Hardcore Star Trek fans despised 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. They hated how director J.J. Abrams reworked major themes and reintroduced bad guys from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the franchise’s crown jewel, making them less clever and resonant in the process. (Plus, Trekkers were rightly annoyed that Abrams swore up and down for months that Into Darkness’s bad guy, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, wouldn’t be revealed to be Khan, when in fact he was.)
I’m a lifelong fan of these films, but I’m clearly not a bona fide Trekker since I actually didn’t mind Into Darkness’s supposed sacrilege. Rebooting the franchise with 2009’s Star Trek, Abrams blithely deviated from the original story’s timeline and lore so he could make adjustments, and while neither of his movies can hold a candle to Star Trek II or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the willingness to tinker made them unpredictable and intriguing. It also made them wildly uneven and more than a bit smug, but I appreciated the ambition.
Trekkers will probably be much happier with Star Trek Beyond, which is the first installment to feature director Justin Lin (who helmed four Fast and Furious movies). Faithful, exciting, grounded in character, and philosophically inclined, this new film is easily the most solid and consistently entertaining of the new movies. It is sturdy, even if it is only rarely thrilling or daring.
However, one definite advantage it has over its two predecessors is that, at this stage of the reboot, there’s no longer a need to establish these slightly altered characters or fuss over their emotional arcs. Oh, sure, Star Trek Beyond gestures toward internal dramas. Will Kirk (Chris Pine) give up his command of the Enterprise for a cushy promotion? Can Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) repair their foundering romantic relationship? But Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg (who returns as Scotty) and Doug Jung don’t put much heft behind these questions, letting them be mildly suspenseful mysteries we’re pretty sure will be solved before the credits roll.
Star Trek Beyond finds the Enterprise venturing out to an uncharted nebula to help an alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) rescue her besieged, shipwrecked crew. Immediately, Kirk and his team are attacked—not by a single ship but by a hornet’s nest of small vessels that assault the Enterprise on all sides. In many regards, Star Trek Beyond is a pretty familiar Trek tale, but this early battle sequence is one of the franchise’s most inspired, our heroes’ vessel being torn to shreds by a swarm of enemy ships too tiny for its weapons to hit.
The extended fight—really, it’s a stunningly choreographed massacre—brings Kirk in contact with Krall (Idris Elba), a fearsome alien who wants a seemingly worthless relic onboard the Enterprise for nefarious reasons. Barely escaping to a nearby planet, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), and Bones (Karl Urban) team up with a warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to scupper Krall’s plans to destroy the Federation.
This is the 13th Star Trek film, and it ranks somewhere in the middle because of the series’ considerable strengths—its well-drawn characters, its likeable performers, its smart and stripped-down approach to sci-fi spectacle. But it is also diminished a bit by the franchise’s nagging weaknesses. With the exception of Khan and the Borg—the monolithic alien collective that debuted on the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series before appearing in 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact—the Star Trek films have featured mostly serviceable villains. And as imposing and soulful a presence as Elba is, his Krall isn’t particularly scintillating, nor is his evil plan all that chilling. (You want to wipe out humanity, dude? Star Trek has been there, done that—a bunch.)
Plus, the filmmakers have saddled Krall with a strained motivation for his dastardly plan that—wouldn’t you know it?—runs perfectly counter to Kirk and his crew’s belief system. Rather awkwardly, Star Trek Beyond wants to be a film about the importance of family, and the theme keeps getting shoehorned into every free moment. (Jaylah is the last of her kind; Kirk and Spock are wondering if it’s time they end their fruitful Enterprise partnership; bonds of friendship between several different characters are tested and reasserted; and so on.) So, of course, the hawkish Krall wants to strike back at the Federation because he believes unity and peace are crutches that make people weak. As a result, Kirk and the gang aren’t just battling a super-powerful madman—they’re busy proving that their worldview is superior to his.
From its earliest days Star Trek distinguished itself from that other great sci-fi behemoth, Star Wars, with its more intellectual, optimistic emphasis on reason, mixing interstellar shoot-outs with introspective reflections on destiny, mortality, and tolerance. Star Trek Beyond has the same gentle good humor as Abrams’s films—all three of the reboot movies strive to avoid the ponderous quality of earlier installments—and sometimes you can feel Lin struggling to balance a modern audience’s demands for big explosions with creator Gene Roddenberry’s desire for more emotional sophistication.
That said, Star Trek Beyond zips along, rarely knocking our socks off with its action sequences but throwing out one fun moment after another. (The final third is especially rousing, peaking with a daffy inclusion of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”) And Lin has that superb cast. Considerably younger than the actors who originally played these characters, the ensemble no longer has to try so hard to convince us. Now, Urban embodies Bones’s cranky essence as confidently and effortlessly as Quinto exudes Spock’s preternatural calm. (Yelchin, who died in June and was masterful in movies like Green Room and Like Crazy, plays the heavily accented Chekov with his usual giddy good cheer.)
But perhaps it’s Pine who’s grown into his role with the most aplomb. In the earlier films, Pine leaned a little too heavily on Kirk’s cockiness, perhaps a bit intimidated by William Shatner’s swaggering, hammy portrayal. With Star Trek Beyond, Kirk is still brash, but we’re no longer waiting for him to grow up. The young punk is gone, but so is the Shatner aura: Pine makes the character his own for the first time, and it anchors the proceedings, helping to shake off the inevitable sense of déjà vu that accompanies any new Star Trek sequel. Lin and his cast aren’t trying to rock the boat, but their clear affection for the material helps temper the familiarity. The Enterprise’s mission was to explore strange new worlds. This movie’s is to give us a smooth ride.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit .