Star Trek Beyond (2016) Review

Early in this film, Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine), three years into his five year mission waxes into his captain’s log that “Things are starting to feel a little episodic” aboard the Enterprise; unintentionally summarizing my feelings about this entire movie. For better and for worse, Star Trek Beyond feels like a two hour, $185 Million episode of the original Star Trek.

A big part of that is that this movie has no pacing, or rather it has one pretty brisk pace that it manages to keep up for its entire runtime. Basically, right after Kirk’s spot of ennui and a quick stop at the space-base Yorktown for refueling and so that the movie can address the death of Leonard Nimoy, the Enterprise crew rockets into space for another adventure where they find themselves trapped on an alien planet with an evil warlord who wants to use a superweapon to destroy Yorktown and the rest of the Federation. For Star Trek, the destruction of a planet is mere table stakes, and this entry does nothing to raise them.

All of this makes the film feel like a single act drawn out over two hours. And while it’s an act full of epic space battles and smart ensemble character writing and relationships, nothing in this movie feels important. There are no arcs, no peaks or valleys, nothing to indicate that any individual scene or moment has more narrative value than any other. And because of this, a little over half-way in, it begins to feel like the film should have ended if not for it adding a little bit more to extend the runtime. Everyone is rescued and can escape the planet – The End…except the villain decides to attack Yorktown right now. Destroy the villain’s fleet in a super silly, super satisfying spectacle of space explosions – The End…except the main baddie is still alive. And it isn’t that any of it feels tacked on, or that any of it is bad; but because of the absolute lack of narrative pacing and benchmarks, Star Trek Beyond becomes a bit of a marathon, asking if the viewer can keep pace with the film until the film decides its run long enough.

And yet, I wouldn’t want to call this movie a “slog” because it is quite enjoyable. The two space battles that kind-of mark the beginning and ending of this movie are incredibly fun spectacles that follow multiple perspectives as characters race around their ships as their ships rocket through space while exploding or making everything explode around them. And unlike many other contemporary action movies, all of it is completely legible action. The camera sweeps and pans instead of shakes. Things fare just as well when the action moves to the alien planet’s surface, and we get more on-foot chases and hand-to-hand combat.

The bridge crew of the Enterprise feel appropriately close to each-other and lived-in. We understand immediately who’s closest friends to whom, which relationships are more rocky, which are built on a healthy rivalry rather than outward affections, etc. And each of the crew have distinct characters, abilities, personalities, and accents, that all shine through in every scenario they’re in. They trust each-other, joke around, share drinks, and understand each other as an actual crew of three years might. They’re all fun characters, but none of them are given a real arc to work with. The movie basically says that they’re perfect as they are, and while it’s hard to disagree, it also means there’s no real drama to be found in them.

The film’s weakest character is the villain, Krall (Idris Elba), mainly because he’s a single-shot TV episode villain. Despite being given a solid history and motivation, his MO never quite gels. Krall is a character who hates unity, thinking it makes people weak and complacent, whose main weapons are described multiple times in-movie as “bees” – the species we get the term “hive mind” from.

Unfortunately, I feel like the best thing I can say about Star Trek Beyond is that it’s a fun way to spend two hours in an air-conditioned room in the middle of summer. And I do mean that in the best possible way. Beyond has fun characters and thrilling action, but doesn’t feel like anything more than just another episode.

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