Star Trek Beyond Doesn’t Explore Any New Universes, But Has More Fun in the Existing One

By
Photo: Kimberly French/Paramount Pictures

The new Star Trek picture — called, for no particular reason, Star Trek Beyond — is a wild ride, fast and crazy kinetic, a bombardment in the manner of the Fast and the Furious movies by the same director, Justin Lin. Of course, “fast” and “furious” are adjectives that “classic” Trek fans loved the series for not being. But in some ways it’s a relief to leave that more deliberate universe behind. The new, slavishly imitative cast members haven’t made these characters their own, and there’s an eerie quality to their attempts — as if the future will bring not just starships and teleportation but also androids replacing long-dead actors. It’s better to have a well-made, unapologetic action-adventure like this one than a creepy stab at replication.

Not that the script — by actor Simon Pegg and Doug Jung — doesn’t pretend to aim high. Early in Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) stares forlornly into the distance. He’s having a midlife crisis. He wants to leave the untethered world of starships and settle down as an admiral on terra firma — or anywhere firma. This seemed very strange, given that he was handed the command of the Federation’s flashiest vessel straight out of Starfleet Academy (shouldn’t he have served on other ships first?) and that Pine looks as if he’d still be carded when buying beer. Spock (Zachary Quinto), too, is itching to leave the Enterprise, in his case to rebuild the lost civilization of Vulcan. Can these two really be on their way out in only the third movie? It seemed like a setup to me.

But you can forget the jacked-up drama once the Enterprise arrives at Yorktown, a pretzel-tiered metropolis full of CGI and actors with elaborate makeup jobs in the middle of space. (The scenes were shot in Dubai, the continued existence of which seems a shakier prospect than Yorktown’s.) From the moment the starship glides into port, it’s clear that Lin’s visual imagination dwarfs that of his predecessor, J.J. Abrams. So what if his shots streak by so fast you can only half-follow the action? Coherence is a small price to pay for beauty. This is like Abstract Expressionism.

Most of Star Trek Beyond is set on the blue planet Altamid, where the Enterprise is destroyed with sadistic thoroughness, taken apart by scores of little ships that swarm and strike like bees. The crew can’t reach Yorktown or other starships because a storm has knocked out the phone lines — no, actually, it’s because they’re inside a nebula — and you know what that means. The characters are thrown to the winds, leaving them crashed down on Altamid in groups of two.

Kirk and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) dodge the death rays of a small woman with a large rubber brain-pan and then slide down what’s left of the Enterprise’s saucer section. (It looks like the best water park ride imaginable.) A badly wounded Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) sling insults back and forth before realizing that, in the absence of Kirk — who’s like the girl whose attentions they’re fighting for — they have no reason for resenting each other. It’s an especially ridiculous conflict in this new Star Trek series, since Quinto doesn’t have Leonard Nimoy’s talent for appearing utterly neutral while curling his eyebrows with unspoken judgments, thereby driving McCoy the hotheaded humanist into spluttering rages. Quinto has wounded eyes and lips that quiver petulantly. He’s the kind of Spock who should make McCoy say, “Chill out.” As for Urban, he’s the Looney Tunes Junior version of DeForest Kelly. The imitation is a hoot, but it’s just that—an imitation.

A word about Sulu (John Cho), who, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the Enterprise's ensemble, ends up held captive on Altamid: In one earlier scene on Yorktown, there’s a shot of him with his arm around the waist of another man. This is supposed to signal that he’s gay, which has reportedly troubled the original Sulu, George Takei. Takei thinks — rightly, I’m sure — that the revelation has more to do with his own post-Trek celebrity than with the character of Sulu. The only hitch is that there is no character of Sulu. It’s ridiculous to speak of the original Sulu or Chekhov or Uhura as if they’re anything but a Japanese-American actor, an actor with an embarrassingly fake Russian accent, and a leggy African-American actress. The raging camera hog William Shatner made certain that those actors never had anything but the most rudimentary dialogue, and Scotty only got attention because of a few memorable catchphrases. Sulu could don a pink angora sweater and it wouldn’t affect his “character.” He and the new, more assertive Uhura are blank slates on which to write their own stories.  

Pegg, meanwhile, has written himself a lot of good hysterical Scottish shtick, and the movie’s best scenes feature Scotty and an alien named Jaylah — a star turn for Sofia Boutella, who played the baddie in Kingsman: The Secret Service who bisected people with her blade-legs, and who’ll soon be seen in the title role of The Mummy. Boutella has a good, sharp, surly face with an improbably delicate cleft chin. Her features register even under a pound of white makeup slashed with black lightning bolts. Kayla is like a kickboxing Pocahontas. More than anything, she wants revenge on the movie’s number-two villain, who caused the death of her father.

Which brings me to the number-one villain, Krall, who brought down the Enterprise. He’s a huge guy with a leonine-alien face, a thunderous voice, and horrendous diction, which means I never fully caught his reasons for wanting to destroy Yorktown and everything else that the Federation has polluted. I was stunned to learn that under all that prosthetic muck is the great Idris Elba, which suggests the problem with most prosthetics: They make actors as dissimilar as Elba and Oscar Isaac look pretty much alike — and I’d so rather look at Elba’s (or Isaac’s) naked features. Christopher Plummer did the audience (as well as himself) a favor when he refused to submit to six hours of makeup to play a Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Ricardo Montalban needed nothing more than long white tresses and weights to build up his pecs to play the scariest Trek villain of all. That said, I did enjoy the interview in which Elba said his makeup helped him answer the old question, “What’s my motivation?” His motivation was to blast through his scenes so he could get all that fucking rubber off his face.

Despite the complex structure, the movie still comes down to two men pounding on each other in a small space while a clock tick-tocks toward Armageddon. At least Lin knows how to shoot his fights from unexpected angles and with enough spatial-temporal variables to keep us jolt-addicts rocking in our seat, happy to be dizzy.

But Star Trek Beyond is steeped in a larger sadness. Spock’s melancholy is triggered by news of the death of ... well, Spock, meaning the first iteration of Spock, meaning Nimoy, who died before shooting commenced. (If you haven’t seen any films in this new cycle, you won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I barely I have a clue what I’m talking about.) The other loss, of course, was the 27-year-old Yelchin, who died after the film was completed and whose obituaries led with his cartoonish Chekhov (with its deliberately phony Russian accent) rather than the other, more daring performances he had given in all manner of indie films. But in his final turn as Chekhov, he’s so exuberant that he practically bounds from scene to scene, as if he’d finally said to himself, “Chekhov is anyone I want him to be — and I want him to be madly optimistic and alive.” The thought of his tragically absurd death brings you crashing down to Earth. Why do real malfunctioning machines have to mess up our high-tech utopian fantasies?