It’s Eric, an admitted non-Trekker, with some reflections on Star Trek Beyond.
Is there a better rebooter in the industry than J.J. Abrams? His last directing effort, a little film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, expertly combined the franchises’ original charm and simplicity with a new sparkle that made it the best in the series since 1983. And when Abrams kicked off Star Trek in 2009 for a new generation, he seemed similarly to balance many of the qualities dear to Trekkers’ hearts while introducing a new audience (of which I was one) to the series.
Abrams also directed the next installment, Into Darkness, but here on Beyond serves as producer only while the director reigns go to Justin Lin. Lin is an expert action director and has delivered some killer set pieces in volumes three through six of the Fast and the Furious franchise...
It’s easy to underestimate what Lin brings to the table in those films, and in fact his loss was felt in this most recent fllm of that series (Furious 7) because Lin brought a heightened tongue-in-cheek quality that allowed viewers to get hyped up on the film’s basic preposterousness. Furious 7 had zero cleverness.
The big difference between the Furious and Star Trek franchises is that Star Trek has heart, a quality that comes easily to Abrams but not so easily to Lin. When the actors from Furious deliver their lines woodenly, it’s part of the endemic fabric of that world: they’re all such cardboard movie characters that you’re willing to sail through the actual scenes to get back to the peerless action. But with Star Trek (and Star Wars), the characters, though certainly movie creations, have cultural resonance, and the interrelationships matter. Lin strands the actors here in Beyond, and he gives them no pacing: an early drinking scene between Chris Pine and Karl Urban is so awkward it’s painful. At the end of the picture, he blows a key shot which gathers all the main players by cutting away before they even congregate properly, switching over to the Enterprise itself. One of the reasons the Star Trek films work so well is because we care about those characters, particularly as a collective. In Beyond, the actors are present and game, and you can see their ease and happiness with each other, but Lin never allows that chemistry to resonate as it did in the first two installments.
Star Trek Beyond does have a very simple and creaky plot involving a rescue on another planet, and an underdeveloped bad guy in the form of Idris Elba, with his movie-star face sadly covered by makeup throughout the film. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s script incorporates such clunker chestnuts as a weapon of mass destruction that needs not one but two pieces to work properly, and the thoroughly untrustworthy guide who everyone blindly puts their trust in!
There are still pleasures to be had in this installment, though. Lin and the production designers once again capture that slight element of cheesiness from the original series that makes everything feel handmade and endearing. Star Trek Beyond never gets bad, but it never gets particularly good, feeling perfunctory in a way that’s just a little depressing for a franchise steeped in so much sweetness and goodwill.