Early in Star Trek Beyond is a striking sequence that offers a vision of something Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland strained for but failed to deliver: It gives us a wondrous sci-fi conception of a community of tomorrow — a community unbound from the normal limitations of planetary gravitational conditions, with a roughly horizontal foundational plane and a perpendicular third dimension in which up and down are virtually parallel everywhere you go.
Tomorrowland tried to realize something like this, with its glass-bottom hover-trains and floating force-field swimming-pool arrays. As dazzling as the visuals were, though, it was transparently window dressing; Tomorrowland never felt like a real, livable place where real stories could be set (and, as the plot hashes out, it was never intended to be).
Yorktown — an immense starbase where the Enterprise docks for shore leave and restocking midway through its five-year mission — is different. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before: a futuristic Escher drawing mapped on interlocking Mobius strips, evoking Inception, Elysium and the Olympus of George Pérez’s Wonder Woman comics, but going beyond all of them.
Yorktown is a real community, and while most of the story isn’t set there, we are meant to care about it — and I do. There will never be a Star Trek: Yorktown TV series — but there could be, and I would watch it, or at least give it a try.
This is something that has been missing from Star Trek for a while: an arresting picture of a shiny, hopeful future worth dreaming of. Better yet, it seems the crew of this rebooted timeline are finally beginning to take on the ideals of that hopeful future — and, in a heavily made-up Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond has a villain who directly cross-examines those ideals from a place that I can’t exactly call surprising, but that at least works better than the motivations of the last two villains.
Credit co-writers Simon Pegg, who plays Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, and Doug Jung, taking the reboot reins from Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Lindelof and company played the reboot too dark. Director J.J. Abrams claimed after the fact that his overused lens flares were meant to suggest the brightness of the future, but all the white flashes in the world couldn’t brighten the mass murder of Kirk’s entire Starfleet graduating class and the annihilation of the Vulcan homeworld in the 2009 film, or the Federation corruption and global terrorism fears of Into Darkness.
Credit, too, new director Justin Lin, of the Fast and Furious franchise, with how he shoots that lovely Yorktown sequence. His wheeling camera emphasizes the wonder of its varying planes of reference — a technique he brings to many of the hyperkinetic action scenes that follow, a surprising number of which also take place in spaces in which up and down can be arbitrary, varying or entirely irrelevant.
There’s lots of sliding, jumping and moves that are hard to characterize, because why would we have a word for that? If it’s not exactly Fast and Furious in Space, as some fans feared, it does find a reason for Kirk to go off-road motorcycling, and the Beastie Boys make a more than passing contribution to the soundtrack (with a very funny punchline from Bones). It’s not saying much, but Star Trek Beyond is probably this summer’s most entertaining popcorn film to date.
“It can be a challenge to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial,” Chris Pine’s James Kirk remarks in an opening voice-over, adding that life on the Enterprise has begun to feel “episodic.”
Some critics have complained that, despite its (random, inaccurately) ambitious title, Star Trek Beyond feels too much like a TV show episode, with a crisis of the week neatly resolved in two hours without much changing. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. At least there’s a clear beginning, middle and end; it doesn’t leave dangling threads for the next film to tie up, the way the Marvel movies do.
The cast delivers solidly; I’m not sure if they’re gelling better or if the writing and direction is responsible for using the ensemble to best advantage.
The plot, which leaves the crew scattered and marooned on a desolate planet, naturally throws Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s Bones together, and then finds a reason to keep throwing them together. Also paired are Kirk and Chekov, played in his last role by the late Anton Yelchin — the rebooted Trek’s alpha male and its wide-eyed youth.
Algerian dancer and actress Sofia Boutella plays a tough alien warrior chick also marooned on the planet; she fits right into the rebooted franchise and will certainly be seen again. She also introduces some nifty new tech into the franchise, which, like most new tech, will probably never be seen again.
Zoe Saldana’s Uhura isn’t given enough to do, alas. The much-debated revisionary revelation of Sulu’s gay identity is limited to a token, dialogue-free shot of a family reunion involving another man and a young girl. On the other hand, there are no cheesecake shots of women (alien or otherwise) in lingerie, and Kirk doesn’t get a bedroom scene.
For creator Gene Roddenberry, ground zero for Trek’s ideals was on the bridge of the Enterprise herself, with the requisite white American hero flanked by a black female officer, an Asian helmsman, a Russian ensign and a science officer who, being half-human and half-extraterrestrial, was “Otherness personified,” as someone remarked on NPR last year when Leonard Nimoy died.
The crew of the Enterprise reflected the hope of the Federation, an advanced, enlightened United Nations of planets banded together in harmony and friendship, a shining city on a hill in the galaxy, looking outward toward the unknown with open-minded and openhearted curiosity and a spirit of exploration and discovery.
Roddenberry used science fiction partly to critique humanity’s foibles — often symbolically, in the various alien civilizations the crew encountered, but also directly, in the Enterprise crew themselves, particularly when they encountered more advanced races.
But Star Trek was mostly driven by an ideal of achievable utopian progress, of a humanistic perfectability of mankind and society. This vision wasn’t always plausible, but it stood as an aspirational counterpoint to darker, pessimistic science fiction — to the paranoid fears of War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the dystopian anxieties of the likes of The Time Machine and Planet of the Apes.
Over time, particularly in early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, that optimistic vision ossified to a heavy-handed, dramatically limiting extreme. Later writing, particularly in Deep Space Nine, recovered a sense of the ambiguity and messiness of the human condition, while still extolling the essential ideals and optimism of the Federation, in principle.
If Star Trek Beyond doesn’t entirely recapture Roddenberry’s utopian optimism, it’s at least compatible with it. To the extent that it has a theme, the theme is strength in unity — that all of us are stronger than any of us separately.
Elba’s villain disputes this: He considers unity to be weakness and the Federation to be a lie. It’s not surprising that a climactic battle set piece ends with a gonzo vehicle-related stunt. It might be a little surprising that the import of the stunt is not just that the good guys win, but also that promises are honored and your allies have your back.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense action violence; disturbing sci-fi killings; brief mildly suggestive content; a brief scene implying a same-sex relationship. Mature teens and up.