There are ghosts floating in the vast cosmos of space. From the moment Prime Spock traveled back in time and effectively rebooted the entire universe, Star Trek has been haunted by what came before. Gone were the thinking man’s plots, the exploration of alien worlds and culture, replaced by space battles, phaser blasts, lens flares…and Beastie Boys? While the new approach brought the series to a more mainstream audience, it felt like a different beast, a poorly realized book adaptation—Star Trek in name only.
For what it’s worth, the Star Trek reboot was successful in what it wanted to be even if what it wanted to be wasn’t essential Star Trek. The actors all embodied the original characters’ spirits, the action was well choreographed, the villain appropriately menacing and tragic. But ignoring the ghosts does not vanquish them as seen in the sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which felt like a rehash of a more successful film.
With the third installment, Star Trek: Beyond, the ghosts, echoes of what came before, remain and are ever-prevalent. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is haunted by the legacy of his father and the vastness of space, but it’s hard not to imagine William Shatner rather than Chris Hemsworth in that role whenever Kirk talks of his old man’s bravery. The ghosts linger as numerous as the stars: the ghosts of the original series and cast, of Leonard Nimoy’s iconic turn as Spock, of the countless spinoff shows and movies that followed. And if not for the ghosts of the Prime Universe, wiped away by the follies of time travel, the deaths of Anton Yelchin and Nimoy lend a melancholy twinge over the whole thing. The Star Trek series has fifty years worth of ghosts, and they’ve all gathered for the party.
It’s not enough for Star Trek: Beyond to be a good film. It has to be a celebration, a reflection on fifty years of Gene Roddenberry’s creation and its significance in the geek/ pop culture canon. It has to honor the legacy and cultural impact of Nimoy and retrospectively provide a final sendoff to Yelchin and his character, Pavel Chekov. Somewhat surprisingly, the film manages to accomplish almost all of that, embracing the spirit of the original series and proving to be the best of the rebooted Kelvin Universe.
It helps to realize that it’s never going to be the original series. Still very much an action adventure film, Star Trek: Beyond won’t win over everyone but will satisfy those discouraged by Into Darkness. It’s helped by a script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, who actually seem to understand the series they’re writing. Gone are Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and their magic blood plot twist. For perhaps the first time, the crew of the Enterprise feel like a fully realized family rather than ‘Captain Kirk and Friends’. There’s camaraderie among them. They use logic to solve problems, play to each other’s strengths, and generally function how you’d imagine a galactic crew to.
Rather than rehashing old Trek storylines, the film opts to explore new territory inspired to a certain degree by the original series. I say “to a certain degree” because you could guess the villain Krall’s plan within the first thirty minutes, but I think that has more to do with the current state of Hollywood. There seems to be a clause that requires all films to end in a large-scale spectacle and for the villain’s plan to be as generic as possible. As good as Idris Elba is as Krall (an original creation for the film), his plan is as cookie-cutter as they come. Elba is menacing in the role, his voice providing gravitas, even if the prosthetics restrict his emotions. The problem is that you never really get to know what makes him tick, and what could have been a tragic Shakespearean story ends predictably. If any series should have smaller, more personal stakes, it’s Star Trek.
The decision to split the characters up into pairs allows the film to explore character dynamics outside of the Enterprise. The two characters that benefit the most from this are Spock and Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Yes, Star Trek: Beyond is the strange Lethal Weapon crossover you never knew you wanted, if both Bones and Spock are Murtaugh and “too old for this shit.” The pairing of the always logical, sometimes literal Spock, played by Zachary Quinto, and the put-upon, exasperated Bones (Karl Urban) is a stroke of comical genius.
And this is really Bones’s movie. After almost not coming back, it’s hard to imagine Beyond without the always reliable Urban. He gets all the best lines and generally feels like an equal and trusted confidant to both Kirk and Spock rather than someone relegated to the background.
For the most part, Beyond embraces its ghosts. Nimoy’s death is handled in an organic way that honors his legacy and ties into Spock’s arc of the film. With the death of his alternative self, Spock questions his place in the universe, and Quinto does excellent work as a younger, more emotional Spock. There’s a moment in the film that both celebrates the original cast and reaffirms the passing of the torch.
Kirk’s arc feels like a natural progression of the character, and he acts as much more of a team player this time around. Pine keeps the rebellious spirit of Kirk but adds a maturity and weariness this time around. Pegg as Montgomery Scott maintains the series’s role as comic relief without ever feeling as if he’s playing to stereotype. Newcomer Sofia Boutella as Jaylah is arguably the film’s biggest addition. Part bad-ass, part naive, she plays well with the rest of the cast, and her character is well designed. Even though her backstory is a bit contrived, she is the poster child for why series’ should strive for originality rather than remaking what came before. Hopefully she’ll be back for the sequel, because it would be a waste if she was a one-off.
Unfortunately, John Cho as Hikaru Sulu and Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura are criminally underused. Much attention has been made recently about making Sulu gay but it barely registers in the film. At a certain point near the end, you’d think Sulu would have more of a reaction, but I guess like Cho’s character in Harold and Kumar, Sulu’s just a really chill dude. Uhura interacts the most with Krall, peeling back the layers of the villain and his plot, but it’s still Kirk who has the endgame boss fight, leaving Uhura as little more than a means to exposition.
Finally, it’s almost impossible to watch Beyond without a twinge of sadness for Anton Yelchin. Having died only a month before the film’s release, the film doesn’t deal with his death, outside of a memorial “For Anton” in the credits, but every time the happy-g0-lucky Chekov appears on screen, his death weighs heavily on the character. Fortunately, as his last foray in the Star Trek universe and one of his final film roles, Yelchin has a larger part in Beyond than in the previous films. A toast between the characters for absent friends is particularly haunting in retrospect.
Justin Lin, best known for all things Fast and Furious, provides a kinetic feel to the action sequences while never devolving into the over-the-topness of that franchise. I can safely say there weren’t any talks of family, bald men in muscle shirts, or street races in sight.
Star Trek: Beyond isn’t perfect. Its villain is as generic as he is menacing, and some characters get marginalized. But it’s the first of the Kelvin Universe that felt like it wanted to be a Star Trek film and honors the legacy of the series while exploring what makes it different. Whether the series reverts back to solely action and little brains or logic remains to be seen, but at least we got one good Star Trek film with these characters and cast. And there wasn’t a lens flare in sight.