Star Trek Beyond is the third installment in the rebooted timeline of this long running franchise and it continues the streak of quality blockbuster entertainment that was so welcome in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Beyond is directed well by Justin Lin who directed some of the best films in The Fast and The Furious franchise and written by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, who also stars as Scotty. The main cast from the previous two films returns including Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and Zachary Quinto as Spock. As the third film in the Kelvin timeline, the cast’s chemistry is apparent as it always was, which is the true highlight of this film. The characters and their relationships take center stage and are the highlights of the film, even when there are fun action scenes and a solid villain named Krall (excellently portrayed by the incomparable Idris Elba) and a very cool climactic fight scene that plays with physics in an interesting way.
Star Trek Beyond is about the crew in their third year in their five year mission to explore space when they investigate a beacon and end up, through an intensely catastrophic event, on an unknown planet with their communications to the Federation and the rest of Starfleet cut off. The crew is scattered and must find their way back together to save themselves from a new enemy named Krall, whose dastardly plan could be disastrous to the whole crew and the Federation. That plot line sounds really straightforward and very simple as I wrote it and now as I read it out loud, but it is the basic plotline. Thankfully, the movie and most of the characters aren’t as simple as that plot synopsis. The strength of this film and the main reason why I enjoy this rebooted series of films are the characters, their relationships with each other and their personal arcs.
The film opens with a great montage with Kirk narrating his latest captain’s log in which he discusses relationships found on the ship and how the crew interacts with each other during their mission into the unknown while Kirk questions his purpose and his diminishing desire to follow his father’s footsteps. Kirk is lost, which is reflected in the crew being physically lost when they land on the alien planet. Beyond’s Kirk is more mature and a fully realized leader. Unlike the last two films, he is no longer learning what it means to be a leader, he just is one. Kirk’s arc is more interesting this time, as he doesn’t doubt his ability as a captain, but rather, he doubts his wants to be a leader. He is starting to lose the excitement of flying through space and exploring the unknown.
Spock too is questioning his purpose within the Federation. He and Uhura are experiencing relationship troubles and he receives some sad news about an old friend of his. These uncontrollable events weigh heavily on Spock’s typically stoic and logical mind, and so, like his friend Kirk, Spock starts to believe that he is no longer necessary to the Enterprise and becomes more concerned with the survival of the Vulcan race than his relationships with his friends and comrades. Spock’s fear for his endangered race is, like Kirk’s character arc, manifested physically when he crashes on the planet. I like that this film focuses on these internal struggles of the two men who are born leaders but struggle with that identity.
To the film’s strength, Simon Pegg’s and Doug Jung’s script wisely mixes up the characters to create new and refreshing interactions and dynamics. As the Enterprise crew is scattered, Bones and Spock team up and provide much of the film’s humor through their clashing personalities and behaviors, Kirk and Chekov team up and provide some action on the planet’s surface, Sulu and Uhura are together protecting the remainder of the crew while trying to survive and learn more about Krall’s evil plan. And then there’s Scotty and the film’s new heroine Jaylah.
Scotty is left on his own until he meets up with the other major new character, Jaylah, played by Sofia Boutella. Scotty is a fun character charmingly played by Pegg. Jaylah is a typical strong heroine who has learned to survive and can protect herself and is portrayed well by Boutella. And that’s kind of it in terms of character depth. She is a prototypical survivor in a hostile world. We learn about her backstory and why she is well equipped and why she finds herself lost on this planet like the Enterprise’s crew, but not much else. Her backstory is a little cliched and I wish Boutella was given a little more to do than kick a lot of ass and scavenge and mispronounce people’s names. She is a good character and I’m really happy she wasn’t relegated to the position of “potential love interest” (although there is in the background of one shot Chekov checking her out which got a big laugh from me), but I wish there was a little more originality in who she is as a person. She isn’t a bad character, she just didn’t stand out enough for my taste. But her alien design and makeup are incredible though.
Speaking of makeup, Idris Elba is in this movie! And as always, he is incredible. Elba’s cadence in his speech and how he moves and holds his body as Krall is great. However, through most of the film, I was worried that he was going to be another stock big bad, someone who is just out to destroy with no real motivation. And for the first two acts, I was really worried that was going to be the case. Outside of Elba’s performance and the literally explosive entrance Krall makes in the film, there didn’t appear to be any depth to his character. In a movie that worked hard to create new character dynamics and interesting arcs and pathos for the heroes, I was concerned that attention hadn’t translated to the villain. Then in the third act, the audience is told some very interesting information that completely changed my opinion on Krall and I immediately started to really dig Krall and his plan. The film purposely withheld the true intentions of Krall to build on plot and character development earlier in the film. The film actually improves act to act and is in a constant crescendo. The climax of the film is actually climactic and doesn’t play second fiddle to an earlier action sequence like other recent blockbusters (cough, X-Men: Apocalypse, cough).
Star Trek Beyond is a highly enjoyable science fiction adventure that presents new character dynamics, creates interesting character arcs for Spock and Kirk, and contains a new villain that is more complex than initially revealed. As good as many of the film’s characters are represented and developed, I wish Zoe Saldana as Uhura had more to do. She is a very natural and gifted actress who has one good fight scene and has a couple other fun scenes with Sulu as they try to investigate Krall, but she is often delegated to the supporting character who is threatened by the villain as the villain tells her parts of his evil plan and offs other no-name characters in front of her instead of actually harming her. Saldana’s iteration of Uhura is still strong and capable as a member of the Enterprise and she serves a role in the story with Sulu, but that role could have easily been exchanged with any other crew member. Unlike Spock and Kirk and Bones and Jaylah whose arcs are reflected in their physical predicaments, Sulu and Uhura exist mainly to learn about the plot but nothing about themselves. But with a cast this big in a film with so much happening from scene to scene, it’s only natural for some characters to fall to the side without the script support they deserve. For a film that does slow down a lot to focus on characters and the enjoyable interplay between them, I am disappointed not all of the main players had such solid development. Maybe next time.
As you can tell in this review, I’ve focused most of my review on the characters but there are great action and special effects in this movie too. Some of the hand-to-hand combat is shot using shaky close-ups too often for my taste, though there are shots showing Jaylah’s full fighting abilities that are shot cleanly and smoothly making me wish all of the hand-to-hand action was shot as such. The introduction of Krall is intense and the catastrophe of which he is capable is fully realized in that long and intense sequence. The makeup is great and I really love the design they used on Elba’s Krall. He is unrecognizable under all of the makeup effects but the makeup still allows his performance and emotions to shine through. His and Jaylah’s and all of the alien effects feel organic and never stiff.
Star Trek Beyond is a highly entertaining summer blockbuster that focuses on the characters and their relationships to each other and to the audience. The story isn’t as simple as it first appears and the action is exciting. I really appreciate how this franchise has balanced grand action set pieces with intelligently written character dynamics and arcs. The characters reign supreme in this rebooted franchise. When such care and love is placed into the characters, their arcs, their stories, and their franchise, then good films will be produced. Star Trek Beyond is one of those rare greatly entertaining and smart blockbuster films about characters we and the filmmakers love.