Star Trek is weird. It has a big following, but Star Trek’s fandom tends to intertwine more with other nerd cultures than your average fandom. This is because Trekkies love something more than just the in-depth worldbuilding or the fascinating characters or dynamics of an ensemble crew in exciting situations. Being a Trekkie doesn’t just mean that you enjoy discussing story theories endlessly or consuming tons tangential material or cosplaying, though Trekkies do all of these things. I think that the major thread that ties Trekkies together is their love for well-told stories that address difficult issues in thought-provoking ways. They love Star Trek because it is nuanced and morally complex and incredibly relevant to the human experiment as it stands now. Because of this, I’ve been fascinating with the JJ Abrams era Star Trek films, and the way they have experimented with ways to draw in new fans in ways that will allow them to bridge to the Trekkie culture at large, while also giving stories that still try to maintain some element of that core nugget of Trek fandom. Unfortunately, Star Trek Beyond doesn’t even attempt this; it is the most shallow of all the Star Trek films, with the thinnest threads of story holding together a bunch of action sequences.
After watching the film, I had to think for a few hours about what the film was trying to say. What was its thesis. There is a line that says something basically like “we are stronger united,” but it was such a throwaway line that basically has no payoff. There was a throwaway line about how it can be easy to lose yourself out in deep space, but they never developed that thread either.
Eventually it hit me. The first five minutes or so are narration from Kirk where he basically sums up what the crew did during Star Trek: The Original Series; they’ve been traveling around to different planets, exploring and trying to find new life and broker peace between them. The camera goes around the Enterprise and shows a clean and pristine ship with people living their lives interrupted by brief but unrelated missions on different planets, and then returning to their mostly administrative and typical lives. Essentially, this first part makes the argument that Star Trek: The Original Series is boring. Then, they arrive at a space station, all hell breaks loose, the Enterprise is destroyed and left in this complex and dangerous action set piece. All the crew are portrayed by a young and beautiful and incredibly fit cast, and the film uses every opportunity to capitalize on their attractiveness. They barely survive [insert villain’s] dastardly plane, they find [insert McGuffin], and then they do a crazy scene with a motorcycle interspersed with some movie Kung Fu. Kirk goes back to talk to his superiors, they offer him a desk job, and he says “Where’s the fun in that?”
The message of the film is simple. “Star Trek: TOS was boring. These films are fun. Look, sexy young people.” When it was announced that Justin Lin would be coming in to direct this film, a lot of people were rightly worried that it would turn into Fast and Furious in Space. What I didn’t expect was that they would not only make that film, but they would also set up a condescending subtext that basically tells Trek culture that the thing they love most about Star Trek is something boring and stupid, and that the point of that film was to blow all that crap up and leave you with this new and improved Trek. At least the previous two Trek films made overtures to Trek fandom. You could make the argument that they were supposed to a entry point into the culture that had a lower barrier to entry. Beyond doesn’t care about any of that. It’s not for them. It’s just Fast and Furious in Space, and it’s proud of it.
I had fun watching the film, but that’s it. It’s shallow, there is no plot, and it’s a complete tragedy of a Star Trek movie. But it was a pretty good Fast and Furious movie. With all of that said, let’s talk about some details with the cast and crew!
Cast and Crew
Justin Lin does a fine job at doing exactly the thing that he’s doing. The film is very action heavy, and each bit of story really just serves to get us to the next set piece for another action sequence. Lin gets above average commitment from his cast, but everyone seems to be aware that they are their for their sex appeal and their ability to pull off some complicated action move. The great thing about Lin is he knows what kind of crazy sequence is going to look great. Nothing demonstrates this better than Yorktown, which is the big space station at the center of the story. It is tremendous, housing probably tens of millions of people, and the different parts of the space station all fold back on each other to get a dizzying location with incredible shots. But what makes it clever is that Lin develops this space station not just because it will look cool, but because it will make for the perfect location for the incredibly intricate action sequence that happens at the climax. The only unfortunate thing is that none of it is based anywhere near the realm of physics, but who cares, right?
Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are the writers, and I don’t have much to say about them other than what I already said. They apparently wanted people to know that this is the kind of film that’s being made, so deal with it.
If there are two things that redeem the film at all, they are the performances of Zachary Quinto and Idris Elba. Quinto is perfect in his role as Spock; it is a true credit to the casting team that they got him on board for the film, but it’s also important to recognize that Quinto made good friends with Leonard Nimoy, and shows an incredible respect for the complexity and importance of Spock’s character. Additionally, Nimoy passed away between the last film and this one, and it is incredibly apparent that Quinto made that central to his performance. For Idris Elba, he plays the role of villain very well, and every scene where he is speaking or acting is good, but his character is still wasted with vague motivations and no coherent plan. Elba does well with what he is given, but he’s just not given enough for it to be relevant.
Ok, I lied. The other redeeming part of the film is MIchael Giacchino’s score. This shouldn’t be a surprise since everything he does is gold, but he does an incredible job on this film. You might recognize Giacchino’s work from Zootopia, Jurassic World, Inside Out, John Carter, Cars 2, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Up, and Ratatouille, as well as the TV Series Lost. Giacchino always does great work with his scores, but his Star Trek films are my favorites, and this is because of the ways that he subtly builds the original themes of other Star Trek stories into the film. There are substantial callbacks to TOS, but there is also plenty of connection to the various films and characters and even particularly relevant episodes. Most people won’t even know what he’s doing, but if you listen closely, you can pick out some of the cool things he does. Giacchino has already put up an incredibly impressive career, but I think this film in particular is one of his best works, and I’m excited to see where he goes in the future.
Stephen Windon is the cinematographer, and he’s done about what you would have expected him to do: A bunch of Fast and Furious films, and also The Patriot and Deep Blue Sea. He’s part of the Fast and Furious package, and perfectly represents what happened with the rest of this film. He does great work with a camera when you are looking for neat visuals or exciting action, but it’s not like his cinematography says anything. There might not be anyone better at communicating the action and tension of a frenetic action scene, but the camera work on the other scenes did nothing for me, especially the scenes that could do the most work bringing in fans of the series.
I wish there were more to this film, but there isn’t, and I guess that’s fine if you’re just looking an action packed space movie, but it’s really hard to point at this film and claim that it represents anything that makes a Star Trek story.