It’s a common problem in all popular culture for the reaction to the previous entry in a franchise to hurt it’s follow up. This is certainly an issue that has plagued Star Trek Beyond. Its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness faced widespread criticism for its poorly handled retelling of the ever popular Wrath of Khan storyline, despite the fact that the film makers constantly told us that Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison character definitely wasn’t Khan. Spoiler alert, he was.
The lack of fanfare around Beyond may be a direct result of this backlash, and it’s a shame, because it’s easily the best ‘blockbuster’ we’ve had this summer. Beyond takes everything that Star Trek has ever stood for to heart, being a true homage to the spirit of exploration and boldly going, with Chris Pine finally seeming to fit into the shoes of James Tiberius Kirk as a captain with a thirst for adventure over diplomacy, and a short temper that gets him into trouble.
Star Trek Beyond once again plays with the idea of some alien races out there in the void being unhappy with the Federation and their quest for galaxy wide unity. This time, we see it in the form of Idris Elba’s Krall. A generic and mean looking alien with a generic name, and a vaguely painted motivation for wanting to kill everything he ever stumbles across. Even a few later film revelations don’t add much flesh to his bones.
However, he’s not the point here; he’s mainly the vehicle for the adventures of the Enterprise crew. Finding themselves out of reach of the Federation and crash landing on an alien world, things get much more interesting. While we do get a few protracted space battles that are thrilling to behold, Beyond smartly grounds itself in on foot action, splitting the crew into mismatch pairs and giving everyone plenty to do. The pairing of Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) is particularly ingenuous. Urban wasn’t given a lot to do in Into Darkness, but here, he’s one of the best parts of the film.
The late, great Anton Yelchin is also given plenty to do, as is Zoe Saldana, and John Cho and Zulu. Simon Pegg as Scotty is also on point, bouncing nicely off newcomer Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, an alien scavenger stranded on the planet long before the arrival of the enterprise. She’s one of the best parts of the film, being a rare alien presence in the new franchise that isn’t a villain, or simply a one note cameo to remind us that there are aliens, even though the main cast are essentially entirely human.
It’s the odd couple routine that really lets the film thrive. Spock’s analytic, literal Vulcan mind versus the dry wit and terrible bedside manner of Bones McCoy. The caution of Chekov versus the reckless courage and sheer dumb luck of Kirk. It’s the over the top Groundskeeper Willie impression of Scotty battling wits with an alien who is a ninja, a technical genius and a fan of the Beastie Boys. A beautiful woman that kicks ass from another galaxy that is far enough on the alien side of the spectrum that it almost feels weird to fall for her, just a little.
The refocusing on that sense of adventure is what makes Beyond really sing. It teems with strange alien life, technology from a myriad of races, and a real sense of peril for the Enterprise crew and The Federation itself. Though I really don’t think we needed to see the iconic ship blown to smithereens again. Despite its formulaic missteps, Beyond brings the lives of each of its central characters forward, developing both Spock and Kirk in interesting ways.
There are a few great action sequences and a slew of jokes that hit hard, with some great interplay between the characters that show the importance of a good script and great chemistry. There are also a few cheesy moments that call back to the Trek of old, though not always in a good way. All in all, Beyond is a solid and dependable popcorn flick with just enough character development and intelligent problem solving to rise above the phasers, explosions, and Beastie Boys to become something truly special. The 13th Star Trek film shows the pretenders how it’s done, and it’s the second odd numbered Trek film in a row to be excellent - perhaps breaking the “Odd Even” Star Trek movie rule.