First published by Little White Lies
Star Trek Beyond begins with a diplomatic mission gone comically wrong. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) appears bearing a gift – a relic of an ancient weapon – in a chamber full of aliens, but his hosts misunderstand the Federation’s gesture. Why a weapon? they wonder. If it’s not actually yours, you must have stolen it. Obviously the Federation wants to murder us in our sleep, and even to eat us. Then the alien leader rolls down from his seat above to attack Kirk – and this forbidding-looking creature, so far shot at low angle to emphasis his threatening stature, turns out to be not much bigger than a cat. A little scratched but still standing, Kirk is beamed up – and after replacing his torn Starfleet uniform with a new one from a clothes rack that holds many, he moves on, with a drink and a resigned sigh, to his next operation.
All this is to introduce to us a Kirk who is losing his bearings. Having joined Starfleet to prove himself the equal of his late father George, he has lost sight of who James is – and having traversed deep space for years in the USS Enterprise, “things”, Kirk suggests (in a cutesy reference to the franchise’s original status as a TV series), “have started to feel a little episodic.” Indeed, his anxiety about being adrift without direction is shared by Star Trek itself which, two movies into the latest franchise reboot, has seen its captain J.J. Abrams promoted to the Star Wars helm with The Force Awakens (2015). What is more, if Kirk is having something of an existential crisis, Spock (Zachary Quinto) too is feeling unmoored by the recent death of Admiral Spock (Leonard Nimoy, who played him, had also recently died). Both Kirk and Spock, stalwarts of the Start Trek team, are contemplating retiring from their duties aboard the Enterprise. Without some kind of radical shakeup, everything, it seems, is falling apart – and not long after the beginning of the film, that is precisely what will happen to the Enterprise itself, torn to shreds by attacking craft.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, it is important to sort through that prologue with the aliens and the gift. For while laughing at aliens, and their primitive ways, and even their small size, might seem, well, alien to Star Trek‘s usual spirit of multiculturalism and inclusivity (including, here, an ever-so-casually gay Sulu), in fact that opening sequence will come in for some revision, as it turns out that the aliens were in fact asking all the right questions – in a film where it will also emerge that the most dangerous aliens are human. That ancient weapon fragment is in fact the macguffin that fuels the ensuing plot – a WMD that creatures hidden in an uncharted nebula have been seeking for many years. In pursuit of it, their ruthless leader Krall (Idris Elba) destroys Kirk’s ship and captures his crew, and those still on the run on Krall’s planet of the vampires must regroup and use some very old tech against Krall, with help from stranded kick-ass alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) and her recovered collection of ‘classic’ hiphop tracks – as well as a vintage motorbike.
In other words, to reinvigorate the franchise’s sense of purpose, new recruit Justin Lin is taking things back to their roots and core values, while also injecting some of the dynamic action that he has honed on multiple Fast and Furious sequels. There may be a lot of fighting, but here, as in the original TV shows and films, the emphasis is on ensemble teamwork, peace missions, the saving (as opposed to taking) of life, and adventurous feats of derring-do, all told with a GSOH (Pegg co-wrote the script). Here Krall is not only a Colonel Kurtz figure whom the crew find without ever having realised he was missing, but also, as someone who has truly lost himself, a dark mirror to the Kirk shown at the beginning of the film. In facing Krall, Kirk can remember who he was, and is – and the rescued franchise can once more continue to boldly go where no man (although the female characters are equally if not more capable here) has gone before, back to the future with its mojo well and truly restored.
Since Star Trek Beyond wrapped, Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov) has, like Nimoy, died. The film is dedicated to both of them in the closing credits – but before that, a very subtle piece of editing also honours Yelchin as an ‘absent friend’. Meanwhile mortality is one of the film’s more prominent motifs, alongside friendship and solidarity. This new old crew can still do all those things well.
Anticipation: Liked J.J. Abrams’ other two reboots well enough
Enjoyment: It rattles along apace and is very funny.
In Retrospect: Doesn’t so much reinvent as rediscover the wheel, fast and furious.
© Anton Bitel