Beyond darkness. Beyond logic. Beyond hope. The latest Star Trek film zooms beyond at hyper speed, rarely pausing to strike a Thinker’s pose. (Though it would rather like you to think it does.) Whereas Auguste Rodin’s bronze baby heralds contemplation, Star Trek Beyond plows through any fleeting semblance of intelligence like a horde of metal space bees engaged in kamikaze. Failing to ruminate on why audiences ought to care one iota about its disposable, busied antics. Hurrying from one expense-sheet-filling green-screen scuttlebutt to the next. Over-relying on character relationships that are age old but still skin-deep. Just another blockbuster puffy with CG steroids that’s lacking a brain, passing off sentimentality as heart and blahly going where we’ve all certainly been before.
Like a Kia Soul stuffed full of anthropomorphic hamsters, the newest Trek imports Justin Lin from the ever-popular Fast and Furious, shoehorning the Taiwanese director into the captain’s chair of the beloved sci-fi mainstay. It’s an odd fit – not as uncomfortable as Anastasia cramming into a glass slipper but the analogy is fitting and the imagery rich – and is one that should prove suggestive of the tone Beyond aims for.
Lin is no stranger to vaulting beefy action figures and souped-up vehicles across the screen at high velocities so his transition from Nitrous Oxide Systems to Warp Speed makes sense on paper. For all intents and purposes, the Fast franchise morphed from being a racing movie to a superhero assembly under his purview and he lends a similarly larger-than-life decadence to the proceedings of Star Trek Beyond.
This ain’t your grandfather’s Star Trek, Lin is intent on reminding his fist-pumping, spectacle-addicted audience. Employing Public Enemy and Beastie Boys as sonic proof of its modernity and staging erratic action sequences that, try as they might, ultimately fail to engage because they, like the entirety of the galactic fleet, are ungrounded. Lin’s set pieces, more often than not, serve to underscore Beyond’s stilted forward movement. They exist as if only to prove money was indeed poured into the franchise. Lin is so busy headbanging to his own protest music that he forgets to actually craft an adventure worth investing in. He rages against the machine without giving an alternative cause to care for.
Following in the footsteps of J.J. Abrams aggressively underwhelming Star Trek into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond wipes the slate clean. It forgets the cure-all of magical tribble blood, sidelines the perpetually undressing Alice Eve and launches the USS Enterprise into deep space. Gone are the missteps and mistakes of Darkness, in their place a series of new haunts ready to underwhelm and frustrate and bore and pull one’s hair out over.
We come across Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in the midst of a five-year mission into deep space, as good a place as any to dwell on one’s place in life. Having now outlived his father and inundated by countless benign peacekeeping assignments, Kirk’s true north – an especially tough concept in the infinite abyss of space – is a bit screwy. The young captain addresses the elephant before it arrives in the room. “Everything has begun to feel a bit episodic,” he notes to his Star Log. The cutesy wink from screenwriters Simon Pegg (who also plays Scottie) and Doug Jung aptly serves as the most condensed possible review of Star Trek Beyond. “It feels a bit episodic.” Roll it. Print it. Done.
The latest Trek has garnished many comments claiming Lin’s work resembles an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s creation and I take it most mean that as mild praise. To me, Beyond’s strengths lie not in its disposable plotting – which sees yet another violent race of plastic-faced beings intent on taking down the peace-brokering Federation – or its stretching of what could have been a third-minute episode into a two hour blockbuster but rather in its consistent reshuffling of its characters, fine-tuning and reworking what makes each character interesting.
Beyond works best when it revels in the character dynamics. When Scottie (Pegg) stumbles into success working alongside newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). When Spock (Zachary Quinto) fails to gel socially, be it with polar opposite Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, who’s essentially now playing franchise second fiddle) or in the world’s-least-sexually-charged-romance with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). When Chekov (RIP Anton Yelchin) is naively optimistic, scurrying to fix a tech issue, while Kirk is skimming his single malt.
Grounded in years of canon and whittled into new-fangled shapes and sizes with the last two pictures – Sulu (John Cho), for instance, has taken on a male companion – camaraderie is Beyond’s engine. Its precise warp drive. But, as Pegg’s Scottie will regrettably admit, even that too breaks down from time to time. Kirk and Spock’s relationship – which has been the driving force of this iteration of Trek – is absentee if not entirely extinct. And when the character dynamics don’t work, Beyond gets uglier than Worf’s forehead after a sunburn.
The crowbar splitting the crew literally and metaphorically is Idris Elba’s Krall and his army of space “bees”. Krall functions as yet-another-disposable villain in a summer brimming with them and Elba’s performance is sucked into the self-self vortex of “diverse cast member plastered in makeup”, a black hole from which little charisma is able to escape. His apocalyptic mission, thinly motivated and familiar as the names Kirk and Spock. His life-extending powers, cliched and inconsistent. It’s enough to suck the life out of the more discerning members of the audience.
When the second act crash-lands on an uncharted planet, the crew of the Enterprise are parsed into ragtag cliques. The momentum hangs there, as if in zero gravity, and Beyond starts building the case for the insanity plea that is the logic of its last 30 minutes. Lin lends his eye for chaos and thirst for immolation as Krall and Kirk do space battle that sees weaponized music, flying humanoids and a plot to snuff out the opposition that makes as much sense as swatting a fly with a baseball bat. Which I guess makes sense considering Lin’s approach to Star Trek is much like Gallagher’s to comedy or Hulk’s to inquisition: smash first and ask questions later.
CONCLUSION: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ is featherweight science fiction fare content not using its noggin that is as hectic as it is – to quote the time-honored Spock – illogical. Marginally better than its predecessor, Justin Lin’s take on the Trek universe suffers an underwhelming villain and too many ridiculous plot points to repeat though admittedly benefits from its strong cast and their engaging repartee.