Set your phasers to numb. There’s a lack of feeling in the Star Trek movie series despite how often the characters talk about their feelings. The current iteration of the big screen franchise, which began smashingly in JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot and then crashed in its pathetically recycled 2013 sequel, is too deep in its derivative devouring of past Trek narratives to break any new ground now. At best, it seems somewhat pointless, a pale imitation cannibalizing its own history.
The third movie in this current cycle, Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, is less of a disaster than the shameless Wrath of Khan ripoff Into Darkness, but it’s a clunky and slightly stupid attempt to get back to basics that also resembles something of an Insurrection copy. The 1998 Next Generation pic Insurrection is an odd one to crib ideas from, considering it’s hardly a respected entry in the series, but the similarities are significant.
Aping Insurrection is surely not as head-smackingly maddening as thieving from The Wrath of Khan, but it once again shows a lack of imagination and a strangely stubborn refusal to branch out with these stories when the only limiting factor should, in theory, be the edges of space.
Star Trek Beyond’s problems extend past its recycled elements and become indicative of the rebooted movie series’ precarious situation as a blockbuster with expectations. Abrams’ 2009 pic made action-heavy spectacle look good on the franchise’s otherwise contemplative brand of humanism, allowing Star Trek to become cool and favourable in the eyes of mainstream moviegoers. But Into Darkness made no sense, a ripoff to rile the faithful teamed with emotionally charged references that couldn’t be recognized by casual viewers.
Beyond wants to return to a smaller, more focused adventure story, one that could be lifted from the old tube TV screens that once played The Original Series a full fifty years ago. The aim is admirable, but the execution falls victim to current blockbuster practices when it tires of the intimate character-focused plot and opts for a generically exhausting third act that includes, predictably, a ton of explosions and a massive CGI city in peril.
It’s a rotten finish that lacks any considerable sense of fun or excitement, but it does include a segment where the heroes combat an armada of synchronized spaceships by blasting a Beastie Boys tune. Yup, this is what the franchise has come to. Give me Shatner conversing with pseudo-God in the much maligned The Final Frontier over this idiocy any day.
But Beyond is only truly terrible in that final chunk and even manages to be quite promising in the beginning. It eventually struggles because the movie is constantly pushing and pulling to be either bigger or smaller in scope than whatever the current sequence calls for. It can’t ever get into a decent comfort zone after the initial series of efficient reintroductions, which inform us that the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is three years into their five year mission and feeling a bit of malaise about their endless floating through space.
When they're called into action by a distressed individual claiming her crew is being held captive on a planet, Lin unleashes some of the best shots of the entire Trek reboot era. The warp drive has been visually redesigned to resemble a sort of underwater chute that the Enterprise can travel through. It's a stunning visual effect and one of the few moments where this series has achieved peak imagistic expression.
Robert Wise's 1979 movie that launched cinematic Trek raised the bar high for beautiful shots of space travel, inspired by the greatest space travel movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lin achieves another great image when the Enterprise leaves its space dock and the camera is affixed to the ship, sending us blasting out into the emptiness of space in precise unison with the crew.
Later, an attack on the Enterprise has an impressive immediacy that puts us inside the action. But then the regular Starfleet heroes end up splintered into different groups on the planet they've gone to investigate, which would be a decent way to give each character their own moment to shine if the plot didn't become so plainly pedestrian. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) get the best lines and exchanges, so the planet portion isn't without its lightly redeeming qualities. And Scottie (Simon Pegg, who also shares the screenplay credit with Doug Jung) teams up with a tough female alien named Jayla (Sofia Boutella, under an excellent makeup job), who has been stuck on this rocky planet for years.
These two duos provide much of the movie's comic relief, while Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is stuck with the villainous Krall (Idris Elba, looking like a particularly grim Ferengi offshoot), which basically means that her participation in the plot is reduced to being an expository sounding board for the antagonist to bounce his frustrations off of. Krall is as bland a villain as any a Trek pic has seen until he finally gets an emotional push that hints at some dramatic promise. Too bad that promise is snuffed out in the busy third act that reveals the villain's backstory amidst a bunch of busily boring digital effects.
The problems in Beyond are numerous and the positives rare, but it's still better to have middling Trek on the big screen than no Trek at all. As the series continues, there's always hope that it will eventually return to greatness. Abrams' first movie kicked off this reboot cycle in spectacular fashion, so there's hope yet for the future. Trek's issue is that, like other franchises, it's struggling to keep up with the times, to remain relevant by following the latest trends, but unlike other franchises, clamourous action has generally been a secondary focus at best for Trek pics.
Abrams' 2009 reboot succeeded because it tempered the digital spectacle with considerable thematic might that touched upon the franchise's legacy and passed the torch to the new cast. Into Darkness remained particularly Trek-ian only because it so shamelessly ripped off The Wrath of Khan. Beyond struggles to develop a personality and settles for increasingly generic set pieces in place of psychological adventure.
Star Trek can do cinematic action uniquely well, but Khan is Moby Dick and Naval warfare in space, whereas Beyond ends up looking and acting like any other blockbuster effort pumped through the current Hollywood system. Trek doesn't have to be intergalactic Melville all the time, nor Kubrickian ponderousness like Wise's movie, but it can certainly do better than bland destruction and clunky self-recycling. One of the main messages of this latest movie is that it's easy to get lost in the vastness of space. It's meant to refer to the characters, but it's a more fitting excuse for the series.