Star Trek Beyond (2016) Review

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JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is one of the best blockbusters in recent memory. Simultaneously a sequel, prequel and reboot, it was a perfect example of each. It remains fantastic, but any momentum the reinvigorated franchise had following it slowed considerably when 2013 sequel Into Darkness failed to build on the promising new starting point.

The reboot set up a fantastic new cast to go on their own adventures, and itself told an original story while introducing them. For Into Darkness to go back and harvest the past for no more than a little marketability was incredibly disappointing, and the film itself was a hash of messy plotting.

Beyond needed to be better not only because two disappointments in a row is often enough to sink a series, but because its release falls during Trek’s 50th anniversary. Paramount needed to release a film to mark this momentous milestone, but their efforts to make sure it happened hit problems early on.

Abrams was lured to a different galaxy – far far away – to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and on top of that, the script wasn’t coming together as expected. Enter Justin Lin – best known for directing multiple entries in the Fast and Furious series – and Simon Pegg, who plays Enterprise engineer Scotty.

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Lin took up the director’s chair amid some unfair (and on evidence of the final product unwarranted) criticism, while Pegg penned the script with Doug Jung. That Beyond works at all after the hast of its pre-production is quite an achievement. That it works as well as it does while also paying tribute to the series and all that has maintained its success – that’s truly impressive.

Beyond starts fantastically, with the Enterprise crew three years into its five-year mission and, well, bored out of their minds. Captain James T Kirk is pondering the meaning of it all and his desire to continue as captain, while Spock is brought tragic news that has him questioning his mortality and whether or not he wants to continue to serve aboard the Enterprise.

The pair are Star Trek’s central characters, but share little screen-time in this film. This is thanks to Pegg and Jung’s script, which mixes things up by creating unexpected pairings during the second act after the Enterprise crew is stranded on an alien world. Chris Pine’s Kirk winds up with the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is paired with John Cho’s Sulu and Karl Urban’s Bones is paired with Zachary Quinto’s Spock.

It’s the latter pairing that delights most. Bones and Spock bicker continually, forming (or at least displaying to the audience) an unexpectedly touching friendship. Quinto is as good as ever, but Karl Urban really makes the most of his larger role, having given serious thought to quitting the series following Into Darkness.

Star Trek Beyond is decidedly light on character work of real depth, which takes the edge of the dramatic stakes it sets up. The first two films were so focused on Kirk and Spock that it is refreshing not to have that pairing brought to the fore again, but it’s a shame that the other characters are so under-written – particularly Sulu and especially Uhura. Saldana deserves a lot better than this series has been able to offer her.

The crew interacts with just a few other characters. Chief among them is Sophia Boutella’s alien survivor Jaylah, who is thankfully given enough to work with and just barely saves the film from becoming a boy’s own adventure. If her character is to return, and the door is certainly left open, I’d like to see where they could take her.

Boutella fits in well in a cast that has a tried and tested chemistry that makes scenes with all of them a delight. Pegg and Jung’s script has plenty of laughs to serve this rapport, including a particularly unexpected one during a scene that toes the line between stupid and ridiculous before turning into an utter joy.

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As you’d expect from Lin, the action scenes are thrilling. An early, well-publicised scene in which the Enterprise is destroyed is an easy highlight that grows in tension and excitement as the ship is completely torn apart. The length of the scene works to its advantage too, driving home the total carnage that separates the crew.

It’s in this scene that we meet Idris Elba’s villain Krall – a character who is only defined after a final act revelation, so until that point feels decidedly one-note despite the mystery. The late arrival of this plot twist means there’s little chance to delve into what it means and how it relates to our heroes, and that proves a prime example of the film’s shallowness.

Beyond is certainly well made, a lot of fun and boasts good performances, but it won’t leave a lasting impression. It pays homage to the original TV series very well in both set up and in one particular scene with some cheap-looking scenery straight out of the 60s – though it’s hard to tell just how intentional this was.

If it isn’t about particular characters, then Beyond is certainly about them all as a group. Themes of unity, harmony and peace ring throughout the film, and are particularly fitting in such divisive times. Gene Roddenberry’s series has  been about the same things. The irony for Beyond then, is that ultimately it just feels a bit… episodic – like its episode 16 in a 24 episode season of television.

Star Trek Beyond is light, breezy and revels in the glorious weirdness of pulpy science fiction, but doesn’t quite have the depth of meaning that would lend it the required urgency in its climatic scenes.

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