorienting and totally awe inspiring. Which pretty much sums up Star Trek Beyond. Did I understand it? Not really, but it was still an awesome experience.
Note: Watching Beyond brought heavy hearts throughout the theater when Anton Yelchin’s Chekov appeared on screen. Yelchin was a talented young actor with many great roles ahead of him. His death was a tragedy, and it was felt in Beyond.