Star Trek Beyond
Directed by Justin Lin
Opens July 22
Everything old is new again. Yet life exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations has become “episodic.” So says Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) near the start of the not unpleasant yet still eminently forgettable Star Trek Beyond. To boldly go where no man has gone before is not for a property so culturally and economically exploitable. Recycle. Reboot. Recast—though not, according to producer J.J. Abrams, in the case of the late Anton Yelchin, energetic and endearing as ever in his unplanned final appearance as Ensign Pavel Chekov.
Playing it safe means you’ve seen it all before; would that you could say the same for director and Fast and Furious series mainstay Justin Lin’s action scenes—all shaky-cam and CGI-augmented blur, filmed so close to the performers you can barely make out, let alone appreciate, the gravity-defying escapades. Story-wise, Beyond might be as superfluous in its way as the Next Generation entry Insurrection (1998), though Idris Elba (even under tons of prosthetics) makes for a comparatively more imposing villain than girly-scream-prone F. Murray Abraham.
Elba plays Krall, the apparently alien ruler of an outpost!…on the edge!…of space!, and he’s harboring a massive grudge against the Federation. Thinking they’re answering a distress signal, Kirk and company are instead attacked by Krall’s insectoid-like army. The Enterprise is ripped apart and the crew is stranded, in disparate and desperate pairs, on the planet below. This allows for Kirk and Chekov to have some bonding time, Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) to witness Krall’s cruelty first-hand, and McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) to work through their personal issues. (Let no man deny the humor inherent in a Vulcan saying “horseshit.”)
And what of chief engineer Montgomery Scott (film cowriter Simon Pegg)? He teams up with zebra-striped survivalist extraterrestrial Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). She’s been hiding from Krall in a Starfleet ship that crashed many years before, and the vessel will prove integral to saving the Federation from destruction. All it’s gonna take—once the Enterprise crew works it way back together—is a little technical TLC, a rousing speech or two about teamwork, and an on-the-nose, if still fairly satisfying Beastie Boys needle-drop.
That the good guys will triumph is never in doubt, so there’s a sense through much of Star Trek Beyond that everyone is just going through the space opera motions. It’s therefore up to the cast, with their undeniably well-oiled chemistry, to stand out amid the prevized sturm und drang, and to forward the humane optimism of Star Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry. Yet even on that level the film is an extremely mixed bag. The casual revelation that Sulu is raising a child with his same-sex partner, for example, plays less like a genuinely progressive gesture and more of a focus-grouped sop to a fanbase increasingly populated by Generation Hashtag.
Tellingly, the most moving part of the new Trek is when it looks to the past, as Quinto’s Spock deals with the news that the alterna-timeline Spock Prime (the late Leonard Nimoy) has died. Among the elder Vulcan’s personal effects is a photo of the Enterprise crew in their Bill Shatner-led glory days. Younger Spock looks at the image wistfully, contemplatively. In the moment, the wisdom of putting away childish things, or to at least follow Fran Lebowitz’s dictum that the next generation’s job is to “do something new,” seems self-evident. But the feeling quickly fades, swallowed up by the implication, as the credits roll, that there’s much more of the same to come. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a Vulcan, or a viewer, think like a human.