Star Trek has always been more about ideas than people, about universal themes that govern all forms of life, from this galaxy to the next. That’s what the best of the movies and TV series accomplished – a sense of human and spiritual discovery. Star Trek Beyond doesn’t go that far, but takes Trek’s central theme and turns it into blockbuster entertainment. This is a ferocious action movie that beats with the heart of a science-fiction generation.
I can’t say Beyond is the best of the Trek movies, but it’s pretty darn good. It feels like a thoughtful space adventure and not just a mishmash of clanging sounds and wall-to-wall special effects (though there’s plenty of that). Yes, it’s very much about its people, the crew of the Enterprise, but it also ventures into deep space and comes back with a peril that threatens mankind. That’s a page right out of the original TV show. This is the first of all the movies to seek out new life and new civilisations, and go where no one has gone before.
All the other Trek movies have revolved around dramatic villains, forgetting that the concept of a trek does not require combat. This time, the Enterprise pursues a distress call to an unknown corner of the galaxy before succumbing to a horrific attack by what I can only describe as a swarm of mechanical starlings. It rips the starship apart and strands the crew on a nearby planet, which is run by the vile and mysterious Krall (Idris Elba), a lurching, wheezing menace with a plan that continues Star Trek’s tradition of commenting on current world events. This time it’s terrorism and mass hysteria.
I enjoyed many of the older movies for their sincerity in the face of diminishment. The original cast knew as they got older that their time aboard the Enterprise was approaching twilight, and they softened their performances accordingly. This new crew is now in its third film. They’re upbeat, charismatic, wise beyond their years. They genuinely seem to be having fun, which is what Trek stories require. One of the marvels of the TV show was the way Shatner, Nemoy and Kelley treated absurd developments with a kind of flippant urgency. They knew they were dealing with gobbledygook. They just pretended they weren’t. This little trick is reassuringly brought forward into Beyond, which places comedy above gloom, and the crew of the Enterprise above everything else.
The entire movie feels like an expanded episode of Star Trek, fattened by fight scenes and explosions. It doesn’t bore us with the usual library of villains, like Klingons or Romulans, or more interestingly, the Borg, but introduces new races and new species, including a powerhouse character called Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a whitewashed warrior equipped with cunning gadgets, and a curious Starfleet alien with a facehugger growing out of her head. Some of the best Star Trek episodes were about discovering strange and outlandish creatures like these. Beyond adopts the formula and warps away with it.
This is the thirteenth Trek movie, on the fiftieth anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s creation, and oddly enough it feels fresher and more alive than the past five put together. It’s because the story has respectfully returned to its roots while understanding that in this 21st Century, it also has to be a loud, bombastic action-fest. Star Trek was not made to resemble a high-speed car chase, but it does, and to my astonishment, it works.