This is a trend that’s been endemic since the first new Trek film and has only gotten worse with each movie. The original Trek movies always had their special effects moments, but it was always about the thematic story (even if it was a dumb story sometimes) with the action as a seasoning rather than the point. The new movies? Action set after action set piece with a thin connective tissue of something plot-like, normally driven by a villain who would have a more understandable motivation if they were a cardboard cut-out.
And this is the thing. I don’t dislike action movies. I like big, dumb, explodey movies as much as the next person, particularly when they have a thin veneer of science fiction over them to provide rule of cool physics. But those aren’t Star Trek movies. What always made Star Trek special was its philosophical heart and that the story tried–even if it failed sometimes–to be about something bigger than just blowing shit up.
It’s that heart that’s missing from Star Trek Beyond, just like in the other movies.
Probably the best metaphor for the film is Yorktown, the nonsensical, enormous space station that’s been built on the frontier of explored and is densely populated with aliens and humans (including Sulu’s husband and daughter) for reasons that are never explained. The station itself looks like a giant snow globe with a lattice work of open air linear cities built on tubes that star ships go through. There’s free flowing water and air. Every part of the lattice has its own individual gravity. It’s an beautiful design and makes absolutely no goddamn sense as anything that was made specifically to facilitate several interminable action set pieces. It actively aggravated me.
The plot, such as it is, begins and ends at Yorktown. The Enterprise arrives there after letting us know that Jim Kirk and Spock are having individual quarter life crises. An unknown ship comes out of the giant, unexplored nebula (which is apparently full of asteroids, we see later, okay then) and asks for help. Of course the Enterprise goes, and of course it ends up being a trap and of course the Enterprise gets destroyed yet again. The big bad is a complete waste of Idris Elba’s acting talents named Krall, who wants a random MacGuffin off the Enterprise so he can complete his MacGuffin machine and finally
make a fucking cup of coffee murder everyone. Because reasons. The crew, stranded on the planet, meet up with an alien named Jayla, free the rest of their people, and take off in an old Federation ship that Scotty and Jayla manage to repair, all in order to prevent Krall from killing Yorktown.
The extremely thin plot careens from set piece to set piece, contorting to come up with reasons for Kirk to ride around on a motorcycle, or have a fist fight, or for people to fly around in ships in a way that’s visually pretty but very difficult to orient in space. I got tired of the action set pieces. The movie feels longer than it actually is because it’s like okay, here’s a little plot, and now we’re going to pause to randomly run away from something.
Krall is paper-thin even as action movie villains go. Why does he have followers? Where did he get the cool swarm ships? Why does he keep dragging Uhura around and yelling her? Why does he want to destroy Yorktown? What the fuck is “here is where the frontier pushes back” supposed to even mean in the context of his character? There’s what should be a really cool reveal on him at the end, but it doesn’t really explain anything, and it’s completely unearned. There’s nothing before that to hint that there’s more, to build up to it. It’s just suddenly there, and flops because it had no scaffolding of plot holding it up. There might be more commentary to be had here, on Starfleet as a non-military organization, about soldiers being left behind by the society that once depended upon them, but as in ST:ID, any point was hopelessly muddled and underdeveloped to the point of incoherence.
I’m probably making the movie sound worse than it is, but that’s because I’m frustrated. There were some things I truly liked about the movie, and I could see where it could have been so much more if they would have just backed off on the fucking action set pieces and focused on the story. And perhaps some of the overbearing action sequences can be pinned on director Justin Lin, but I think the places where the film really shines are also a sign of his influence.
Lin is best known as the director of several of the Fast & Furious films. Which, yes, Kirk on a motorcycle. But the other major strength of that franchise is its strong ensemble cast, and in each film, everyone gets a moment to be cool. This is the first Trek movie since the reboot in which I felt that everyone in the crew really did get a chance to shine brightly–heck, I think this film did a better job giving everyone a moment than any of the older Trek films did either. Uhura particularly got to stand out even more than in ST:ID, and got to have a couple of cool moments that called on her skills as the comms officer. And when it was character moments, that’s when this movie did feel like it was Star Trek in more than name. Sulu gets to take over command again and we see in him the echo of George Takei’s Sulu in command of the Excelsior. Chekhov gets some one-on-one time with Kirk. The dryly humorous friendship between Spock and Bones gets some much-needed and long-awaited screen time. The new character, Jayla, had some great moments as well, and there’s a plot setup for her potential return, which I’m excited about.
And I’ll admit, for all I bitch about the action set pieces, I fucking loved every moment of action that was accompanied by the Beastie Boys song Sabotage. It was a clever ship battle move backed up by campily bullshit Star Trek science, and as weird as it might sound to say, in that moment it felt gloriously like Trek–but yet unique to this younger, new crew.
I’m frustrated because I want to love these movies. I’m frustrated because I care about the cast, which is still absolutely stand out. I want these films to be successful, but more than that, I want them to be successful and still Star Trek. This one has come the closest of the three, and much credit is probably due to Simon Pegg, who was one of the writers for the script and who deeply loves Star Trek in the same way I do. Star Trek Beyond proved that the reboot could finally move past cannibalizing the plots of the original, and I’m grateful for that, make no mistake. But here’s hoping it can also move beyond the soulless action effects blockbuster formula and become the franchise the cast and the fans deserve.
Notes for this film have been posted on my Patreon.