The newly rebooted Star Trek franchise has been a bumpy ride. I absolutely adored the bright and fresh J.J. Abrams-directed 2009 Star Trek, which had a somewhat weak plot and an underwhelming villain, but more than made up for it with the origin story of its dual protagonists, Kirk and Spock. I didn’t think that Star Trek Into Darkness was an abomination from the bowels of hell like many fans did, but it sure was a sloppy convoluted mess of a movie that was a pointless retread of the original series’ most-loved film and brought absolutely nothing new to the table character-wise. When I heard that the third film would be headed by The Fast and the Furious director, I cringed, and when I saw the first loud, dumb trailer I cringed even harder. After seeing the movie, I’m happy to say that it’s far, far from the disaster I was anticipating, and in many ways an improvement on Into Darkness. Which is not to say it’s perfect as it comes with a set of problems of its own.
Beyond feels like the “Trekkiest” movie of these new series – until the big set pieces kick in, the start of the film feels like it could have been lifted from the TV series. It opens three years into the USS Enterprise’s five-year exploration mission, and the weight of monotony is starting to get to Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who contemplates whether there’s much point in exploring something that’s infinite, and looks for a way out. His best friend and First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), meanwhile, ponders his responsibilities to the decimated Vulcan race, and whether his duty is making Vulcan babies rather than staying with his human girlfriend Uhura. All this existential angst has to be put on hold when Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission inside an uncharted nebula near Yorktown, a massive space station that’s also one of the film’s truly eye-popping spectacles. The rescue turns into an ambush and the crew ends up separated and stranded on the alien planet, lorded over by the mysterious Krall, who is after an ancient relic that Kirk had obtained for an earlier diplomatic mission. Teamwork and survival anyone?
As in the earlier films, the chief pleasure of Beyond is its likeable cast, who at this point already feel like old friends, and the characters’ interactions. The first two movies revolved around the chalk-and-cheese dynamic of Kirk and Spock, which, as emotional and effective as it was in the 2009 film, started to feel worn in Into Darkness. Here, the writers wisely decide to change up the dynamics and concentrate on the highly amusing bickering between Spock and Bones, who are forced to rely on each other. Karl Urban was woefully underutilised in the previous film but truly shines here as the prickly doctor, and owns most of the film’s big laughs. Of the new characters, the most welcome one is Jaylah, a survivor of an earlier crash that Scotty (Simon Pegg) bumps into. With her mane of white hair and white-etched-with-black face, Jaylah is a striking alien beauty, and miraculously she feels like a real person without being either one-dimensional Hot Alien Babe or Generic Strong Female Character.
Where the film falters somewhat is the story and the villain. This is the third time in the series where the story centres around a bad guy with a grudge against the Federation who is bent on revenge, and it already felt repetitive in Into Darkness. For the majority of the running time, Krall is a fairly dull generic baddie and you wouldn’t even know that there’s Idris Elba buried beneath all that latex. There’s a very neat twist to Krall, but then the writers make a gross miscalculation holding off the reveal until the very end, when there’s no time for anything except the final action scene, and the interesting themes the movie touches on don’t have time to breathe. It’s a shame because the final reel, when Elba finally gets something to do, breathes a new energy into the movie that it didn’t have before and takes it up a level.
The weak story and villain still could have been a lesser issue had the movie served up some compelling character drama, but while the character interactions are always delightful there’s not much character development, as such, and little sense of personal stakes. Kirk’s crisis is resolved just as you’d think it would be, and Spock’s Vulcan dilemma feels like bookends that have little to do with the main story. There are a few times when the movie underdelivers on potentially emotional setups. We find out for instance that Sulu (John Cho) is in a happy relationship with a bloke and they’re raising a daughter together. While it’s nice to see a mainstream blockbuster acknowledge that gay people exist, it’s weird that the movie conveys no sense of personal stakes for Sulu when his loved ones are under attack at the end of the film. Likewise, there’s no real sense of arc or resolution to Jaylah’s story, even though the film alludes to the parallels between her father and Kirk’s that you kinda expect to come into play somehow.
Justin Lin’s directorial efforts are a bit of a mixed bag. He really gets the crew-is-family theme and the final climatic sequence is tons of fun, but there are also way too many chaotic, underlit action scenes that go on for too damn long (I couldn’t wait for Enterprise to crash already). I confess I really missed J.J. Abrams’ touch; he might have major issues with telling a coherent story but man can he inject his movies with fun and verve. Beyond is competent, but most of the action is not as exciting as it should have been, and most of the humour doesn’t land as well as it should have done. Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but there’s no escaping the nagging sense that this franchise is coasting on charm.
The tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were lovely and got claps from the audience who stuck around for the credits. Also, the use of Beastie Boys was kinda genius.