By Looking Backward, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ Prepares the Franchise for the Future

When fans first heard that J.J. Abrams had been hired by Paramount to revive the lagging fortunes of the once mighty Star Trek film franchise, there was concern and considerable handwringing. Things got worse when it was discovered that almost all of the original cast were being tossed aside for an entirely new set of actors, all still playing parallel universe versions of the iconic characters from the late ’60s TV series.

All lens flares aside, the newly revamped Star Trek became a sizeable hit, getting both newbies and old hardened fans eager for what the series would bring next. The answer, sadly, was the grossly over-criticized Into Darkness, which had the audacity to traipse into the sacred Khan territory for its spin on the well-known 1982 sequel’s story. Then Abrams ran over to Disney and its desire to jumpstart Star Wars into a billion dollar bounty, leaving Captain Kirk and his crew to wonder what their next step — if any — would be.

The answer, oddly enough, came from another film mega-series — Universal’s Fast and Furious — in the form of director Justin Lin. After fretting over the script, the man who helped turn Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and a diverse collection of actors into an international juggernaut (especially with the fabulous Furious 6) looked to the new Scotty himself, Simon Pegg, for a little narrative nerd cred. The results — entitled Star Trek Beyond — feel like an original series episode on steroids, the action amplified to near extremes while the characters take time to discuss their issues and interact like regular people.

Sure, we still get some of the super heroics that bent Abrams’ films into surreal space battle twists, but the likeability of everyone involved, including Lin, more than makes up for its oversized spectacle and ambitions. Our story begins with the destruction of the Enterprise (yes, AGAIN!) and a group of survivors crash landing on an alien planet. You see, an extraterrestrial named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) tricked the Federation vessel in order to help her defeat Krall (Idris Elba), a warlord looking for the last piece of a bio-weapon he needs to help destroy a remote Starbase known as Yorktown.

There’s more. The crew is dispersed, with Kirk (Chris Pine) and Ensign Pavel Chekov, (the late Anton Yelchin) forced to work together. So are Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho), and Chief Engineer Scott (Simon Pegg), who ends up working with an alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to undermine Krall’s plans and get the ruined wreckage of a forgotten starship to help everyone escape. In between, we learn about relationships lost, partnerships anticipated, and at least two instances where main characters contemplate the confines of the crew’s five year mission.

If Star Trek Beyond seems a bit overstuffed, narratively speaking, it’s to Lin’s credit that it never feels labored or forced. Balancing the necessary action beats with all manner of character nuances, this is the first time we feel the new players departing from the predetermined original series mythos. A lot has been made about the fact that Sulu is now gay, shown in a pre-Enterprise destroying sequence dealing with his partner and their child, but that’s just part of it. Kirk is having doubts. So is Spock, and that’s led to tension with Uhura. It’s a borderline soap opera at times, but luckily Lin, with a lot of help from Pegg’s geek-centric script, makes the machinations breezy.

Granted, Elba is not a villain on the scale of Eric Bana’s possessed Captain Nero (even his last act twist reveal is a bit daft) but he does bring a kind of gravitas that, oddly enough, Benedict Cumberbatch lacked last time out. We also have a bit too much dizzy drone destruction, the robotic weapons failing to look like more than a swarm of bees when push comes to shove. But the most important thing about Star Trek Beyond is that it successfully straddles the fine line between Star Wars’ high tech toy merchandising and the serious ideas fostered by concept creator, Gene Roddenberry. It’s also a stone cold blast.

Star Trek Beyond reminds us of what drew fans to Star Trek in the first place. Other sci-fi was merely WWII style dogfights in space, bereft of real ideas and geared toward the lazy end of speculation. Roddenberry wanted his show to survive on issues, and it’s now the same for the films that bear the name. Even the new reboots live (the first), and die (the second) on bringing something original and novel to the table. Sure, we’ve seen something like Krall before, but it’s given a bit of modern makeover. The real improvement here is the focus on the crew. Do you remember the original series because of its alien enemies, or the banter between Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the always campy William Shatner? Point made.

It’s that level of nostalgic fun that someone had to find in this material, and Lin and Pegg achieve it with ease. Those looking for scope and epic battles will discover that here. Others who hoped Star Trek Beyond would recapture what they felt the first time they discovered the franchise will be happy as well. Star Trek Beyond is a win/win for all involved. Hopefully, audiences will respond in numbers large enough to keep this series going in this direction for decades to come.

RATING 7 / 10