“Fear of death is illogical.” ~ Spock
“Fear of death is what keeps us alive.” ~ Bones
“Our captain will come for us. Mercy will be the last thing on his mind.” ~ Uhura
“Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.” ~ Krall
“I think you’re underestimating humanity.” ~ Kirk
The rebooted Star Trek franchise continues with a third film in the series, Star Trek Beyond, sending the crew out into the great unknown of space with a new adversary, pairing off characters in unexpected ways, and leading to plenty of destruction along the way. It also gives the director’s chair over to a new face after two films done by J.J. Abrams, and the new director, Justin Lim, might make a questionable choice (at least to me) after his previous work, but in such cases, the franchise and the script can make up for a questionable director.
When things open up, we find the crew of the Enterprise three years into a mission in deep space. Kirk (Chris Pine) and company arrive at a new Federation starbase for some shore leave, but as is to be expected with such a movie, things of course go awry. An escape pod emerges from a nearby nebula, carrying a woman who says her ship is stranded on a planet in the nebula. Kirk and his crew are sent as a rescue party, but not all is as it seems- and a fleet of ships wrecks havoc with the Enterprise, led by Krall (Idris Elba), a man with secrets, agendas, and a significant grudge.
The story, it seems has two credited screenwriters, though more of a convoluted history in its development, with previous writers involved. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are credited with the screenplay; the former, of course, plays the eccentric chief engineer Montgomery Scott through the film. The story is part western, part sci-fi, and part heist film (with a proverbial mcguffin, as Hitchcock would have called it) as some of its influences, with a strong dose of Trek nods and unexpected buddy partnerships along the way. On the one hand it finds the main characters divided up instead of as a team for a substantial amount of that time. On the other, in dividing them up and making these characters work to come to terms with the harshness of the land and the direness of the situation, the story works quite well, particularly in giving us partnerships that we might not otherwise see.
Kirk, for instance, finds himself paired off with Ensign Chekhov (Anton Yelchin). Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) interact a good deal as they try to manage their way through a tough situation. Spock (Zachary Quinto) must rely on Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) to survive- a particular treat to watch them bicker with each other, given that this aspect of the two characters has been downplayed in the rebooted movies, but was one of the fun qualities of the original series and movies. And Scotty finds himself a proverbial fish out of water having to trust an alien woman, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella); her aid is absolutely essential in driving the plot forward. In breaking up the crew and having these one on one dynamics, it gives the film a fresh take that still feels relatively true to the Trek universe, even if this is an alternate timeline.
The script, in fact, compensates for the director. Lim is primarily known for directing several of those pointless Fast & Furious films, and you can see his style through the film. Rather than the distracting lens flare techniques of J.J. Abrams (honestly, what was with that?), we get a whole lot of quick cut edits, which is one of those things I really don’t like, along with the expected pyrotechnics of a blockbuster movie. Too bad we can’t really travel through time- it would be nice to strangle the first director who thought quick cut editing was a great idea.
I digress. The film makes up for the flaws of its director, and that’s through the work of cast, crew, and the story itself. The look of many aspects of the film appealed to me- the polished starbase, the nebula itself, and the alien world in which much of the film takes place. The look of the aliens, too is visually interesting- from Krall and his people to their technology, this is something we haven’t seen before in Trek lore; with good reason, for all is not as it seems. Production design on these aspects show imagination and thinking outside the proverbial box. There’s even a ship out of its own time that seems to fit in with Star Trek history- I found myself thinking of the Enterprise television series in terms of its design and history. Michael Giacchino returns from the first two films to compose the score for the third film. The result works well, taking some of his themes and moving the music into new directions.
The cast serve their roles well. Sofia Boutella is memorable as Jaylah, and the actress plays her as tough, independent, and quite resourceful. Her interactions with Scotty work well, and the character’s history has its own ties to the villain. She's even a source of humour as the film unfolds. Idris Elba, always such a good actor in whatever he does, menaces in an appropriate way as Krall, even if the character's motivations are a bit suspect. He’s a man of secrets and more than one name, bent on revenge, albeit out of misguided reasons. And he’s thoroughly ruthless as he goes along through the film.
As fate would have it, this is one of the last films for the actor Anton Yelchin (one wonders if they make a fourth film in this series how they’ll deal with the absence of Chekhov), who died in a bit of a freak accident after filming was done. Through the film, he continues to bring the eager wide eyed quality to the role that he started with in the first film of the series, and I like that we get to see him working with Kirk on the whole survival thing- while I haven’t seen a whole lot of the original television series, it doesn’t strike me that the two characters really spent much time around each other. John Cho returns as Lieutenant Sulu, once again the steady helmsman, and he gets his moments through the film to shine. This time a good part of the character’s time is spent in the company of Uhura, in a situation where he has to maintain a sense of calm.
Simon Pegg brings to the role of Scotty a general eccentricity that certainly fits the character. Scotty is over talkative and occasionally exasperated, but also reliable and resourceful at the most pivotal moments, and that’s something that has come across in the performances of both Pegg and James Doohan before him. Here he spends a good deal of time in the company of an alien woman, a job that in the television series would have been Kirk’s. I like the interaction there, as it gives us a chance to get to know Jaylah while also seeing Scotty in a different way. You could actually have a whole film with these two actors in costume and in her case prosthetic makeup, just talking, and it would be enjoyable.
Zoe Saldana has been playing Uhura since the first film, and the character’s peculiar romance with Spock, which has played out in the previous instalments, is not so much a factor this time out- that being a good thing, because it’s always seemed off. Not to say it’s not an element of the film, because it’s there, but it’s not at all emphasized. Instead, like Sulu, the character finds herself in a crisis where she has to maintain her calm, mindful of the crew looking to her for leadership.
Karl Urban gets more to do as “Bones” McCoy this time out. In the first two films, the character seemed to be marginalized a bit. Here he finds himself in peril alongside Spock, which is a good thing- the two characters have always been argumentative in their own ways, and that plays out more here than we saw in the first two films. Spock’s logic clashes with McCoy’s instincts as a doctor and an officer to leave no man behind, and while we can see both sides to the issue, McCoy’s stubbornness is true to who he is, and it’s fun watching the two actors bicker and spar. Urban’s performance respects what’s come before him, but also gives the role his own touch.
Zachary Quinto returns as the highly logical Spock, who finds himself considering his future as the film begins, particularly given some news about his alternate future counterpart. Should he stay in Starfleet or take his place among Vulcans? He plays the role as more centered- the occasional outbursts of the first two films are replaced by the cold logic of a Vulcan who places the needs of the few ahead of the needs of the one. In having him alongside McCoy for a good part of the film, that shows good sense by the writers, as it restores an aspect of the franchise that’s been neglected- the perennial bickering of the two characters.
Chris Pine continues to play the young Kirk in a good way. There’s a layer of charm and bemusement to the character, but the cockiness that was there when we first met him has been tempered with maturity and responsibility of command. His take on the character appeals to me- like Shatner before him, Pine’s angle is that of a man who refuses to give up, even when things seem to be at their darkest (Pine wisely refrains from the Shatner style of speaking.....like... this, which helps). He handles the physical side of the action well, and conveys the sense of authority you’d expect out of a starship captain.
Where does Star Trek go from here? Time will tell, particularly given the untimely death of a key cast member. This instalment takes the crew out into the great unknown, puts them through an ordeal to end all ordeals, and yet shows them at their most capable. The script and the cast make up for the director, whose personal style can be grating- I find myself thinking how relieved I am to have avoided that entire Fast And Furious nonsense all together. And the film manages to continue to convey that sense of sci-fi wonder so integral to the franchise.