When information first began appearing about Star Trek: Beyond, the third movie of the reboot period, fans were not enthusiastic. First, there was the title, which seemed to have been focus-grouped into existence before there was a script or even a story concept. Then there was the fact that it was to be directed by Justin Lin, best known for his work on the Fast and the Furious films. Star Trek, the thinking went, is supposed to be idea-driven, and a director of popcorn action films taking the helm seemed to bode ill for the franchise.
I was a little reluctant to draw too many conclusions. First off, I was happy to see J.J. Abrams getting out of the director’s chair. The 2009 reboot film had some great character moments, but it was riddled with nonsensical plot holes and driven by the weakest revenge story in memory (The Romulan captain Nero’s world was destroyed by a natural disaster, and though the Federation did its best to help, it was unsuccessful. Now he’s out for blood because… he is!). 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, however, was an irredeemable disaster – less a story than a pointless exercise in anemic nostalgia. Such narrative as there was undermined core Star Trek mythology. Rather than showing the Federation as an optimistic organization devoted to fellowship and discover, we get instead something corrupt, cynical, and imperialistic. The fact that Abrams was never much of a Star Trek fan had begun to bleed through, and fans were understandably dispirited.
Star Trek: Beyond answers Into Darkness in the best possible way – by essentially pretending it never happened. The politics, upheavals, and betrayals of the previous film are never even alluded to. Instead, the story begins three years into the ship’s five-year mission, and the character relationships feel well-worn and organic. Often the implied shared history seems to refer less to the previous reboot films than to the television series and films with the original cast. The close friendships between Kirk & Spock, Kirk & McCoy, and McCoy & Spock haven’t really been earned by the earlier films, but Lin seems content to pretend they have, and the result is completely successful. Some of the characters, especially Uhura and Scotty, feel more like fresh inventions rather than replicas of their original incarnations, but in those cases I have no complaint. Frankly there wasn’t a whole lot to work with in the first place. Other secondary characters, like Checkov and Sulu, get their moments to shine and demonstrate what make them important members of the team. The major new character, Jaylah, feels fully realized and complex – both a fearless warrior and a vulnerable survivor.
Not all is perfect with the film. Krall, as played by Idris Elba, is eventually given a motive for wanting to destroy everything, but it feels like it comes too late to have any real impact. That’s too bad, because there are some interesting ideas to work with, and the core of his story could have been woven into the plot more organically. In the end, he’s just another Star Trek villain who’s keen to blow things up.
Even so, the film is vastly superior to its predecessors in plotting and characterization. Characters may at time move through rock formations that appear hardly more realistic than those in the Original Series, but most of the special effects are wonderful, and the space station Yorktown in a dazzling creation. There are numerous exciting action sequences, for which Lin is known, but also plenty of emotional moments – which, frankly, are present in Lin’s work on the Fast and the Furious films as well. Beyond isn’t driven by big ideas the way many of the Original Series episodes are, but then again, it’s at least as cerebral as the best of the original-cast films.
The smartest move J.J. Abrams made with his reboot was to introduce a time-travel element that set the new cast in a different timeline than the original Star Trek. It was a simple, but brilliant, way to give this franchise the freedom to tell new stories without having to either repeat or undermine the old. It was incredibly forward-looking, and yet Abrams seemed unable to make use of the freedom he gave himself. Lin, on the other hand, seems to know exactly what he’s doing. Beyond demonstrates that sometimes the best way to move forward is to keep your eye firmly on the past.