Silver Screen: Star Trek Beyond **1/2
What makes a Star Trek movie a Star Trek movie?
From a business standpoint, nothing but the licensing and rights. A title card followed by a tiny ™.
From the audience’s perspective, it’s less clear.
Kirk and Spock, to be sure, along with Uhura, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, and the rest of the crew. The Enterprise, perhaps, although it has mutated subtly over the years. As much as anything, the audience is seeking all the tiny, familiar visual and auditory details that form their memories: the two-tone Starfleet uniforms and the conical emblem, the chirp of the communicator and the whir of those hydraulic doors.
Star Trek Beyond has all of these things. Yet you could so easily splice them all out of the story, replace them with a new set of sci-fi characters and quirks, and the film would remain essentially unchanged. It could just as easily be a planet-hopping action movie starring Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson or Scarlett Johansson.
The bells and whistles are all there, but it has no, for lack of a better word, Trekkiness.
The plot is about as straightforward as it gets. While spending some downtime at a massive Federation space station, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) gets word of a crashed alien spacecraft marooned on a planet hidden amid a treacherous nebula. Kirk volunteers to take the dangerous rescue mission, but once the Enterprise reaches the remote planet, it is attacked by the same forces that brought down the first ship. Cut off from Starfleet and scattered on a hostile world, the crew must scramble to reunite, stop their mysterious enemy, and find a way back home.
It’s a plot that would barely fill a forty-five-minute TV episode, stretched to feature length by an endless succession of chase scenes and punctuated by a few shootouts.
Along the way the characters pair up in various combinations for variably entertaining subplots, none of which bear the slightest bit of weight. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) endearingly bicker their way through a mission, Kirk teams up with a resourceful alien warrior (Sofia Boutella), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets kidnapped (because she’s a girl, see?).
Some of it is good fun, thanks in large part to a near-perfect cast that also includes cowriter Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov. But nothing about their presence fundamentally affects the story, and nothing about the story fundamentally affects the characters. The veneer of an emotional arc involving Kirk’s possible abandonment of the crew for a vice-admiral job is perfunctory at best, while the potentially interesting revelation of Sulu being gay consists of nothing more than a three-second scene of him walking arm in arm with a dude.
The team of screenwriters also makes the disastrous choice to keep the villain’s origin secret until partway through the final act of the film, meaning the already generic villain (played by the more than capable Idris Elba) has no discernible personality, motivations, or compelling conflict until the credits are near rolling.
Picking up the pace of the more deliberate, sometimes outright ponderous original Star Trek— particularly the mostly bad movies— is terrific, but the filmmakers have stripped away almost everything that might distinguish this movie from any other given summer blockbuster. The heady ideas, the humanistic values, the exotic locales, the agenda of diplomacy and exploration over combat— there’s none of that here.
Fast and Furious franchise director Justin Lin stages a couple of very cool, large-scale space battle sequences, the kind of bright, shiny destruction he so excelled at in some of the best entries of the delightfully absurd Fast and Furious series. But he doesn’t put a distinctive stamp on anything except the biggest blowout scenes. (And Lin is capable of that— check out his too-little-seen breakout 2002 breakout Better Luck Tomorrow.)
Star Trek Beyond is passably glittery entertainment. You could argue that old-school Trekkies (sorry, Trekkers) who complain are just too mired in nostalgia for the original to accept a reasonable, more broadly appealing modernization.
But if Star Trek Beyond represented the birth of a new franchise, it’s hard to imagine anybody would bother rebooting it fifty years from now.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.