The big debate shouldn’t be if this is the best Star Trek film ever. The more interesting conversation is about whether “Star Trek Beyond” is a better sci-fi space adventure film than 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” On most levels, the answer is, “yes.”
J.J. Abrams is out as director and comes aboard as a producer. Director Justin Lin, from the “Fast and Furious” franchise, takes the helm. The result is a taut piece of filmmaking, with perfectly choreographed action scenes (jumpstarting a space ship is a highlight) and a rapid-fire pace that only leaves time to gasp for air (editors: Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto, Steven Sprung).
Visually, the film is eye candy, scene-to-scene. The pleasing colors (Salim Alrazouk, art director), amazingly crystal-clear and perfectly lit cinematography (Stephen F. Windon, Fast & Furious 6) and wondrous sets (Thomas E. Sanders, product designer, Lin MacDonald set decorator) give the footage a fresh new look.
The costumes (Sanja Milkovic Hays) have a hip futuristic style. The music (Michael Giacchino, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) takes explosive scenes to higher levels with choirs and orchestras blaring. Essentially the tech credits are exemplary on every level and overshadow those from the last Star Wars episode.
At the hands of scribes Simon Pegg (an actor/writer who also plays Scotty in the film) and Doug Jung, the storyline bursts with danger, humor and strong relationships. It’s easy enough to comprehend without an advanced degree in astrophysics, yet complex enough to hold your attention for 120 minutes. The constant stream of discovery, conflict, betrayal, daring escapes and death-defying events in space and uncharted planets test the crew of the USS Enterprise. Various subplots develop around different pairings (Uhura and Sulu, Bones and Spock, Kirk and Chekov…) versus the normal myopic focus on Kirk and Spock.
It all begins with a jolt. In the midst of the first leg of a five-year mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) meets the leader of a foreign species. He brings a gift, a relic with him. His generosity is not well received. Midget creatures attack him. His crew arranges a quick escape. It’s just the beginning.
A rogue spacecraft hurls toward Earth. Its inhabitant claims her ship and crew has been lost on a nebula far, far away. Captain Kirk and his team set out on a rescue mission that may be more treacherous then they imagined: Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (The late Anton Yelchin).
Nothing goes as planned. Their starship, The USS Enterprise, comes under attack. Crash landing. Emergency escapes. Everyone is under siege on the planet Altamid, a dangerous alien world that is a way station for a vicious, evil reptilian-looking demon named Krall (Idris Elba). For very personal reasons, he has a plan to annihilate The Federation. A victim of Krall’s vengeance, a warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), joins the crews’ efforts to stop him.
There’s a weary feeling among the captain and commander. Kirk and Spock, seemingly at the end of their ropes, contemplate a different life. Kirk, “The more time we spend out here (space) the harder it is to see when one day ends and the next day begins.” It’s a rightful malaise for crewmembers who’ve been on the job for decades, protecting the universe.
Much of the far-reaching themes of this long-lasting, space age phenomenon, which started on TV 50 years ago, are still relevant in a multicultural, borderless world that grows more interdependent and intertwined every day. That yearning to achieve great things as a team, for the good of everyone, is a constant. Spock, “Find hope in the impossible.”
The returning cast appears to be very comfortable in their roles. Pine radiates a self-assuredness that is the essence of the unflappable Kirk. Quinto and Saldana make the quirky romance between Spock and Uhura amorous. Urban and Pegg as Bones and Scotty provide a natural comic relief.
The new addition of the Jaylah character gives Sofia Boutella an opportunity to introduce a younger fighter to the mix. Idris Elba as Krall invents a towering persona, with a raspy voice and intimidating mannerisms. He exudes a rage that is believable. His performance is more intense than the rest of the cast. It’s as if he’s a Shakespearean actor moonlighting in a big-budget film.
Director Justin Lin, a gripping script, a top-notch technical crew and a very enthused group of actors have taken this franchise up a notch. Do their efforts provide more of a thrill ride than the latest “Star Wars” saga? That’s a heated conversation Trekkies need to have with Jedi chasers.
In the meantime, let it be known, “Star Trek Beyond” bolts out of the gate at warp speed.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a critic he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.