By Daniel J. Durand
Beyond average. That may sound unexciting, but let me explain.
The rebooted Abrams universe left a lot to be desired for Trekkies who fell in love with the main timeline of the series, and it’s hard for any individual film to stand up to the decades of TV and movies that made up the Trek legacy.
The first of the reboot films was, in my opinion, awful—lens flare and explosions do not a Star Trek movie make. Into Darkness wasn’t much better, essentially a mutated remake of Wrath of Khan, despite promises to the contrary made by Abrams early in production.
The latest iteration of the Star Trek franchise had a lot to make up for. As it stands, while Star Trek: Beyond had some quirks, but I am happy to say that it went far beyond my expectations, and was a solidly good movie.
First the good news: this movie was not cheesy, nor did it focus on weird romantic tensions or explosions like Star Trek 2009, and character development took on a much more prominent role in Beyond than it did in the previous films.
With the Enterprise crew now three years into their five-year exploratory mission, Kirk is beginning to feel disconnected by the isolation of deep space—there is little structure being so far away from civilization, every day feels the same, and it’s hard to stay grounded.
As he celebrates his birthday, Kirk realizes that he has now outlived his father. Having built his career around living up to his father’s Starfleet reputation, he now must set a reputation of his own. Kirk applies for a promotion to vice admiral, and recommends Spock be promoted to captain of the Enterprise.
Spock, meanwhile, has his own struggles. Since the destruction of his home planet Vulcan, and with the remainder of his people scattered across the galaxy, Spock feels that he owes a reproductive duty to his specie, and breaks off his relationship with Uhura.
Not long after his breakup, Spock is met by two Vulcans, who inform him that his counterpart Ambassador Spock (Leanord Nemoy from the original Star Trek continuity) has died. Spock now must choose between his life in Starfleet, or his sense of obligation to fill in the void left by Ambassador Spock’s passing.
We see Spock’s feelings come out a couple of times in the movie: when he tries to talk to Kirk about his decision to leave Starfleet, but can’t find an appropriate time; and during a conversation with McCoy, when Spock says he intended to reconcile with Uhura. Spock has come a long way since the up-tight, conflicted young man prone to weird emotional outbursts seen in the first movie, and it shows.
Even some of the lesser bridge crew members get some much-needed attention—McCoy gets in on the action during a chase scene toward the end of the movie, and has a few good one-liners, and Scotty shows off his famous charm when we see him casually enjoying a cup of tea, purposefully looking the other way while his engineers bang on equipment in a manner that has to violate Starfleet regulations. Sulu has a daughter, and Chekov, we discover, is a fan of Scotch, much to the surprise of his shipmates.
Granted, some of the developments or one-liners are tongue-in-cheek references to the original series, but what’s important to note is that for the first time, it doesn’t feel like the cast of reboot-Trek is trying to emulate Trek Original Recipe—instead, they’re standing on their own.
At the same time, we do see a lot of nods to the original timeline left behind by Old Spock’s travel to the past in Star Trek 2009. As a long-time Trekkie, it was really nice to see the history of this newer timeline tied back to the old one—without giving too much away, I was ecstatic when the crew finds an old NX-class starship, complete with archive footage of the previous crew in their Enterprise-era uniforms. Props go to Simon Pegg—he spent hours going over Star Trek fan pages and talking with Trekkies online when he wrote the script, trying to tie the movie in with established continuity and lore as much as possible.
While the previous paragraph may not mean much to newer fans, it was refreshing to see the franchise reaching out to older fans again—a lot of us felt like the unwanted step-child back in 2009, and Abrams was kind of a jerk in interviews when talking about the old show and wanting to cut the old guard out in favor of a newer, edgier Trek.
While I praised character development before, the flatness of other characters stood out.
Uhura misses out on the treatment her fellow officers receive, and doesn’t really add much to the story other than a plot point for Spock’s arc. In fact, she acts a lot more like Princess Leia than a Starfleet officer, spouting platitudes like “Unity is strength!” to the main villain, Krall, and insisting that her captain will rescue her.
Even Krall and his allies are pretty much a blank slate until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie. All we know about them is that they’re aliens, and for some reason they hate the Federation enough to kill a lot of people.
When a movie withholds details about the plot or characters to build suspense, it can keep the audience hooked, looking for any clues they can find and wanting more. Not so in Beyond, where at each point details may reside… we simply don’t get them, and the scene cuts away.
Which brings me to another problem with the movie—it feels rushed. Not the whole movie, but the first 20 minutes at least, which have us jump settings three or four times, and again at later points where it would have been nice to have had a split second longer to enjoy the scenery.
Case in point: when the crew docks at Yorktown, a massive new starbase packed with skyscrapers and a giant, spiraling city-scape, we get only a brief pan shot that moves too quickly to make out any detail, and when Yorktown first appears on the main viewscreen of the bridge, the camera pans from Kirk exiting the elevator, to the viewscreen, and then straight back around to the bridge in one unbroken movement. We see the characters visibly reacting to how awesome the artificial planet in front of them is, but we barely get to see it ourselves!
There was probably more here that was cut for time, but I felt like I was watching the movie at 150 percent speed, and that speed increase also took away from some of the realism of the computerized graphics.
In fact, the computer graphics failed to impress in more than one instance—space battles looked a lot more like the Star Wars prequels than Trek film, since hardly any seemed to have been made with practical effects or models. As for aliens, while there were many played by actors in full costume and makeup, the realism of those aliens sharply contrasted with the ones who were put in with green screen.
Enterprise and Deep Space 9, two series that pioneered a lot of the digital effects used in the franchise back in the 90s and early 2000s, did a much better job of blending digital and practical effects, and it was sad to see that go when Beyond had so much more money to work with than either series.
While there were a few quirks this time around, Star Trek: Beyond does a lot more to reconcile between old and new fans, while simultaneously developing its main cast enough to truly stand on its own.
Also, to be fair, I have to say that even the original series took a while before it gained its space-legs, and in a lot of ways, the franchise didn’t really start to pop until Wrath of Khan was released.
The Abrams universe had a lot to prove, and while it still hasn’t completely won me over, it came surprisingly close with this installment—Beyond is to new Trek as Wrath was to old Trek, and I’m actually excited to see where the franchise will go from here, especially with a new TV series on the way.
I give Star Trek: Beyond a B-plus. Points are lost for the weird scene-jumping and pushing so many character details to the final reel, but overall, there was clearly a lot of effort put into getting this one right, and it’s a good movie that I wouldn’t mind seeing again.
Daniel Durand wants to cosplay a Starfleet captain. Ask him for details at firstname.lastname@example.org