Star Trek: Beyond is an interesting addition to the Star Trek universe. Of the new alternate timeline films, it’s certainly the most Trek-feeling of the bunch, and it’s the best at making use of its ensemble cast. Unfortunately, it’s still just not that great a movie, in spite of being great fun to watch.
Somewhat, but not totally, spoiler-y review ahead.
Beyond opens with the Enterprise already three and a half years into their famous five-year mission, which is somewhat disappointing to begin with. We get to see just the last bit of the crew’s most recent adventure before the movie dives right into James Kirk’s (Chris Pine) existential crisis. Apparently, after several years of being captain of a state-of-the-art spaceship where he’s responsible for a crew of hundreds, he’s now questioning whether he wants to be there at all, and the rest of the movie is basically about how Kirk gets his groove back. While the rest of the cast has a bit more to do in Beyond than in the last two Trek movies, Kirk’s dilemma—which isn’t whether or not to stay in Starfleet, but whether or not to take a promotion to admiral, which it’s frankly unclear how exactly he’s earned—makes up the central emotional arc of the film.
Sure, this is a thin and rather boring basis for getting the audience invested in the story, but it would have been fine if equal attention had been paid to some of the other characters who are also dealing with some life stuff. Spock (Zachary Quinto), in a touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy, is dealing with the in-universe death of his mentor, Ambassador Spock, and his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is on the rocks, but most of this is explored through Spock’s conversations with McCoy (Karl Urban) and several short shots of Zachary Quinto looking sad. Yes, I cried more than once, because I’m not a monster, but those tears were only partly earned (I really loved Leonard Nimoy, okay?). Spock and Kirk barely interact at all in this film, and their lack of communication could indicate problems in their relationship as well, but their whole inability to be truly emotionally intimate with each other is hand-waved at the end of the film with what feels like a wink to the audience. Kirk and Spock might spend a whole movie with hardly a word to say to each other, and their lack of communication can be explicitly pointed out in conversations with other characters, but really we all know that there could never be any real trouble in that paradise. It’s a missed opportunity to add some depth and nuance to the Kirk/Spock friendship. Instead of examining these ideas further, they instead play the situation almost for laughs.
Much was made in the week or two before the film’s release of the revelation that Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) is gay in the reboot’s alternate universe, but it turns out to be much ado about, well, not nothing, but still not much. Ostensibly, the filmmakers were trying to raise the stakes by having Sulu’s husband and daughter on the Yorktown space station that the Enterprise crew spends most of the movie saving, but the revelation of Sulu’s partner and child happens quickly and without remark. There’s no scene to properly introduce us to Sulu’s family, and between our first sight of them and their reappearance at the end of the movie they are never once mentioned. I suppose the audience ought to be able to infer the personal significance the threat to Yorktown has for Sulu, but he gets a good amount to do in this movie. Would it have killed them to include some line, clichéd as it would be, to the effect of “My family is on that station!”? In a relatively high-paced action flick, it’s easy to lose these kind of subtler character beats in the shuffle of other things going on, and I’d rather have a slightly cliché line to highlight the point than see it get lost as I think Sulu’s story, tertiary as it is, does here.
One relationship that did work well in Beyond was the one between McCoy and Spock, but even that is somewhat overshadowed by the movie’s larger events. Still, there’s real humor and a friendly chemistry on display in the scenes shared by Urban and Quinto. Their adversarial affection is perfectly pitched and cleverly written, and both actors turn in nice performances. I wish the same could be said of Saldana and Cho as the similarly paired-off Uhura and Sulu. While that pair gets to participate in some theoretically important plot material, neither actor seems to really have their heart in it, and Cho’s performance in particular feels at times very wooden. The late Anton Yelchin’s performance as Chekov is little more than workmanlike, but it’s enough for the material he’s given. He’s paired off with Kirk for the parts of the movie that he’s actually visible in, and it’s not bad. It feels as if this movie was written very intentionally to shake up some of the character pairings in order to set it apart from the previous two movies and perhaps to give each character more time to shine, but I’d say this was done with mixed success at best.
Co-writer Simon Pegg reprises his role as Scotty, and he finds himself paired with relative newcomer Sofia Boutella, who plays the cringeworthily named Jaylah, a young woman trying to escape from the planet the Enterprise crew finds themselves trapped on. I think the intent of all of Jaylah’s scenes with Scotty (and, later, Kirk) is to be sweet, but I found the overall effect to be creepily condescending, and Jaylah to be unusually and selectively naïve and childlike in a way that was consistently unpleasant. She does get a few badass moments, and the struggle to get Jaylah’s crashed ship “house” up and flying sets her up as a sort of engineering savant while also offering some moments of genuine comedy. On the bright side, Jaylah gets something like a character arc as the Enterprise crew hijacks her escape plan and forces her to help them get off the planet and stop the villain, and she even gets a truly happy ending, which was surprising. After the senseless killing of a couple of other new-to-this-installment female characters, I was fully expecting Jaylah to die tragically, so it was a pleasant surprise that by the end of the film her future is actually looking pretty bright.
Let’s talk about this villain, though. I love Idris Elba as much as the next red-blooded woman, but he’s a bit wasted in the role of Krall, who is one of the movie’s biggest problems. It’s not that Elba is a bad actor, and Krall definitely looks the part of a menacing Trek villain, but it’s never really clear exactly what Krall’s motivation is for wanting to commit such an enormous atrocity as killing a space station on the scale of Yorktown. Even when his supposed reasoning is revealed near the end of the movie, it’s not clear what his actual goal is. He’s an old soldier, and he misses war so he thinks a massive act of terrorism is going to turn back the clock on progress? Okay, but that doesn’t actually make much sense, and it doesn’t help that the revelation of Krall’s identity comes seemingly out of nowhere. In hindsight, I think I remember some hints at it throughout the movie, but the pacing is so frantic throughout that the eventual reveal feels blindsiding. It’s obvious that Krall is supposed to work as a sort of foil for Kirk, with both men experiencing doubt, unrest and disillusionment after years in Starfleet, but this isn’t explored enough to make one really care that much about it, and it’s resolved in the same pat fashion as every other conflict of the film.
On a more personal level, though, the biggest problem that I have with Beyond is that, though it does a much better job than the last couple of Trek efforts did at incorporating women characters into the story, women’s representation still kind of sucks. I already mentioned a couple of the issues I had with Jaylah, but to cap it all off she ends up damselled and has to be rescued by Kirk before they leave the planet, after which she is mostly absent until she shows up right at the end to be written out of the narrative. She does get a happy ending, as I stated earlier, but it feels much more like the tying up of a loose end than anything else—so they don’t have a repeat of uncomfortable questions like “Whatever happened to Carol Marcus?” Uhura doesn’t have to be rescued, but I loathe any time when a male character shows up unnecessarily to rescue a woman and it’s called out in the text. It’s not cute or funny, and it’s a simple aversion of the trope that is old and tired enough that it’s become its own trope. It’s 2016, and this is boring and lazy writing.
Also, and this is just sad, for all that Beyond has plenty of women, theoretically doing lots of stuff, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. And I get it; the Bechdel test isn’t the be all and end all of measuring the representation of women in film, but it’s honestly kind of impressive just how many women appear in Star Trek: Beyond without any of them actually interacting with each other. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I don’t recall any two female characters exchanging even one word together about anything. Even when Uhura is forced to watch another woman member of the crew get killed, I don’t think they talk to each other. Instead, Uhura only talks with Krall and watches helplessly as he murders the other woman.
This general lack of presence of women in the film is made worse by nearly all of the women characters being completely useless. They get a decent amount of screen time, and they’re all doing things, but none of the things they do seem to actually matter very much. Minor villainess Kalara manages to lure the Enterprise to Altamid, but she’s quickly disposed of. Uhura is desperately working with Sulu to escape their captivity or something, but I’m still not certain I really understand what she actually accomplishes. In the end, all of the captured crew members have to be rescued by Kirk and company. Jaylah has managed to survive alone on Altamid for years, and she’s gotten the radio working in her ship, but it takes Scotty to actually get the thing in the air and off the planet. And, ultimately, Krall is defeated by Kirk in true Trek tradition—in a bout of manly fisticuffs, just two men fighting a symbolic battle between good and evil, chaos and order, civilization and barbarism, progressive values and old hatreds—without a woman in sight.
Here’s the thing, though. I still kind of loved this movie. It was highly enjoyable and had some really excellent action sequences that made me happy to have shelled out for 3D. I was happy to see Shohreh Aghdashloo being typecast as a sci-fi woman of authority; she should be in everything ever, really. I adored the tribute paid to Leonard Nimoy, and I was never bored even when the film was at its most predictable. Of the new Trek films, this one certainly feels the most Trek-like, and that counts for a lot in my book as well. Realistically, I don’t think this (or any of the new Trek movies) will be something I want to watch again anytime soon, but I’m happy to have seen it once, and I recommend it equally for lovers of Star Trek and lovers of high-energy action adventure flicks. And do see it in 3D; Yorktown is worth it.