Finally! Finally! Finally! I mean, finally! Granted, it took like two movies into JJ Abrams’ Star Trek series to get to this point (as well as a change in director and the writing team), but wow, it’s about goddamn time they actually got it right!
OK, let me back up real quick.
I’ve never been a fan of Abrams’ spin on Star Trek, and no, it’s not just the basic level of him turning “an intellectual franchise into a dudebro action series,” what I disliked about Star Trek and Star Trek into Darkness is the profoundly horrific storytelling abilities from writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with the general sense that Abrams is much more interested in aping Star Wars than he is with engaging in the spirit of this material (hell, even his Star Wars wasn’t a homerun by any stretch of the imagination). Star Trek is a perfectly fine, serviceable action romp that falls apart when given any thought and Star Trek into Darkness is basically that, but with the added ineptitude of trying to redo Wrath of Khan, as well as the ugly subtextual 9/11 truther dumpster fire from known conspiracy theorist, Roberto Orci. Any goodwill that Star Trek may have built up was immediately crushed and buried six feet under by Into Darkness, and since then, I figured this franchise was irredeemable, at least, until we finally get it back to TV (which, thank God, is actually coming next year, and it’s pretty promising).
So, color me surprised when I tell you that Star Trek Beyond is absolutely fantastic! Not only is it the best big budget movie in, what is easily, the worst summer movie season in recent memory, not only is it one of the most relentlessly entertaining films of the year, it is damn near the best Star Trek movie since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (sorry, I do like some of the Next Generation movies, but I’m an Original Series dude all the way).
The new director and writing team we can thank for this much needed change is Justin Lin, known mostly for his work on the Fast and Furious series (or hell, maybe some of you have seen his earlier, low budget stuff, I highly recommend Better Luck Tomorrow if you’re unfamiliar) coming to fill in for Abrams, and the duo of Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are brought in to write the screenplay after Alex Kurtzman left and Roberto Orci sticks around to just being a producer. The film itself follows the crew answering a distress call in uncharted territory, only to find themselves ambushed and stranded on a planet where they are separated and at the mercy of the forces that brought them there.
Part of what makes Beyond so satisfying is that it finally fulfills the promise of the reboot. We actually get to see these characters presented in a way that respects what came before, but also does new things with them. Plus, we finally see them go to new planets and meet new alien species, you know the whole “Trek” part in the title.
If anything, the success of how well Beyond works goes to show just how poor the previous two installments have been when it came to basic storytelling. Instead of the Abrams style of moment by moment entertainment regardless of whether the moment actually works or is earned. What Lin, Pegg and Jung bring is a sense of place, clarity and actual buildup and payoff. Yes, the writing isn’t particularly innovative, it’s all Screenplay 101 stuff, but given how often movies seem to screw up such elementary stuff, Beyond proves that talent can make seemingly simple stuff work effectively. And as a tribute to the Original Series, not only does it nail the character dynamics, but it brings the diverse, utopian vision of Gene Roddenberry to fruition, and it uses that to set up what’s at stake once the villain, Krall (Idris Elba), pops up. It’s great economic storytelling at work, while also being thematically appropriate given that it’s the 50th anniversary of the series. It’s a true celebration of the franchise and everything that makes it special.
Of course, with Justin Lin behind the camera, you get all the great stuff that he was able to bring to revamp the Fast and Furious franchise. Not just the awesome action (oh my God, you have no idea), but he brings his skills in applying great character work that weaves within the narrative and is expressed through action and visual storytelling. The characters really shine and it applies depth without feeling heavy handed. The returning actors are all great and finally (I know, I know, I keep saying ‘finally’) get something to do. And the newcomers in Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba are a ton of fun, Sofia Boutella especially gets to show off some acting chops after being a fairly cool henchwoman in Kingsman last year. And yeah, the action is stellar. One single moment in the film contains both the best music cue and the best action beat that I’ve seen all year. It’s the kind of stand up and cheer moment that makes a truly great blockbuster.
There are only a few things to gripe about and they mostly have to do with the pacing, which is almost relentless and fast. That speed works for the most part, but there are a few moments that could’ve used some more downtime and you can’t help but feel that there are a few scenes cut. But really, for everything this film had to do, follow up on Abrams’ films, tell a story that can satisfy multiple fanbases and pay tribute to the Original Series in the wake of the 50th anniversary, yeah, it works like gangbusters.
Star Trek Beyond is a minor miracle of a movie. As someone who was only mildly interested, if mostly for Justin Lin’s involvement, because of how much I disliked the previous installments, this was an absolute breath of fresh air. Justin Lin solidifies his position as one of the best blockbuster filmmakers working today, I mean, dear God, can someone please throw some money at him so he can save the X-Men franchise? The film delivers on everything that you would want out of a summer blockbuster, it’s fun, it’s creative, it’s exciting, it’s got stakes, great characters and ridiculously awesome action, but it is also a thoroughly endearing love letter to the franchise, the Original Series and the optimistic vision of the future from Gene Roddenberry. I mean, finally! 90/100