A five year mission may sound easy, but the first thing we’re shown in Star Trek Beyond is how long five years can really be when one has to spend it cooped up with 400 other people. “Everything feels… episodic,” Kirk (Chris Pine) says in his first Captain’s Log entry, and both he and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) are feeling the pull of other interests. There’s more to life, they both essentially think, than serving on the USS Enterprise. If that seems close to the emotional tone that opens Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it’s probably not an accident. This new rebooted Trek is never shy about echoing beats from the franchise’s past, but whereas their previous film, Star Trek Into Darkness, mindlessly flew in random plot points, character moments and even lines from better films in an illogical and feeble way, this new instalment has an emotional coherence that lets it tread lighter on the tropes of Star Trek and feels genuine. For all its action, and Star Trek Beyond doesn’t skimp on that, the film has real heart.
Back to the opening tone: it’s Kirk’s birthday, and he’s officially older than his father ever got to be. This is very much on his mind as McCoy joins him for a drink to toast another year spent in space. Kirk is struggling with his sense of his own identity. “I joined Starfleet on a dare,” he muses, not incorrectly. Before that, he was a talented vagrant from Iowa, hitting on girls and driving too fast. Any serious contemplation of who James T. Kirk should be, or could have been, was never really attempted. Although he hasn’t told anyone, Kirk is angling for a promotion and a desk job that would take him off the bridge and perhaps lead toward a more substantial career.
Spock is also thinking of life’s big picture, wondering if, now that Vulcans are an endangered species, he should be out there “Making little Vulcans,” as McCoy puts it. The film works in the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy by making the loss of this mentor and role model a significant one for Spock personally. Both Kirk and Spock feel like they’re on their own. It’s not any sort of spoiler for those who follow Trek and know basic story structure that by the end they’ve both discovered that their current work is their calling and the crew of the Enterprise is their real family (Trek has been here before), but making that existential questioning a key part of the plot (even, as we discover, for the villain) gives the whole story a coherence lacking in Into Darkness.
The plot itself is fairly standard Star Trek stuff: the Enterprise is called on a dangerous mission through uncharted space, encounters a seemingly unbeatable enemy, the stakes are constantly raised until it all ends in fisticuffs, with Kirk playing the swashbuckling hero, McCoy keeping things grounded and Scotty’s technical ingenuity saving the day. Without spoiling anything, fans of Enterprise (the prequel TV series that ran from 2001-2005) will be impressed at how much this film links up with the mythology of that show, even going so far as to include Enterprise-era uniforms and referencing the Xindi as the narrative twists towards its finale. There is a “guest hero” of the week, a woman who, for once, Kirk doesn’t try to seduce. (In fact, this is an almost completely sexless edition of Star Trek, but with so many other elements to juggle, the film can be forgiven for that.) And there’s a big villain (Idris Elba) who is appropriately threatening and somewhat redeemed at the story’s end. None of this is particularly original, and Director Justin Lin can’t resist bringing some of his Fast and Furious energy to the increasingly kinetic proceedings in the film’s third act.
But somehow it all works. There’s just enough respite from the action to have some serious emotional knockouts, such as a quiet scene between Spock and McCoy, or Kirk’s Indiana Jones-like stares. Kirk, in fact, is hanging on by his fingernails from almost the first scene of this film, just barely keeping the proceedings under quasi-control, facing an escalating chain of nearly impossible challenges, starting with a major attack on the Enterprise herself. Chris Pine has matured into the role (this is true of all of the new cast) and his Kirk is no longer the arrogant punk of 2009’s Star Trek, but rather a determined and stoic leader. He relies heavily on Scotty (Simon Pegg, also the film’s co-writer) to pull rabbits out of hats and defers sensibly to McCoy’s medical judgement, even when it is inconvenient for him. In a key moment, he places his faith, and his life, in the hands of Sulu (John Cho, not given many lines but making his presence felt), again underlining the film’s key message: this crew needs each other. It’s the same message as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (a film 180 degrees removed from Beyond in tone) and many episodes of the original series. But this crew, its energy flagging, its leaders questioning their vocations, needs to hear that message just now. When they finally get around to celebrating Kirk’s birthday at the end, one feels as if they’ve earned it. They’re a true family, and not kids pretending to be adults (which was sometimes the case in 2009’s Trek) but confident owners of this franchise and its future.
For those put off by the early trailers, there’s nothing to fear here. Star Trek Beyond is a great Star Trek film, certainly far better than any of the Next Generation films (that is, the characters are consistent with how we remember them) and the strongest so far of the reboot series.