The Star Trek franchise has never been about wondering how the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise would save the day against impossible odds. Rather, the suspense has always come from the struggle between hope and despair as they have battled aliens, space viruses, and their own inner conflicts to snatch victory from certain doom. And so it is with STAR TREK: BEYOND, a film that does a superb job of continuing the story in the alternate universe of Trek devised by JJ Abrams.
This installment is co-written by fanboy and co-star Simon Pegg, who groks the essence of the Trek mythos and appeal with a story that pays tribute to its antecedents while also hewing to the new possibilities engendered by the reboot. There is a Pegg’s signature piquance in beginning in the doldrums, with the crew of the Enterprise is suffering the ennui of a long voyage, described by Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) as having the feeling of being episodic. He also notes, as his latest mission goes south into a scuffle when a peace offering is not accepted by the recipients in the spirit it was intended, that he’s ripped his shirt again. Never mind. They are headed for R&R at the fancy new star base built from scratch and encompassing a city that bear a striking resemblance to an Escher etching. There, Spock (Zachary Quinto) will deal with reasons behind his break-up with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Kirk will ponder the next chapter in his Star Fleet career as he reluctantly celebrates an early birthday with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), who has come the captain’s quarters bearing liquor and a crack that references another Kirk’s birthday in a film from the 1980s. Of course there is no rest for the weary, and so the Enterprise is dispatched on a rescue mission to a nebula where subspace communications will be closed, and a mystery will be solved.
Attacked by a mysterious swarm of mechanical space bees, the crew becomes marooned separately, the better to give each member their own special screen time, Kirk engaging in his patented brands of derring-do with an adoring Chekov (Anton Yelchin) by his side, Spock and McCoy bonding in their uniquely prickly way as they argue over emotion versus logic, and Scotty (Pegg) confronted with a plucky alien woman (Sofia Boutella, triumphing over the stylized makeup and pert ponytail) who is just as mechanically inclined as he is. Eventually they will confront Krall (Idris Elba), the villain of the piece who is, what else, bent on destroying the Federation. He has his reasons, and warped though they are, they do have a chillingly coherent logic about them. Indeed, the battle between Krall and the Enterprise crew is a dissection of how the best impulses of sentient beings (read: humanity) is stronger than the worst.
The biggest problem in films like these is the danger of having a villain be more interesting than the good guys, and Krall, thanks to the find voice work from Elba from beneath layers of razor-ridged prosthetic make-up, is insane in that wonderfully intense way that is calm but coiled very tightly. Fortunately for us, our heroes are up to the challenge. Kirk has never been more wonderfully embodied in all his impulsive brashness and calculated risk management than in Pine, who can be jocular one moment and deadly serious the next with just a dash of that clear understanding that his latest decision may be his last on this plane of existence. When he lays eyes on the vintage motorcycle all too conveniently in situ on the planet where he is marooned, we know two things. He’s going to ride it as part of some wild scheme to save the day (again), and he’s going to look darn good while he does so. As for Pegg, he brings the insouciance and the solemnity, as well as the film’s heart as an actor, and as a writer, a wicked sense of humor when it comes to interpersonal relationships, who should sit where, and what constitutes appropriate jewelry to give one’s significant other.
STAR TREK: BEYOND has nifty and imaginative CGI, clever twists and turns, plus what science fiction can do so well, comment on the present from another perspective, not to mention taking stock of what it means to live an authentic life in a universe where right and wrong can become tragically confused. It’s a fast-paced adventure that melds fun and smarts for fans of every Trek incarnation, with all the nuances of the characters we know and love, and yet is inclusive enough to win over even for those who didn’t know they were fans until know.