While watching “Star Trek Beyond,” I had a wholly unexpected thought: I would love to see a new TV series with these characters in this timeline. That is very much a compliment, although it highlights a few problems with the newer, bigger, faster ethos of the current “Trek” movies.
After J.J. Abrams left to helm that other “Star” franchise, “Fast & Furious” director Justin Lin took over the controls. His devotion to elaborate action scenes gives “Star Trek Beyond” its summer blockbuster bona fides, even as it detracts from the more “Trek”-appropriate focus on characters and ideas.
A slapsticky opening scene segues rather abruptly into more serious territory, as Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) broods over the loneliness of space and seeming aimlessness of his Starfleet mission. A fancy new starbase offers a chance to at least get off the Enterprise for a while, although it’s not the most relaxing environment — the place looks like a roller coaster designed by M.C. Escher, suspended inside a giant snowglobe. Except less logical.
A distress call from a damaged ship jolts Kirk and Co. back to business, sending them through a nebula to rescue the members of a stranded crew. Of course, this isn’t the assignment everyone expects, because a major studio film needs galaxy-shattering stakes. As the Enterprise nears its destination, a devastating attack forces it to break apart and crash onto a starkly beautiful (and conveniently human-friendly M-Class) uncharted planet.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Several crew members, including Zoe Saldana’s Uhura and John Cho’s Sulu, are taken hostage by a vicious alien warlord named Krall (Idris Elba, under heavy reptilian makeup). He has a vendetta against Starfleet, for reasons that are revealed too late in the script, and between this and “The Jungle Book,” Elba guarantees his Villain of the Year title for 2016. Krall is both scary and an original creation, which sets him well apart from the dull, angry Romulan of the 2009 “Star Trek” and the badly repurposed Khan of “Into Darkness.”
Other major characters are scattered into their own adventures. Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) look for ways to reunite the crew, while Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg) meets a stranded alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who has spent years looking for ways to escape Krall and his minions.
These pairings advance the plot efficiently and lead to some entertaining (if ridiculous) action involving Jaylah’s musical tastes and Kirk’s love of motorcycles. But the best pairing is that of Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). The famously contentious duo share witty banter and even some emotional moments, as Spock tries to process the death of his “other” self in a lovely tribute to original Spock Leonard Nimoy. (There’s a shot near the end that may make longtime fans a little teary.)
Getting the gang back together is the real theme of “Star Trek Beyond,” in both the physical “get-off-this-planet” sense and the metaphorical “unite-for-the-greater-good” sense. It’s the closest any of the new movies has gotten to the big issues that made “Star Trek” so groundbreaking when Gene Roddenberry created it 50 years ago. It still has to compete with a lot of explosions, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The actors had their roles down by the end of the first film, and it’s a pleasure watching them play the familiar crew with just enough of a twist to fit the new timeline. This well-earned affection is what makes “Star Trek Beyond” a success, and why it would work so well on the intimate, lower-budgeted small screen. That is, after all, where it first changed the world.
Read more of Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘Star Trek Beyond’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:00