For all its cerebral ideas and sociopolitical allegories, the original ‘60s Star Trek offered just as many brightly-colored space adventures, where James Kirk punched big green lizard men, yelled at Greek gods, and teamed up with Abraham Lincoln to fight Hitler. (Seriously, look it up). The JJ Abrams-helmed rebooted series has thus far leaned heavily into that sense of campy adventure, ironically faltering when it pretends to have something to say (see: 2013’s Into Darkness). Luckily, with Abrams too busy with Star Wars, this third installment directed by Justin Lin (Fast and the Furious) has given the series the shot in the arm it desperately needed, solidifying its strengths while bringing just enough of that old magic to address most of its weaknesses.
Three years into their five-year mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise are sent out to investigate a crashed ship on a planet beyond a mysterious nebula. If you’ve seen the trailers, none of the following is a spoiler: A mysterious black swarm of razor-sharp drones ambushes the Enterprise, tearing it apart and capturing its crew. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rest of the bridge crew separate and crash-land on a nearby planet, forcing them to fight for their lives to save their crew from the dreaded Krall (Idris Elba), a humanoid with a mysterious vendetta against the Federation.
The first thing you notice about Star Trek Beyond is that, for all its bombast, the film’s scale is refreshingly small. Earth is nowhere to be seen, most of the action takes place on the rocky terrain of an alien planet, and the stakes are limited to “how do we get off this planet and stop the bad guy?” The bad guy, of course, being Elba’s Krall, who gets to lumber around and shout about how unity is bad and conflict is good, isn’t given enough to do even after the genuinely inventive reveal of who he really is. (Don’t worry, he’s not Khan. I promise.) Since the entire universe isn’t in immediate danger this time, Beyond gets to hone in on the characters a bit more, and the reduced scope makes it feel more like yet another adventure in the final frontier.
The Enterprise is nothing without its crew, though, and they’ve really come into their own three films in. Pine’s Kirk has never been better, bringing a much-needed hint of maturity to his improved Shatnerian swagger. Quinto and Karl Urban get quite a bit of time together to lay the foundation for the kind of Spock/Bones rivalry we saw in the original show, and their scenes particularly shine. Naturally, Scotty gets much more screentime (since Simon Pegg co-wrote the script), but he’s served well with the addition of newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a feisty but underserved warrior outcast I hope we see fleshed out in the next one. When you enjoy a crew this in tune with each other, it’s doubly sad every time you see Anton Yelchin’s youthful face on screen. Getting the crew together sans Chekov for a fourth film will be bittersweet, especially since this film gives them time to truly feel like family.
If you’re a Trek fan upset at the reboot’s blockbuster-izing of the franchise, it’s likely that Beyond’s small recalibrations will not be enough to change your mind. At its core, the JJ-verse is still a dumb, loud vehicle for big-budget action set pieces and nonstop explosions, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a tense sci-fi drama with more talking than punching. Within that framework, though, Star Trek Beyond excels: Lin is one of the best directors working in the action genre today, and his command of the proceedings here is superlative. It’s actually impressive how he is able to adapt and build upon Abrams’ famously kinetic camera to create inventive compositions while still honoring the series’ house style. Some sequences get a bit samey (the climax is far too reminiscent of Into Darkness), but there’s enough ingenuity to keep you entertained.
Star Trek Beyond is a vast improvement from the sloppy Into Darkness, bringing it on par with the excellent ’09 reboot in terms of sheer quality and chemistry. Beyond is the perfect kind of movie for this light, breezy, action-adventure tone on which the rebooted Trek series has landed. If the Star Trek movies aren’t allowed to spice up the ubiquitous ‘rescue mission in a California quarry’ with a dirt bike chase and some Beastie Boys, I don’t know what is.