There’s a fine line between paying homage and simply inserting references to previous works, and it’s interesting to watch which way reboots of popular films and television series go. I’m talking about elements of the original that aren’t necessary for a reboot to include, but that are included anyway as fan service more than anything. These types of elements are among the few issues I’ve really had with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness – the inclusion of Khan was given the weight of his presence in the original series’ timeline, but without really earning it for this film series. What’s remarkable about Star Trek Beyond, then, is how much it feels like a tribute to the original series – currently celebrating its 50th anniversary – without feeling like it’s cribbing any one particular element.
Three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel restless. He goes so far as to describe life onboard the Enterprise as “episodic,” and as he not only turns another year older, but a year older than his father ever turned, he’s beginning to wonder if being a captain is what he even wants. His questioning is put on hold, though, when Starfleet receives a distress signal from an alien claiming her crew is in trouble. When the Enterprise arrives, though, the ship is obliterated by a swarm of ships, and the crew is left scattered on a mysterious planet. The crew of the Enterprise has to reunite, find a way off the planet, and figure out a way to stop Krall (Idris Elba), the leader of the group who brought the ship down, from launching a powerful weapon.
Compared to the bigger stakes of the previous two films, Star Trek Beyond feels smaller with its focus on the crew of the Enterprise. It’s an interesting way to go, but it works thanks to screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, along with director Justin Lin. Lin brings in the biggest contribution he made over his four films in the Fast and Furious series – namely, making a group of unrelated people into a family – and refines it here. If Star Trek was about connecting Kirk with his crew and Star Trek Into Darkness focused on a conspiracy, Star Trek Beyond balances the various relationships between the crew of the Enterprise with a sense of discovery that’s at the core of the original series, but that’s been missing in many ways from the rebooted series to date.
What’s more, Beyond mixes up the characters into pairings that we largely haven’t seen before. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) work to try and escape from Krall. Scotty (Pegg) works with the alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to fix her ship. Chekov (Anton Yelchin) helps Kirk explore the planet. Best of all, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) are forced to survive in the wilderness of the planet. While all four pairings are top-notch, the Spock/Bones scenes threaten to steal the entire movie.
That’s not to say the film is perfect, because it’s not. As great as the pairings are, they end up sidetracking the original conflict Kirk is facing for most of the film, where it’s brought back up through a twist involving Krall. It’s frustrating, because the film positions Kirk in a different position than we saw in the previous two films. In both Star Trek and Into Darkness, Kirk is growing into the role of captain. In Beyond, he’s finally grown into being responsible, which makes his self-questioning all the more intriguing. Dropping it for a large part of the film makes it far less potent.
Still, Star Trek Beyond offers plenty for Trekkies and newbies alike to enjoy, and it does so without engaging in the blatant fan service attempts of the previous films. With Kirk’s growth as a captain now settled and the cast firmly in ensemble mode, it makes the future of this series look all the more exciting.