Space is no longer the final frontier in cinema. In fact it’s a bit passé.
Where’s Kubrick’s star-child once evoked the wonder of journeying into the unknown, science fiction has since placed its emphasis more on the inherent risks of interstellar travel. Lately — Gravity, The Martian — we haven’t even been making it out of the solar system. Star Trek’s mission, however, is, as it has always been these last fifty years, to boldly go.
Star Trek Beyond is the first film in the rebooted franchise to delve into the so-called “five-year mission”.
Now out among the stars, three years into active duty, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is struggling. The routine and repetition of day-to-day command aboard the Enterprise, and his lack of success as a diplomat, seems to have taken the luster off the search for new life and new civilizations. He’s even considering a promotion that would see him grounded(ish) on Starbase Yorktown, a giant space station that looks like the one from Elysium had sex with a snow globe.
Meanwhile, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is harboring doubts about his own future within the Federation following news of the death of his older self, Spock Prime (the late Leonard Nimoy).
A seemingly routine rescue mission quickly puts pay to further self-reflection, however, as an attack by a swarm of alien vessels, controlled by an unknown enemy, the guttural, contour-headed Krall (Idris Elba), scatters our heroes — a conveniently traversable distance — across the surface of an alien world.
Shot largely in Squamish, British Columbia, the jagged rocky surface of the planet through which, excluding the fir trees, definitely calls to mind the shot-in-a-quarry feel of much of the Original Series; as does the fairly bare-bones adventure of the plot. You can’t help but feel there might be a Gorn hanging around somewhere.
That being said, with no Tribbles and no KAAAHN!!!! (sic), Beyond is nowhere near as self-referential as its predecessor. Indeed, there’s a sense that this marks Star Trek moving beyond (sorry) its roots and trying to tell a new, if superficially familiar, story.
Justin Lin’s untethered camera has a habit of starting scenes upside down and barrel rolling 180° and there’s a definite playfulness here when it comes to gravity (the torus of the Yorktown has buildings converging from all directions; there’s a scene involving a novel way to jump-start a starship). Kirk is heroic (even if he never quite decisively wins a fight), Spock is stoic, Bones is grumpy, but this is a new story that’s being told — if a somewhat formulaic one.
The film’s script, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, neatly pairs off the crew; essentially creating a series of double acts, including Scotty (Pegg himself) and newcomer Jaylah (Soufia Boutellah), a tribal-marked, staff-wielding bad-ass.
Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are mostly sidelined for the (roughly two-hour) duration, though the former gets a nice line in defiance of evil and Sulu a moment of well-deserved cockiness (as well as a nice, if somewhat token, character development). Of the crew it’s arguably Chekov (the recently departed Anton Yelchin) who gets the least to work with in terms of character, but the unbridled energy and enthusiasm compensates for this.
There are a couple of moments in Star Trek Beyond that would seem to pay homage to their fallen colleague — one involving a symbolic glass, another a toast to absent friends — but this could simply be down to hindsight.
Despite the plot’s reliance on an unconvincing MacGuffin and the eleventh hour introduction of villainous motivation that adds nothing, Star Trek Beyond is a fast-paced, entertaining, and heartfelt work of blockbuster film-making. There’s wholesale destruction and death-defying set-pieces, but that a film surrounded by so much tragedy, before and after the fact, could be this hopeful, suggests a certain serendipity. By the time the Beastie Boys start blaring, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have trouble keeping a grin off your face.
If this is the formula, more of it, please. For now, though, whether there are humpback whales in the franchise’s future, Star Trek is assuredly in safe hands.