If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably forgotten (several times) that the third installment of the Star Trek reboot series was coming out this summer. Couple this with a truly horrendous marketing campaign that looked nothing like Star Trek, and you’ve got the makings of a bona fide series-ending disaster.
Well, I was very wrong indeed.
“Star Trek Beyond” – helmed by “Fast and Furious” veteran director Justin Lin – is to the rebooted Star Trek series what “Skyfall” was to the Daniel Craig string of James Bond films – a joyous throwback to a simpler era of moviemaking, successfully stripped of any overwrought franchise deadweight.
The storyline is vintage Star Trek in its purest form: a ship goes missing in an uncharted nebula, and the crew of the Enterprise must investigate. They promptly find themselves shipwrecked on a dangerous planet, where they must contend with a megalomaniacal villain who plans to start an interstellar war.
Despite the familiarity of these tropes, “Beyond” doesn’t come off as derivative or hokey. Actually, it’s rather pleasant to see an adventure story told with refreshing earnestness. It’s become commonplace for blockbuster scripts to be little more than a series of snarky one-liners on the parts of the protagonists (Marvel is the chief offender here), which leads to some cognitive dissonance when nonstop humor is juxtaposed with apocalyptic destruction. This mismatch produces a distinct narrative weightlessness: everyone in the audience knows the status quo will remain more or less undisturbed, no matter how catastrophic the explosions onscreen. That isn’t the case in “Beyond”: characters react to dire circumstances with an appropriate gravitas that, at the same time, never comes off as too self-serious.
Artistically, “Beyond” delivers on all fronts. The effects are great and (in general) don’t overwhelm character development. Happily, director Lin tempers his action-junkie impulses and lets his actors actually talk to one another, which lends “Beyond” an unexpected resonance. And somewhat along these lines, I’m pretty sure many of the alien characters are real people in prostheses rather than motion-capture creations – an artistic decision which does the film a great service. Star Trek has a very different aesthetic from Star Wars, and previous franchise director J.J. Abrams sometimes elided the distinction. The third act of “Beyond” goes a bit overboard with generic CGI pyrotechnics, and there’s a missed opportunity for some thought-provoking engagement with themes of colonialism and culture, but these are minor gripes.
In addition to being a great summer action flick, “Beyond” is a testament to the virtue of purging extraneous worldbuilding; mercifully, it’s not jammed full of setup for future installments. This makes complete sense and is an approach more franchises should adopt: if there’s a new Star Trek movie, I will be happy to see it even if it doesn’t tie in directly to its predecessors. The one-off storytelling approach taken by “Beyond” is vastly preferable to the dense muddle that was “Into Darkness.”
In short, even if Star Wars is more your thing, go see “Beyond.” It’s simply too much fun to pass up.
Ignore the bad advertising: “Beyond” is the most enjoyable blockbuster of the summer.
Addendum: I shelled out some extra cash to see this in IMAX 3D at the monster-sized Smithsonian Air and Space Museum theater. It was worth every penny.