Does ‘Star Trek Beyond’ work without Abrams?

Date Night | 22 Jul, 2016 |

Star Trek Beyond boldly goes where many filmmakers have gone before, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

As a film critic sometimes I have to know when to be skeptical. For example, I loved J. J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek. But when I saw that Justin Lin — the testosterone vehicle behind four of the eight Fast and Furious movies— was directing the third film in the series, I lowered my expectations accordingly.

But with low expectations often comes great reward — or in this case, good reward. Star Trek Beyond is far and away the simplest of the three, and while it doesn’t strike the near-perfect mix of nostalgia and shiny new thrills that 2009’s Star Trek did, its fun blockbuster heart is undeniable.

The narrative, which is clearly never Star Trek Beyond’s main focus, stumbles into clichés on a Marvel movie scale. There’s a blue-faced, gravely voiced villain looking for missing pieces to a weapon of mass space destruction so that he can enact revenge on humanity because of a to-be-dramatically-explained grudge.

The crew of the USS Enterprise has a weapon piece; cue the plot.

Star Trek Beyond often feels like a TV episode three fourths of the way through a season of the classic Star Trek: it’s far enough in the season to tell high-stakes stories and kill off a lot of Red Shirts, but not close enough to the season finale for anything game-changing to occur or for major characters to undergo real transformation.

Simon Pegg, serving a dual role as both Scotty and screenwriter, understands this balance for the most part. The screenplay is breezy and swelling with witty banter, genuinely capturing the spirit of the original TV show. His efforts at displaying character growth fall flat however, seemingly because this is not the movie for it. In order to have Star Trek 4, the crew must more or less end up in the same place they began. As such, otherwise significant conversations deflate into a series of meaningless platitudes.

The ensemble cast knows their characters closely by now though. Even if the members of the USS Enterprise don’t have room to deepen as human beings and other species, they’re still a blast to watch interact with each other. The feud between Bones and Spock never grows old; Captain Kirk’s still an inspiring leader with some playfulness left in him. Each primary member of the cast does a solid job, but if I had to pick a standout, Sofia Boutella (as Jaylah) establishes herself among the known faces with finesse.

In an obvious effort to prove me wrong, Star Trek Beyond’s greatest asset is Justin Lin’s action direction. Dear almighty, the space fights in this film are fantastic. Lin has developed a keen eye for pacing a breathtaking action sequence, and he does so three or four times over the duration of this movie. The final battle is easily the best in the reboot series — maybe even the franchise, in visual terms. Its use of a certain “classical” song is pure sci-fi genius.

Star Trek Beyond wraps up too neatly, avoiding risks until the bitter end, but the final product is an exciting romp and a step up from Star Trek Into Darkness. Its one humble attempt at nostalgia rings pitch perfect as well.

Rest in peace, Anton Yelchin. Your Chekov will live on as a bright spot in a trilogy full of J. J. Abrams’ lens flares.

★★★½ (3.5 out of 5)

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