The existence of the Kelvin Universe, the official designation for the alternate timeline spinoff universe established by J.J. Abrams in 2009, will probably forever be a sticking point for fans of Star Trek. There are those who hate it, calling the entire ordeal unnecessary at best and the antithesis of all things Trek at worst. Then there are those who appreciate the alternate timeline for bringing classic Trek characters into the modern age so that we might see them from new angles.
Were this a political spectrum, you could call me a centrist. There are a lot of things about the Kelvin Universe that I admire as a long time Trekkie; Abrams did a remarkable job at updating the original concept and framing it with a lexicon that can be better understood by the uninitiated. That being said, the arguments against the new timeline make sense, and there’s something to be said about losing the original, “Go where no one has gone before” ethos which was, ultimately, lacking in the first two entries of the new franchise.
Star Trek Beyond, the third offering into the new Trek timeline, does a remarkable job at blending the opposing ethos of old and new together to create a unique Star Trek experience that will both please and enrage fans in equal measures. Old fans will be surprised to discover that the movie, in many ways, manages to capture the original intent almost perfectly while decrying the inclusion of the kind of real world grounding which has permeated the new series (Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” for instance, is included). Fans that like the action packed reverie of the new series might find themselves slightly bored by the relatively slow pacing that mirrors the original series while still adoring the performances of the cast and the movie’s effects.
My relationship to this, like my relationship to its two immediate predecessors, is best defined as “it’s complicated.” I liked a lot about the new movie, especially in its first two acts, though I did find myself rolling my eyes at some of the more ridiculous moments, especially in its final act. Overall, however, it’s a solid, mostly enjoyable return to form for Star Trek that never manages to be entirely memorable.
The film opens about three years into the Enterprise’s famed five year mission (a subtle nod to the original series, which ended after three seasons). The crew is suffering from a case of mission fatigue, having grown bored by the day to day monotony of space travel, and looking forward to some shore leave at the new, massive space station Yorktown (sort of like the Death Star, but friendly). When the station receives a distress message from an alien ship, the Enterprise and her crew travel to a nearby nebula, where they encounter a hostile alien force led by Krall (Idris Elba) and become stranded on a strange new world. Now, Kirk and his crew must find a way to escape Krall’s clutches and return to Yorktown before the alien can destroy the station and declare war on the Federation.
It’s a classic Star Trek set up executed with all the pomp and bombast that the Kelvin Universe has to offer. While the film never attempts to create a bold new view of Star Trek, that’s arguably a good thing. Where Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness failed, in the eyes of many, was in their attempts to reimagine Gene Roddenberry’s space-faring utopia as something more akin to traditional modern sci-fi. Star Trek was never intended to be a space opera in the vein of Flash Gordon or Star Wars; rather, it was a tale of discovery and of man’s highest capabilities.
That’s what we’re given, for the most part, with Beyond. It’s a tale of exploration and discovery, one that, in many cases, take places in the psyche of the characters. Kirk and Spock, for example, are both overcome with existential angst over their futures with Starfleet and begin the movie with dealing with the forces of boredom and duty. Kirk thinks maybe he would like to give up being a captain for a cushy, admiral position; Spock thinks maybe his duties as a Vulcan might mean he’s needed more on New Vulcan than on a Starfleet vessel.
These internal battles are mirrored well-enough by their battles with Krall, whose place in the canon of Trek villainy lies somewhere between Shinzon (from Nemesis) and Nero (from 2009’s Star Trek). He’s neither particularly memorable, like Khan or Q, nor ridiculous like Commander Kruge. Serviceable. That’s the word for him.
That might be the word to describe the movie overall, in fact. As much as it often feels like an episode of the original series, it kind of feels like one of those episodes you never discuss, even if you secretly love it. As Trek as it is, it’s never the interesting Trek. It’s never revelatory, or groundbreaking, it just sort of is. Which is good enough for most of the movie; the first two acts are smartly written and well-paced and suggest the kind of greatness the Kelvin universe is capable of achieving, in the right hands. The problem is its third act and conclusion.
Director Justin Lin does a fine enough job handling the film’s dramatic moments and characters; anyone concerned that the movie would be little more than The Fast and the Furious in Space can be comforted in the knowledge that, overall, the Trek is respected. The Abrams fueled lens-flare is toned down and, despite some odd camera angles here and there, the film does look remarkable. Its third act, though, quickly descends into various action set pieces that have become the hallmark of the new series.
In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. As into Star Trek as I am, I see no problem with updating the action to better fit the audiences of today. Still, as the film warps towards its conclusion, there are more than a few eye rolling moments and twists that very nearly (but not quite) ruin the good will that may have been built up over the film’s first 90 minutes. I won’t reveal any specifics, but I will say that there’s a moment when Kirk and his crew literally “Sabotage” their enemy.
Still, as much as Star Trek Beyond’s finale left a bad taste in my mouth, it’s difficult to deny that the film has its moments and that it very nearly becomes the finest example of the Star Trek universe depicted in this alternate timeline. I don’t suspect that it’ll be enough to win over its detractors, but for those who feel that any Trek is better than no Trek, Beyond is a decent enough journey into the final frontier.
Star Trek Beyond is now playing in theaters everywhere.