No one is more pleased than I am that the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond (2016, directed by Justin Lin) is head and shoulders better than any of the last six Star Trek films. You have to go back to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to find a film as satisfying as this one. Star Trek VI came out more than a generation ago. It's been a while.
The plot catches up with the Enterprise somewhere in the third year of their five year mission to explore the galaxy, seeking out new life and new civilizations and whatnot. The film opens with Kirk acting as an ambassador at the conclusion of a war between two alien races, bearing to one race, the Teenaxi, the gift of a relic of a never-activated doomsday weapon. The Teenaxi perceive the gift as a threat and Kirk is obliged to beat a hasty retreat and place the relic into a storage bin on the Enterprise. Kirk is getting bored with his mission and has applied for a position as an vice admiral. The Enterprise at the space station, Yorktown, for refitting and shore leave, where Star Fleet probes Kirk's intentions. Spock, too, is at a crossroads. His mentor, Spock Prime, has died, leaving him with questions about his place in Star Fleet. He is considering resigning his commission to help the now scattered Vulcan diaspora recover something of their former glory. Unbeknownst to Spock, Kirk has recommended him as his replacement. Meanwhile, a survivor from a science expedition to a nearby nebula arrives requesting aid for her ship and crew. The Enterprise is on hand, so they get the job. But all is not as it seems. Once they penetrate the asteroid field in the nebula's halo, they are set upon by a swarm of small ships that seem to know the Enterprises every weakness. The enemy board the Enterprise even as they continue to destroy it in search of the relic Kirk has lately stored on board. The crew takes to the life pods as Kirk defends the relic and are captured as they descend to a planet at the heart of the nebula. Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and a handful of others manage to land without capture and must now rescue their crew from Krall, the warlord who set the trap for them. They are aided in this by Jaylah, a refugee from Krall's work camps, who lives in the wreckage of another Federation ship. Meanwhile, a captured Uhuru discovers Krall's plans for the relic, which is indeed the key to a doomsday weapon that Krall intends to use to attack the Federation, starting with Yorktown...
One of the main problems with the previous two films in the Star Trek reboot has been the feeling that the characters weren't quite themselves. Really, only Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy was recognizable as the same character from the original series. The others? They all seemed off. Kirk was less competent than Shatner's Kirk and more of a callow and reckless asshole. Spock seemed uncharacteristically hostile. The others were various shades of different (though, in those films' defense, they went out of their way to give Uhuru more things to do). This film, perhaps because it's not burdened with either convincing anyone that it IS Star Trek or with living up to the story beats of Star Trek II, relaxes a bit and lets the character BE the characters. As a result, this feels right. This is Star Trek, five year mission and all. Moreover, this is a Star Trek that doesn't ask the audience to believe in colossal stupidities. I mean, sure, this is mainly an action film, but it's an action film that doesn't suspend the laws of physics in an overt and risible manner (as the previous two films did). I attribute this to a change in screenwriters and director. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and Justin Lin are a significant upgrades from Roberto Orci and J. J. Abrams. Indeed, Simon Pegg is enough of a nerd himself that you can feel the love for the characters he brings to film in the small things that Orci, mercenary scenarist that he is, never could. The interchange between Kirk and McCoy over Chekov's confiscated Scotch, for instance--"Here's to good eyesight and a full head of hair"--is the kind of touch and gentle ribbing that the previous films either never got or blundered over. Chekov's insistence that Scotch was invented by a little old lady in Russia is another. But lest one think that a fondness for the characters consists of call-backs to the original cast, this film develops the characters in new ways, too. The choice to cast Sulu as a gay man is famous now, of course, but the film is never flagrant about it. It's almost subliminal, as if it's a non-issue (which is exactly how it should be in Roddenberry's radically diverse utopian vision of the future).
There's a spark of creativity here that has been absent in previous films (and even previous series) too. There's a joke in fandom about how all aliens in Star Trek are really just humans with weird noses and foreheads, but that's not necessarily an accusation you can make against this film. The aliens here are alien enough to read as not human even though practical necessity gives us bilaterally symetric bipeds. The Teelaxi at the beginning are really the first Star Trek aliens to take good advantage of the possibilities offered by contemporary special effects to render something really off the human model, and various other Enterprise crewmembers are similarly alien. But beyond that, this Star Trek gives us new environments that we haven't seen before. The space station Yorktown is the kind of sci fi megastructure that only used to appear in books by writers like Larry Niven or John Varley. Now they can be rendered on film, and Star Trek Beyond is among the first films to really imagine plausible human engineering on this scale. The weirdly variable gravity on Yorktown lends the film's inevitable climactic fistfight completely strange, as if it were being fought in Thunderdome, where up and down lose their meanings. The fistfight to end the movie is a stock trope for Star Trek. This film manages to make it seem new.
I wish this outbreak of creativity had spread to the main storyline. The actual plot that animates this film is as safe and as cliche-ridden as most big budget tentpole movies. Krall's motives for attacking the Federation are the same as the motives of the villain in Interstellar, to name one recent example, and the film finds a status quo at the end, promising further Star Trek films with Kirk and Spock et al. This is a product, of course, and when Chris Pine lamented in the press that "You can't make a cerebral Star Trek movie in 2016," he's not necessarily referring to what an audience will accept, but rather to what a marketing department at a film studio will accept. Obviously, cerebral science fiction films are still being made, but they aren't being made with $175 million dollar budgets. Big movies like this one are so seldom good anyway that its maybe unreasonable to demand that they be cerebral. It's probably enough that they provide thrills without insulting the audience's intelligence. This is harder than you might think, from the evidence at the multiplexes. That Star Trek Beyond manages this feat is no small accomplishment.
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