‘Star Trek Beyond’ Review | Officially Out Of Darkness
Fifty years ago, a vision of the future came into focus, one that appeared on television screens across the country, and eventually around the world. Created by Gene Roddenberry, the show called Star Trek was a sci-fi series set in the future, where humanity had overcome its primitive prejudices, and agreed as a species to work together for the betterment of society. It was a show that espoused unity, diplomacy, scientific discovery and ultimately friendship as the noblest of ideals. And it lingers in our collective consciousness because of those ideals, and because for the most part – except for some weird bits, like that one cowboy planet episode – it was a very well-written show.
Times change, and so did Star Trek. Spin-off series like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine attempted to tell complex stories about new and contemporary issues within the framework of Roddenberry’s original vision. And while it wasn’t always perfect, it was always Star Trek. The fundamental promise was the same, and the characters were still our friends on the outskirts of space.
But although the (relatively) recently rebooted Star Trek movies have attempted to discuss our modern cultural and political anxieties, there was something rather disturbing about the way those topics were being addressed. The new films relied on nostalgia instead of character development, demanding that we import our existing enthusiasm for the show and its heroes instead of telling new stories that reminded us of why we cared in the first place. And the attempts to tackle post-9/11 anxieties – especially in the aptly titled Star Trek Into Darkness – were uncomfortably confrontational, and at least arguably cynical.
Star Trek just didn’t feel all that much like Star Trek anymore. For a while.
The new film Star Trek Beyond is not the best Star Trek movie, but it is one of the most enjoyable ones. The film, directed by Justin Lin (Fast Five) and co-written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, presents the audience with a fast-paced, smart adventure in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise finds themselves outmatched by a new enemy, so then they band together to solve a series of suspenseful and exciting problems. It is not unlocking the secrets of the universe, and it is not a particularly potent allegory for our times. It is a rip-roaring sci-fi movie in which the characters do wonderful things, talk to each other about the topics that matter to them, and stand up for their values.
And that’s enough, this time. The original Star Trek films each had to seem like an event because they were competing with a multitude of low-budget television episodes. There needed to be a very good reason to transform a Star Trek story into a movie, such as the return of a mighty foe, or the quest to find God at the center of the universe. But without new episodes with the same cast and crew to compete with, or at least build from, the bombast of the last two Star Trek movies was exhausting and counterproductive. There was no time to simply hang out with these people, and to re-establish our connection to them as a group of colleagues and friends. Until now.
The plot kicks off three years into the five-year, deep space explorations of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel a certain malaise, because the close quarters, long days, and endless routine have set him and his crew a little on edge. But immediately after they dock at a massive, M.C. Escher space station for a much-needed break they are called back for one more mission, into an uncharted nebula, where a swarm of powerful spaceships destroy the Enterprise and send the crew rocketing down to an unknown alien planet. The whims of fate pair our heroes off in unlikely teams, like the diametrically opposed McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho), character who otherwise have hardly had any screen time together over the last 50 years.
Along the way they meet new life forms and strange enemies, and get the job done. The threat is big, but the tasks are manageable. Fix this thing, distract that thing, save that person, hide the gadget, save the universe. The crew of the Enterprise will prove that they are up to the challenge, even without the Enterprise to help them.
It’s strange that a film like Star Trek Beyond would feel like a quintessential Star Trek story, especially when you consider that this series has been behind some of the most memorable science fiction tales of the last 50 years. It’s a romp, really, but perhaps that’s what we needed right now. If every story is the most important story ever told, then every story starts to feel the same. Star Trek Beyond is a great piece of blockbuster entertainment, the sort of reassuringly good-natured thrill ride that makes the world a happier place for a couple of hours. That this new Star Trek can recapture the sense of wonderment and hope from the original series, even after all that darkness, is a beautiful thing.
Formally, Star Trek Beyond has a few storytelling problems. The villain, Krall (Idris Elba), is kept enigmatic for so long that his motives cease to be a mystery, and instead become a minor obstacle to our emotional and intellectual involvement. And when we do find out exactly how Krall came to be a threat to The Federation, it’s a bit underwhelming. And the climax is dynamically filmed but perhaps it’s a little too giggle-worthy. It’s honestly hard to tell whether the heroes’ plan to take out Krall’s armada is truly entertaining or just kind of silly, but either way, at least it’s fun to watch.
Star Trek Beyond does ultimately have a point: together we are strong, divided we are vulnerable, and only by setting aside our differences will we ever be at our best, as individuals or as a society. That’s a somewhat simplistic attitude, but it’s true, and what’s more that very simplicity is at the heart of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry imagined that we would become better people, that we would overcome our prejudices, and that we would make the universe a better place. A breezy adventure that enforces these attitudes and reassures us all that friendship can overcome the odds is entirely in-keeping with that philosophy.
They don’t all have to be The Wrath of Khan. They don’t all have to be The Undiscovered Country. Sometimes the can just be First Contact or Star Trek Beyond, fabulous tales of daring-do about awesome people doing awesome things, touching upon some philosophies but mostly just leading by example. Be better people, don’t let bullies win, and most importantly… live long and prosper.
Top Photo: Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.