July 21, 2016
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and to celebrate Paramount, Bad Robot and an improbably large number of co-producers have teamed up to make Star Trek Beyond. It is the third in producer J.J. Abrams' run of rebooted pictures, featuring a younger cast and updated design, and the thirteenth Trek film overall. There is an oft-quoted rule, ironically once quoted by co-writer and actor Simon Pegg in his classic geek comedy series Spaced, that the odd-numbered Star Trek films are not any good. The three Trek films since Star Trek: Nemesis caused that rule to wobble. Beyond shatters it entirely. This is simultaneously a great Summer blockbuster, a great 50th anniversary celebration, and easily the best Star Trek film since The Undiscovered Country back in 1991.
It excels for numerous reasons. For the non-Trek enthusiast it works because it is a smart, fast-paced and regularly inventive sci-fi action movie. The chase and fight scenes are beautifully shot and edited, and make great use of the film's setting and technology. Director Justin Lin is new to Star Trek but thanks to his work on three of the Fast & Furious movies he is a well-established hand at shooting action. The film benefits enormously from his talents.
Simon Pegg and Doug Jung's screenplay is smart, slick and clever. It is not simply that it is packed with surprise plot developments and reveals, it is that as a viewer I did not even see them coming. The promotional trailers for the film did a good job of selling the action, but what they failed to show was just how wonderfully traditional a Star Trek film it is. The first two "Kelvin timeline" films rightfully received criticism for slipping a little too far from the sorts of stories on which Trek was built. The 21st century aesthetic aside, Beyond could effectively work as a mega-budget premiere episode for Star Trek Season 4.
The script balances the lead characters wonderfully in terms of screen time and activity, and gives each of them moments to reveal character, to develop and to grow. The preceding film Star Trek Into Darkness failed in many respects because it copied too many beats from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Beyond copies Khan as well in a few key scenes, but in this case it echoes rather than duplicates. An early scene between Kirk and McCoy immediately reflects a very similar conversation the pair have had before - but then they were played by William Shatner and DeForest Kelley. The writing is so good, and the acting so confident (it is their third time), that by this stage they're exactly the same characters.
Pegg and Jung's new characters work brilliantly as well, whether it is the hardened rebel Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) or the murderous alien leader Krall (Idris Elba). Even smaller characters shine for their brief scenes, whether they're an admiral on a star base or a nervous ensign given a life-or-death mission by her captain.
Critically, the film is funny. It draws a phenomenal amount of humour out of pairing off characters, particularly McCoy and Spock. It is so satisfying to see the relationship built so effectively by Kelley and Leonard Nimoy continues on in the hands of Urban and Quinto. The funniest moments are actually reserved for the film's climax - I do not think I have ever laughed so hard at a Star Trek film.
Particularly keen Trek enthusiasts will enjoy a lot of the film's subtle nods and references to continuity. This is clearly a film written by fans for fans, and while that is often a recipe for disaster in this case it has only delivered benefits. I was worried that a reference to the death of Leonard Nimoy was going to somehow get shoe-horned in: instead it is respectfully laid in not only as a stunt but as a critical piece of plot development. A more subtle nod to the late Anton Yelchin, who gave his final performance here as Ensign Chekov, is perfectly played and effective.
I have a few more brief notes on things I particularly liked, so if you're reading this and have not yet seen the film you may want to skip to the next paragraph. I loved that the film's back story ultimately draws in a fair bit of the Enterprise era in an unobstrusive but Trekkie-pleasing fashion. The brief visual tribute to the original 1966 cast was perfectly played, and most welcome. The Enterprise does get destroyed, and quite early into the story too, which makes the third time in 13 films we have seen it happen. I was worried this was going to be tiresome, but after the fact I think that the film earns the moment - and certainly more so than Star Trek: Generations did. And yes, Sulu (John Cho) is married to a man and they have a daughter. It has taken 50 years, but Star Trek's last surviving civil rights blind-spot has finally been wiped away. I am very, very glad.
This is the best possible anniversary present that Star Trek fans could have received. It honours the past while telling an entirely new story. It combines drama, comedy, action and great science fiction. This is one of the best Summer blockbusters of the year. It is one of the best Star Trek films ever.