Star Trek Beyond is the Star Trek movie I’ve been waiting for from this new franchise.
It didn’t have to be good. Though I probably prefer 2009’s Star Trek slightly to this one, just because seeing the ensemble cast gel onscreen was amazingly fun, let’s be honest — that story was a total mess. Meanwhile, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness was a shambles on almost every level.
So Beyond, which arrives with a brand new creative team behind the scenes and seemingly a total lack of buzz, could have easily been a total flop.
Instead, it’s a surprisingly joyful throwback to everything that makes the Star Trek universe great. Does it have problems? To be sure. But in a summer filled with blockbusters that either take themselves too seriously or don’t try to tell a story, Beyond is a gleeful race through outer space, with a genuinely compelling (if easy-to-figure-out) mystery at its center.
Here are five ways Beyond honors Star Trek’s 50-year legacy while staying true to itself.
1) This story isn’t about space battles; it’s about exploration
Yes, this movie has a couple of great space battles (though the one that concludes the film’s opening section goes on way, way too long).
But for the most part, this is a story about the crew of the USS Enterprise finding themselves stranded on a mysterious planet, cut off from Starfleet and trying to figure out just who stranded them there. They’re even split up into little groups that allow for maximum character interplay and gags — having Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) be forced to hang out together turns out to be a master stroke, for instance.
This structure works beautifully. The characters need to work to find each other. Then they need to work to figure out just what force is keeping them on this planet. Then they need to find a way to stop that force from escaping and hurting anybody else — especially a giant star base within easy striking distance.
Goals lead to other goals, which lead to still other goals. And all along, the characters are bickering and bantering and figuring things out, showing off the easy chemistry the cast has built up over the past two movies. This sort of storytelling should be at the center of most blockbusters, but increasingly, big-budget flicks are overwhelmed by the need to chase spectacle. Star Trek Beyond offers spectacle (especially in its gigantic third act), but it takes the time to set up that spectacle, which makes it all the more potent when it hits.
Exploration, of course, has always been at the center of Star Trek, and many episodes of both the original series and The Next Generation focused on the Enterprise crew having to figure out what was up on some strange planet or another. Beyond nestles a classic Trek episode in between two examples of the big-screen spectacle that has defined the new film series. It’s a neat trick.
2) The story is a ringing endorsement of ’60s-era liberalism
The ultimate message of Beyond — that making peace is far more important than waging war — would be very much at home in Gene Roddenberry’s original series, which (I’ll point out again) debuted almost 50 years ago, in September 1966.
It feels like the sort of thing that the show — which believed in a future where human beings had eliminated all conflict and lived in perfect peace — sometimes struggled to overcome (since stories, uh, need conflict).
But Beyond explicitly builds its conflict around that idea, questioning whether a society ever could live without conflict, before deciding that even if that’s an unattainable ideal, it’s still one worth striving for.
A world in which human differences have been resolved and people work together in peace is presented not as something to be overcome in the name of big battles between starships, but as something that might someday become our norm.
Whether that works for you might depend on how enticing you find Roddenberry’s original vision. But it’s far more in keeping with that vision than either of the previous two films in this rebooted franchise.
3) The film tries to reflect the diversity of its era
Star Trek was famous for featuring in its cast black, Asian, and Russian characters — all examples of groups frequently demonized in 1960s America but represented as part of the tapestry of the series’ imagined future. Plus, there was the Vulcan Spock, who was the consummate outsider, able to metaphorically stand in for almost any ostracized or minority group when the story needed to speak more symbolically.
Does Beyond manage to reflect the diversity of 2016 as well as the original reflected 1966’s? Not really, to be honest, because it’s still largely bound to the original’s set of characters. (That ensemble, somewhat remarkably, features exactly one female character — in Uhura, here played by Zoe Saldana.)
Still, Beyond at least tries to diversify. It adds one new major character, Jaylah (played by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella), an alien who is also stranded on the planet the Enterprise crew winds up on. She ends up being the film’s main supporting female character, pretty much by default.
Meanwhile, the film also (somewhat controversially) decided to make John Cho’s Sulu gay, the first major LGBTQ character in the Star Trek universe.
These nods toward inclusion could feel perfunctory, but you don’t really notice it in the moment. Jaylah ends up being a terrific new character, the kind of helpful alien the original Trek crew used to run into frequently, and Boutella is an instantly appealing presence. The Sulu change affects far less, but it’s nice to see anyway.
4) Okay, yeah, there are flaws
It’s rare to find a Star Trek film or episode that doesn’t have some rough spots around the edges, and Beyond is no different.
An early space battle, which results in the stranding of the Enterprise crew, goes on for ages and ages. Plus, it’s shot by director Justin Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon in a way that seems to highlight the chaos of the moment, to the degree that the audience may have trouble figuring out where characters are in relation to one another.
Similarly, while the central mystery is fairly well-handled, its resolution — coming in the form of a bunch of exposition viewers will likely have figured out already — is deeply clumsy, simply dropped into the movie seemingly at random.
None of these flaws prove fatal to the film as a whole. It’s a little too resilient for that. But they stand out in contrast to the stuff that does work.
Lin’s other big action sequence, for instance, is staged impeccably, even as it seems to play with video game physics. (Get ready to watch Captain Kirk fly, more or less!) And the buildup to the mystery’s resolution is solid stuff.
5) The movie is about the weight of impossible legacies
As the movie opens, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, still playing the part with rakish cool) is feeling burdened by the weight of the Enterprise’s five-year mission to explore new worlds, which he’s smack-dab in the middle of. He’s now older than his father (who died in the first movie’s prologue) ever was, and he can’t figure out what his legacy to future generations will be.
The same could be said of the series itself. The shadow of the original series looms larger than ever over this reboot — especially in the wake of the death of original cast member Leonard Nimoy (who receives a touching tribute in the film). And this series’ Chekhov, Anton Yelchin, recently died at the too-young age of 27, which gives all of his scenes an even greater sense of melancholy.
But it extends beyond even those nods. The crew stumbles upon a downed Starfleet ship that deliberately echoes elements of the Enterprise from the 1966 TV series. There’s a lovely moment that glances toward the original cast. And the film’s message becomes a celebration of everything Star Trek has stood for (as I pointed out above).
Screenwriters Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung are big fans of Star Trek, and that shines through in nearly every frame of Beyond. This is not a perfect movie, but it’s a near-perfect Star Trek movie. And for many fans of this franchise, that will probably be enough.
Star Trek Beyond is playing in theaters everywhere. Bring your favorite Romulan.