For just a few delirious minutes at the opening of Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the latest Trek reboot cycle, director Justin Lin (Fast And The Furious 3 through 6) and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung appear to be making a comedy. It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the last Trek movie to let its characters be loopy, relaxed, and even silly for more than the space of a line or a scene. The new Trek movies have allowed humor through the door, but it’s mostly been a shoulder-punching bro humor, focused on James T. Kirk’s belligerence or his bedroom habits. But Beyond’s opening is a strong reminder that heroes are more fun when they have a chance to breathe outside of crisis, and drop their mean mugs for a while. Things get meta, with Kirk (Chris Pine) complaining after an away mission that he’s torn his shirt again (a running theme on the original 1960s Trek), wearily contemplating a closet full of identical yellow command jackets, and worrying that his adventures have gotten — wink wink, TV fans — “a little episodic.” An early diplomatic errand even turns into a visual gag reminiscent of Galaxy Quest. It’s a softer, more audience-inclusive kind of humor than Trek’s allowed before, and for these precious minutes, the film is self-aware and funny, instead of dripping with angst, anger, and panic.
That doesn’t last. The previous Trek film, Star Trek Into Darkness, ended with the Enterprise and its crew headed out on an unprecedented, much-coveted five-year exploration mission, as Kirk’s latest reward for breaking every Starfleet rule he could think of. Beyond finds the ship three years into that mission, with Kirk bored, disillusioned, and (improbably as hell) planning to resign his beloved command in favor of a desk job. His first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is angsty for different reasons: after the death of alternate-timeline Old Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, who gets a quiet, touching tribute), New Spock is pondering his mortality and his duty to the Vulcan people. But then a distressed alien (Lydia Wilson) shows up at Starfleet’s biggest, newest, most advanced outpost asking for help. Her story leads Kirk and crew to a planet where among other things, they encounter a life-draining despot named Krall (Idris Elba) and an angry refugee named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). The former tries to kill them and the latter tries to help them, and from that point on, the film is mostly one action scene after another, with enough constant, immediate threat to keep adrenaline-junkie Kirk keen to stay in the captain’s chair.
Lin's usual directorial dynamism seems like a natural fit for the revved-up new Star Trek films, but given how visually manic Star Trek Into Darkness was, there aren't many ways for him to speed things up here. If anything, he makes more sedate camera choices than J.J. Abrams did in Into Darkness; Lin tends to stick with a shot instead of lunging for the characters' faces, or twisting off in random directions. That doesn't slow the film down at all, but does rein in Abrams' more hyperbolic tendencies, and it emphasizes the characters over the camera work.
Lin's take on Trek is just close enough to Abrams' to make Star Trek Beyond feel like a natural continuation of the series. Abrams' Trek reboots have had a giddy, manic tone from his first introduction of Kirk as a defiant kid driving his stepdad's classic car off a cliff for no clear reason, to the tune of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." (That moment gets a major callback in Beyond, in a sequence that's a little bit triumphant payoff, a little bit cheesy fan service, and a big chunk of Mars Attacks rip-off.) They've found excuses to turn nearly every moment into a frantic race against the clock, driving the characters from one hair's-breadth escape to the next. The latest installment is no exception: as soon as the Enterprise crew arrives at their latest destination, they're under the kind of constant heavy threat that blockbusters use to shout down reasonable thought and obvious questions.
Here, those questions loom past the end of the film. Star Trek Beyond front-loads the story with destruction and devastation, then rushes through the backstory so close to the end that there's no time to fill in all the mystifying gaps. Just as it's never clear why Kirk somehow thinks piloting a space-station desk might be more fulfilling and less "episodic" than space exploration, the film skims past Krall's motives, and in both cases, the lack of explanation nullifies the threat. It never seems likely that impatient, reckless Kirk might actually give up the job he loves. And Krall winds up as about as generic a baddie as the Trek movies have provided to date. His manifesto amounts to "Unity is bad, fighting is good, so the Federation should die," which barely counts as a bumper sticker, let alone a meaningful credo. A late-film reveal fleshes him out slightly, but only makes his intentions more petty, irrational, and difficult to buy. And it certainly doesn't help that Beyond follows in the footsteps of X-Men: Apocalypse in hiring a charismatic, flexible actor as the antagonist, then hiding him behind latex, makeup, and monosyllabic dialogue.
Star Trek: Beyond does have a strength that its two reboot predecessors lacked: it puts the focus squarely on the larger Trek ensemble, rather than solely on Kirk and his relationships. The captain still gets plenty to do — once again, the fate of untold numbers of people comes down to a fistfight on a CGI set — but he isn't the maverick lone hero he tried so hard to be in the first film.
An early calamity separates the Enterprise crew, putting Kirk with Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin, who also gets a quiet acknowledgement in the credits), forcing frenemies Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) into a solo survival scenario, and leaving Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) to face Krall alone. Each of these pair-offs have their own particular problems to solve to move the story forward, and each pairing emphasizes what the characters are made for — Uhura as a fighter and communicator, Chekov as an enthusiastic problem-solver, Sulu as a leader-in-training, and so forth. The Spock / Bones sequences in particular finally lets the iconic relationship between these characters flower again, with all its sneering digs and sullen mutual respect. It also finally gives Urban something to do in this series besides undermining other characters as they struggle to make hard decisions under immense pressure. The pairings bring out new energy in the characters, and give Beyond more of a diverse focus on different personalities and different problems. The downside is that the story feels rushed and fractured, always diving desperately from one scene to the next. But like the Fast And Furious films, Beyond finally feels like it's about family, about a closely connected ensemble of hyper-competents fighting for their lives — and more importantly, for each other.
While all this is going on, Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg) winds up with Jaylah, a refugee on Krall's planet. She's mighty reminiscent of The Force Awakens' Rey: a tough survivalist with endless mechanical aptitude, a grudging truce with the other indigenous scroungers, a weapon that's more or less a quarterstaff spangled with tech scraps, and a chip on her shoulder about the fate of her family. (Her striking character design, centered around high-contrast facial paint, also looks more like alien stylings from the Star Wars series than like traditional Trek looks, which are more often built around prosthetics, or recently, CGI.) Jaylah feels a bit like a half-hearted corrective to Trek's gender-balance problem, especially since she represents so many familiar kick-ass-lady stereotypes, but Boutella plays her with plenty of appealing swagger and intensity, and the film does a nice job of keeping her relevant to the story without trying to turn her into a sex object or a target.
And that story at least feels like it's moving the Trek narrative forward, even when the villainy is so backward. The Abrams reboot era isn't over yet — the next sequel has already been green-lit — and with Beyond, it feels like it's just now loosening up enough to have fun with itself and to fully stretch out and enjoy its characters. At this point, the franchise is ripe for an installment with a little internal logic and a newly created villain as thought-through and resonant as Khan, the one it borrowed from its predecessors for Into Darkness. But until a richer villain and more thought-out story come along, we at least have this chapter, which offers fans of the original Trek world some of the things they've most wanted: space to enjoy all their old heroes, and reasons to respect them again.