Following the exhilarating reboot of 2009's Star Trek, the franchise was set for a bold new direction. Star Trek Into Darkness squandered that promise, relying on shallow rehashing of better material. Early trailers for Star Trek Beyond suggested that the latest movie would be more of the same; a fun sci-fi actioner, but with little of the spirit or thought of Trek. It's a huge relief that the finished product, although far from perfect, proves to be one of the best Star Trek features to date, balancing action and excitement with strange new worlds and a message of hope and unity.
The movie begins with an unexpectedly humorous scene, one that has, with its comical CG creatures, more in common with Star Wars than Star Trek. There's no denying the influence that Star Wars has had on the current version of Trek, and while this opening is very enjoyable (and genuinely funny), I'm glad that it soon settles down into more Trek-like territory. Three years into their five-year mission, the crew of the Enterprise have become a close-knit family, but Kirk is questioning his role within Starfleet. While it's gratifying that the script acknowledges both the tedium of a long voyage, and the strengths and strains of a crew living together for so long, it does fall a little hollow. We've jumped directly from the launch of the mission at the end of Into Darkness to questioning its worth, without seeing any of that mission. Kirk notes to himself that his life has become “episodic,” and while that's a fun gag, it doesn't quite work without any actual episodes to to fill the gap.
Still, this is a better, nobler version of Kirk that we've previously seen in these films. Having finally gotten past his recklessness and irresponsibility – the lesson he learnt in both the previous films – Kirk is now wiser and more capable as a captain. However, with this new awareness has come a questioning of his role in life. As with his older self in the primary universe, Kirk is considering leaving shipboard action and taking a desk job, something we know he will come to regret. Much of this comes from his defining trait: his need to live up to his father's legacy. With the announcement that Chris Hemsworth has been signed to appear in the next movie, it's clear that this will continue to be a major part of the character. Chris Pine excels at portraying this more mature, more thoughtful version of Kirk.
It doesn't take long before the action kicks into high gear, with an astonishing sequence that leads the Enterprise to be torn apart by a fleet of “bees;” one-man fighter ships that rip through its hull and allow it to be boarded. Destroying the Enterprise is old hat now – this is, what, the fourth film to do that? - but by enacting it so early on, rather than as the climax, the dynamic of the story is changed. The Enterprise is a character in this movies, and her loss is felt keenly throughout. It brings another level of jeopardy and vulnerability to the characters, while splitting them up into small groups over an unknown planet gives us an interesting mix of interactions. Kirk is paired with Chekov for much of the action, allowing him to play the father figure to Pavel's young ensign. It's achingly sad to see Anton Yelchin playing the part, knowing how soon after he was killed. Obviously the creators of the film couldn't put anything in the script to commemorate him, in the way they so beautifully did for Leonard Nimoy, but there's a moment at the end, where Kirk mentions absent friends, that seems to linger on Chekov for a moment longer than everyone else.
Pairing Spock and McCoy is a stroke of genius; so obvious in hindsight, but the previous two instalments have failed to make the most of the fractious relationship between the two. Both Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban are spot on in their roles, making the most of a script that plays up to fond memories of the characters without ever descending into parody. John Cho's Sulu and Zoe Saldana's Uhura don't get as much of the limelight as their co-stars, but each owns their scenes. The new aspect of Sulu's character – his same-sex relationship – is actually a very minor part of the story, but a very welcome one, although I do understand why George Takei disagrees with it. I'm equally pleased that, while Uhura and Spock's relationship is a part of their story, it is not the dominant part of that story.
The surprising standout team of the movie is Scotty and new addition Jaylah. There's the definite impression that, making the most of his script-writing duties, Simon Pegg has given himself most of the best lines. Scotty is on top form throughout the film, with Pegg giving his best performance in the role, and has great chemistry with Sofia Boutella. Jaylah is a revelation; she could have been nothing more than an ass-kicking alien, but Boutella brings great sympathy and depth to the character, as well as excelling at the ass-kicking. What's especially gratifying is that this attractive female alien has no romantic subplot, and Kirk doesn't once come on to her. Another cast member worthy of special mention is Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Persian-American actress who plays Commodore Paris. It's good to see such a variety of ethnicity throughout the cast, with the production team taking the opportunity to cast non-white actors in major new roles.
The villain, though, lets the film down considerably, which sadly seems to be a pattern in recent blockbusters. There's no question that Idris Elba is an excellent, classy actor, who has a talent for rousing speeches, but as Krall, he spends too much time growling through overwhelming make-up. Krall had sounded, from initial descriptions, like a potentially interesting villain. The writers had described Beyond as an examination of the Federation, questioning whether it is in fact a force for unity, or a colonising power. Sadly, very little of this comes through in the finished film, with Krall's anti-Federation stance having a more prosaic and straightforwardly militant root. The villain's identity brings with it some twists, but even as more unexpected elements are revealed, the plot meanders in the action-oriented final third. That's if you've managed to avoid the final trailer, which blows much of the impact of the film's final twist. Even without that, it's underwhelming.
Visually, the film is an absolute treat. Most impressive is the gigantic space station, Yorktown, a vast city in space. It's a quite remarkable visual experience, and gives the film a major setting to put in peril without going back to Earth for the nth time. Both Yorktown and the Enterprise are populated by crowds of new aliens; indeed, apart from recurring characters and a couple of Vulcans, I don't think there's a single recognisable alien species to be seen. It's wonderful to see strange new worlds and new civilisations again. Combiningsome remarkable location work and visual effects, the planet Altamid that provides much of the setting for the film is also visually impressive. I'm also keen on some of the new conceits in Starfleet's technology. The new warp drive effect, while a departure from the star streak of the past, gives an impression that the ship is actually warping space. I also like the new universal translator, which translates and plays over alien languages instead of simply magically making the aliens speak English.
The script is peppered with references to the original series, and the series Enterprise (the history of the film's setting), but they are infrequent enough, and subtle enough, to not feel intrusive or contrived (apart from, maybe, the giant green hand). I'd be interested to read the original treatment, which was considered “too Star Trek-y” by the studio, and I'm still holding out for a modern take on the more thoughtful, philosophical side of Trek. (The just-announced Star Trek: Discovery may provide this wish, of course.) Nonetheless, Star Trek Beyond is a beautiful, exhilarating movie, brought to life by some excellent performances. While occasionally muddled, it has a strong, worthwhile message: that unity is better than division, and that we should embrace our differences, and that is Star Trek.