Directed by Justin Lin | Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the Gene Roddenberry TV series | 120 min | ▲▲▲△△
We start three years into the Starship Enterprise’s five year mission. That’s a clever reference to where the original show left off, three seasons in. This is also the third movie in the reboot started in 2009 by JJ Abrams, which relaunched the franchise cleverly using one of Star Trek‘s own conceits—parallel universes.
Then came Star Trek Into Darkness, which I wish I could just forget.
Now we’ve got Justin Lin—otherwise known as the Lin-sane director of the best of the Fast & Furious films—who’s never met a gravity-defying, spinning, or dancing camera move he doesn’t like. At least he’s less addicted to lens flares than his predecessor.
His new film fixes a lot of the problems of the last one. It puts the crew out in space on a planet facing overwhelming odds, a horde of craggy-forehead aliens in a swarm of ships. It’s not some kind of direct attempt to recreate a movie we’ve seen before, as much as you can say that about a rebooted franchise. It’s also a disorienting, breathless ride which too often would rather blind us with science—or top-class CGI—than let the story breathe.
James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is having an existential crisis, struggling with being the captain of a starship. His number one, Spock (Zachary Quinto), is dealing with relationship troubles and the death of his older self—the original, Ambassador Spock. It’s a smart move, recognizing the character’s and implicitly Leonard Nimoy’s death, too. This while the Enterprise finds its way to the enormous artificial space city Starbase Yorktown to restock the pantry, before going on a rescue mission into a nearby nebula, instead finding Krall (Idris Elba), a villain with a real beef against the Federation.
The production budget is all up on the screen, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the design, from the Dubai-shot scenes at the Yorktown to the terrific score by Michael Giacchino to the Clan Of The Cave Bear-inspired look of the very cool alien warrior, Jaylah (Sophia Boutella). There’s also an excellent use of a particular hip hop number that was spoiled in one of the trailers. It works much better in the movie as a plot point.
But frequent problems span the running time, too: Aside from the frenetic pace and dizzying camerawork (made worse by more pointless 3D) that renders the final space battle and fight sequence all but incomprehensible, we’ve got some awkward, exposition-heavy dialogue—though, granted, that’s hard to get away from in most iterations of Star Trek. Plotholes distract, including a ship hidden by a holographic projection from a character who, we discover later, would have known all along where it was and if it had disappeared, would probably have wondered why.
It’s also thematically about as substantial as tissue paper. We get some odes to strength in unity in between fighting, running, and jumping, but the opportunity for something that feels like real talk comes too little too late when we finally get the story behind Krall’s hatred of The Federation and Starfleet. Elba is great as an elemental force of vengeance, but it’s hard to miss that the tale of Krall and the legend of Khan Noonien Singh are very much the same story. Maybe if the producers of this franchise keep spinning the same yarn over and over—like destroying the Enterprise one more time—it might one day be as good as what went before, but I doubt it. It says something that the past few Star Trek movies have been so rooted in nostalgia while attempting to continue a series all about optimism for the future. There’s something annoyingly conservative about it.
The movie gets the humour right, for which we should probably credit co-writer Simon Pegg, with a bunch of targeted gags landing well, especially in scenes with Dr McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock.
It’s hard to argue with Star Trek Beyond‘s popcorn credentials, and it’s certainly better than the last instalment. But this Trek still has light years to go before it feels like canon.