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Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond: A Sequel That Truly Soars

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Star Trek Beyond
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg and Doug Jung
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 120 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2016

It’s been three years since we last left Captain James Tiberius Kirk and his young, hip, sexy rebooted USS Enterprise crew sifting through the charred rubble of the embarrassingly-flawed and intelligence-insulting Star Trek Into Darkness. When the first J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek feature was released in 2009, it thrilled me as both a lover of well-executed blockbuster entertainment and someone who has grown up enjoying the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and company because its creative and commercial success ensured that future generations would have their own Enterprise to follow into the cinematic cosmos. Into Darkness pretty much undid every detectable trace of that progress in the span of a mere two hours.

The thought of the sequels that would inevitably follow filled me with the sort of trepidation one often experiences as they prepare to enter an old house that has been abandoned since the previous owners were horribly murdered twenty years ago….

Which brings me to Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the rebooted Trek series and the thirteenth in the entire franchise. Since Abrams departed the director’s chair to take the helm of another big deal movie saga set in outer space, the task of commanding Beyond from behind the camera fell to Justin Lin, the talented Taiwanese-American filmmaker whose youthful vigor and go-for-broke style helped to revive the Fast and the Furious series (in the process turning it into one of the biggest action cinema franchises) and has served him well on television directing standout episodes of shows such as Community and True Detective.

Lin willingly placed himself in the undesirable position of getting Beyond in the can in time for release in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek television series and making it so fun and entertaining it could permanently scrub away the foul taint left on the film franchise by Into Darkness. Did he succeed? Read on, dear reader.

Star Trek Beyond is a real dazzler of a summer sci-fi spectacular, a sequel that truly soars. In the hands of Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg (pulling double duty on this endeavor as he is also in the cast as the Enterprise’s trusty engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung, Beyond joyfully washes away the unpleasant aftertaste left by Into Darkness‘ complete creative effort and makes the Trek film series worth watching once more. It brings back the humor and the optimism, allows for the characters to develop and grow before our very eyes, and gives us a detestable villain with an interesting – though hardly inventive – backstory and motivation who poses a unique threat to both the crew of the Enterprise and the Federation. Then again, isn’t that how things usually go in the Trek movies?

Retaining a good many of Abrams’ collaborators from his previous two Trek features (most notably composer Michael Giacchino, once again contributing an orchestral score exploding with exuberance and pathos that could also be enjoyed isolated from the film) while bringing on a few new faces of his own, Lin delivers the Star Trek sequel that Abrams’ 2009 reboot has deserved all this time. Into Darkness, which I hate to keep bringing up but please indulge me, felt like a massive step backwards for the series, which was all the more shocking considering that it came four years after the first Abrams Trek but boasted a story so haphazardly assembled from the parts of better narratives that the script could have been knocked out over a drunken holiday weekend.

I give a lot of credit where it’s due to the cast of the reboot and its two (so far) sequels, which has gelled remarkably in the span of only three films when the original series cast had six movies and seventy-nine television episodes to develop their iconic characters and brew that magical chemistry that has made their interplay – be it in the form of a tense conversation or an exchange of knowing glances – such a delight to watch. Chris Pine owns the role of James T. Kirk now, and the Pegg/Jung script gives him his best dramatic arc in the series to date. Kirk has matured quite a bit since last we saw him; no longer the cocky ladies’ man who had to fully grasp his duties as captain of the Enterprise, he has grown into a strong, intelligent, and charismatic leader who puts the lives of his crew above all else and would never dare to underestimate his opponent.

Kirk begins the story unsure of his future in Starfleet and how his achievements as captain have measured up to the legacy of his late father George. He begins to wonder if accepting the rank of Vice-Admiral and leaving the Enterprise for good would be the strongest course of action. Celebrating his birthday with his friend and shipmate, the lovably cantankerous Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, doing the late DeForest Kelley proud once more), and some quality booze pilfered from the locker of the ship’s chipper navigator Ensign Pavel Chekhov (the sorely missed Anton Yelchin), Kirk is quickly summoned back to active duty because there is always trouble for the Federation and the Enterprise is the only ship in the fleet capable of handling the situation…as always. Some things about Star Trek will never change and us longtime fans have no problem with those traditions remaining unaltered.

The Enterprise’s captain isn’t the only one pondering whether or not he should change the direction of his life; Vulcan science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) has just heard of the death of his alternate timeline counterpart Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy (being given a poignant farewell very respectful of the actor and the place he occupies in the hearts of Trek fans the world over) and now he feels a sense of obligation to take Spock Prime’s place on New Vulcan and do his part to help rebuild his dying race.

This has caused strain in his relationship with Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), causing the most stable romantic couple serving on the Enterprise to break up. Quinto comes into his own as Spock in Beyond and his performance lays bare the Logical One’s doubts and emotional vulnerabilities in surprising moments through his interactions with Urban. After two movies focused on attempting to give some dramatic heft to the legendary Kirk/Spock friendship, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see Spock and McCoy get some time to bond.

How does this transpire, you might ask? Only under the most extreme circumstances the Enterprise has faced yet! En route to a distant planet on what they believe to be a rescue mission, the crew comes under attack by the forces of the hostile alien tyrant Krall (Idris Elba, admirably resisting the urge to ham it up under a ton of excellent FX make-up), who is in search of an artifact of no apparent importance to anyone else that happens to be the key to activating a terrible weapon capable of…well I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot for you. Going into Beyond, you might be able to guess your way through Krall’s diabolical intentions for Kirk and his crew as well as the entire Federation, but the motivations behind the villain’s master plan might surprise you more than you think.

Oh yeah, about that aforementioned attack…it just about destroys the Enterprise, forcing the crew to abandon ship as it gets ripped apart and the smoldering remains crash land on the planet along with its surviving escaped human occupants. Kirk and his officers get separated in the process and they embark on their own side missions to rescue their imprisoned comrades and foil Krall’s plot with the help of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a feisty rogue scavenger with some fancy fighting moves and a terrible secret in her past that gives her the requisite emotional connection to our scowling adversary. As Spock and McCoy grow to actually like each other for a change, Scotty develops a kinship with Jaylah that rarely approaches romance (no time for love, Mr. Scott!) but settles comfortably on mutual admiration.

Beyond demonstrates its strongest, and softest, side when it comes to the relationship aspect of its narrative, summed up beautifully in a sweet little scene where the Enterprise’s stoic helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu (John Cho, legitimately badass in the role by now), revealed to be gay, greets his husband (played by co-writer Jung) and daughter at the Federation’s sprawling new starbase Yorktown – a marvel of visual effects design and execution that is one of the film’s many technical highlights – with love and affection in a way that feels natural and progressive for both the Trek franchise and sci-fi cinema in general.

The cast is really on their game here and it’s nice to see the supporting cast get their own fleeting moments to shine. Kirk and Spock dominated the ’09 reboot and Into Darkness, but Beyond plays it smart by granting much-deserved screen time to the other key players on the Enterprise to remind us all that the most powerful and effective ship in Starfleet isn’t powered by advanced warp core engineering, but by the people who have dedicated their lives to keeping it operational and out there among the stars, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one…you get my drift.

If the plot of Beyond feels familiar, and there are times when it really does, Lin and writers Pegg and Jung find shiny new bottles for this old wine with witty dialogue and astounding action sequences of both the practical and digital varieties. They even supplement Giacchino’s zippy score with a pair of hip-hop classics that not only call back to the reboot’s priceless cue of the Beastie Boys’ mid-90’s thrash rap masterpiece “Sabotage,” but will introduce a new generation to the undying power of Public Enemy’s rebellious racial justice anthem “Fight the Power.”

Die hard Trekkers might turn their noses up at the idea of contemporary American music making its way into Gene Roddenberry‘s universe, but Beyond‘s filmmaking team utilizes the tunes to brilliant effect at the most crucial of times. They add juice to the action, broaden the characters’ cultural horizons, and give Beyond an unforced hipness that doesn’t at all feel like the desperation of your grandfather suddenly deciding to walk around the house one morning in cargo shorts and an Ed Hardy shirt.

I went into Star Trek Beyond concerned for the franchise’s silver screen future in the wake of the raging garbage inferno that was Into Darkness and came out a true believer once more. The shake-up in the creative team, a refocused devotion to optimism and fun, and some much-needed character and relationship development – elevated by a savvy and gifted cast more game for the real acting work than ever before – results in a sequel that will make you feel all the feels if you check it out in the right mood.

The thrills and chills are plentiful, but the moments that honestly stick with you are the ones that demonstrate that no multi-million dollar visual effect can best a well-written dialogue scene capable of hitting the necessary emotional beats. There is even a tribute to the original series Enterprise crew that I never saw coming, but certainly hit me in the gut. Star Trek Beyond is one of the best movies of this summer, an honest-to-goodness human blockbuster.



Star Trek Beyond

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