If you’re looking for a witty workplace sitcom set on a futuristic starship, the latest exploits featuring the crew of the Enterprise, Star Trek Beyond, won’t disappoint. But it has to be asked: Is that really why most of us go to see a Star Trek film? The third installment since J.J. Abrams seamlessly rebooted the beloved sci-fi franchise seven years ago, Beyond is more fun than deep. It’s lightweight, zero-gravity Trek that is, for the most part, devoid of the sort of Big Ideas and knotty existential questions that creator Gene Roddenberry specialized in. You could argue that the philosophical, political, and sociological subtext is what always set his universe (and its big- and small-screen iterations) apart from other tech-heavy space adventures. Maybe that’s why Beyond feels slightly insubstantial.
Say what you want about Abrams, who directed the last two Trek movies, but he’s always been Hollywood’s savviest and most attuned makeover artist. Whether he was spit-polishing the Mission: Impossible saga in M:I III or course-correcting Star Wars with the what’s-old-is-new The Force Awakens, he’s always had an intuitive grasp of the hearts and minds of diehard fanboys and girls. He knows what they want and gives it to them. Abrams is just a producer this time around. The directorial reins have been passed to Justin Lin, a giddy, rock’em, sock’em daredevil best known for helming the best of the Fast & Furious films. And maybe that’s the problem. He’s a maestro of visceral thrills and giddy superficiality, but that’s always been a secondary or tertiary concern with Trek. It also might not have helped that Beyond‘s script was co-written by Simon Pegg — an unassailably zealous Trek disciple who moonlights on-screen playing engineer Scotty, but whose behind-the-scenes credits skew towards the comedic. In Beyond, Lin brings his action chops and Pegg the back-of-the-classroom humor, but what’s missing is something that’s harder to manufacture: soul.
As the new film kicks off, Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is on a diplomatic mission with a hostile council of pint-sized aliens that goes awry in slapstick fashion. And even though Pine has gotten better and better at capturing William Shatner’s tongue-in-cheek Shatnerness with each outing, it’s an ominously shaky start. It plays more like a lost scene from Galaxy Quest than Trek. When he returns to the Enterprise, Kirk explains through voiceover that after a long haul in deep space, he and the rest of the crew are mired in a bit of a funk. The aimlessness of their five-year mission has resulted in a sort of spiritual drift, a malaise. Crewmembers with too much time on their hands have been swept up into workplace romances, spats, and a general loss of purpose. What they desperately need is an assignment with stakes.
And shortly after docking at a glitzy new Federation starbase, they get one. A female alien, who sent an urgent distress call reporting that her ship’s crew had been attacked and taken hostage by a hostile warrior race led by a barking, belligerent figure named Krall, needs their assistance. Since the baddie is played by Idris Elba (virtually unrecognizable at first beneath heaps of reptilian latex and putty), our hopes are raised. It’s up to Kirk and Co. to take him down. As the familiar faces saddle up (Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, Karl Urban’s Bones, and the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov), the Enterprise navigates through an awe-less nebula and squares off against Krall, who’s after some mysterious alien weapon of mass destruction that might as well just be called “The MacGuffin” or “The Whatzit.”
Without treading into spoiler territory, the crew of the Enterprise beam down to their new enemy’s planet and are partnered off into teams of two to all play their part in thwarting the barking, avenging Krall. But you begin to wonder, What is Krall avenging? Where’s his Khan speech? Being hip to his motivation might have helped up the stakes of the story. But it isn’t revealed until way too late in the film. Meanwhile, the “Big Ideas” found in the best chapters in the Trek canon are nowhere to be found. Instead, what we get are mini-arcs of character development: The on-again/off-again romance between Spock and Uhura; the love-hate bond between Bones and Spock; the subtle and well-handled revelation that Sulu is gay (no surprise to anyone tracking Trek news lately… but it’s still a resonant moment). These are, by far, the best moments in Beyond. After so many missions spent with the crew of the Enterprise, it’s interesting for fans to get a glimpse into their lives beyond the bridge. And even some new faces, such as Sofia Boutella’s kabuki-skinned alien she-warrior Jaylah, are well drawn and exciting additions.
Ultimately, Beyond is a movie about characters — and character. But that’s half the battle. The other half of the battle is… battle. And Lin, who has such a strong track record with vehicular mayhem, doesn’t bring his “A” game. The entire rescue mission turns out to be a bit of a bust — and kind of a silly one too, with eye-rolling, rib-nudging anachronisms that feel totally out of place in this franchise. The music of Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys turns up on the soundtrack in ways that, I suspect, will give some strict-constructionist Trekkers a cardiac infarction. And Kirk jumps on the back of an antique 20th-century motorcycle at one key moment to go all Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. (As an aside, this is the second time in the last three films when Pine’s Kirk either gets behind the wheel of a Detroit muscle car or on top of a chopper. Once, I can buy. Twice, just seems… weird. I get that maybe Pine likes going fast on cool old-school toys, but this is supposed to be the 23rd century. Maybe he needs to exercise this passion in a different, more contemporary franchise).
I don’t want to sound too nit-picky and churlish. But the Trekverse is something that really means something to people. For them, Beyond is a fine movie, it’s just not a very good Star Trek movie. After all, as summer releases have gotten more and more and sensational and trivial, the Trek franchise could always be counted on to serve up some smarts along with its sci-fi action beats. With Beyond, it feels like just another summer tentpole with not enough going on underneath the tent. C+