The USS Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission exploring deep space. However, Captain James T. Kirk is feeling boredom settling in. The mission consists of a lot more diplomatic work and less boldly exploring the frontier than he was expecting. Whilst docked at the massive Starbase Yorktown, the Enterprise receives a distress call from the heart of a nearby, mysterious nebula. Kirk sets out, eager to see something new...only to get a lot more than he bargained for.
When J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in 2009, he assembled an absolutely killer cast. Replicating the chemistry of the original crew was a tall order, but he somehow achieved it with the likable - if massively flawed - first reboot film. It was also pretty much the only thing holding together the appalling sequel, Into Darkness, in 2013. The diabolical quality of that movie lowered expectations for this third entry in the new series, especially when it was announced that Simon Pegg would be writing the script and Justin Lin would be directing.
To some degree that was counter-intuitive, given Pegg's geek credentials and his strong writing experience (especially on the Spaced TV series and his collaborations with Edgar Wright). But Pegg's recent writing work has been patchy and Justin Lin is best known for the Fast and Furious franchise, not known for its thoughtful exploration of the unknown. Fans may have been a little too quick to judge there: not only is Lin a massive Star Trek fan from his chilldhood but his F&F movies transitioned quite cleverly from just dumb action movies into actions movies with a strong sense of character interplay, family and heart.
These sensibilities come into full force on Star Trek Beyond. Lin delivers explosions, impressive stunts and some great action set-pieces - and unlike the two previous movies, most of these are well-shot and comprehensible - but he also delivers on bringing the characters together and driving them apart and finding out what makes them tick as individuals and as a group. He is well-served by Simon Pegg's script (helped out by Doug Jung), the writer relishing his chance to finally write an all-out science fiction blockbuster and delivering. Pegg, like Abrams, is known to be a Star Wars fan much more than a Star Trek one, but whilst Abrams ill-advisedly set about trying to turn Trek into Wars, Pegg has actually sat down and worked out what makes Star Trek different and brought those elements into the script. For example, fans were bemused by the near-total lack of any decent Spock/McCoy banter in the Abrams movies but here get an entire, fairly substantial subplot focused on the two characters which works extremely well. Zoe Saldana's Uhura also gets a great (if a little brief) storyline as she gets under the skin of main villain Kraal (Idris Elba under heavy makeup) and tries to find out what makes him tick. Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets a fair few action scenes, so of the main cast it's only John Cho's Sulu that gets short shrift. And even he still gets to command the Enterprise, lead a prison break and is given the most personal stakes in the final showdown (nicely underplayed, as well).
Star Trek Beyond in fact tries to do something that is very clever: it goes for the all-out CG blockbuster stuff but then suddenly reins it in and goes for unexpected restraint. A lengthy (and slightly nonsensical) CGI space battle turns into a low-tech, far more relatable struggle on the surface of a planet. A major CG fest of phasers and spaceships in the finale gives way to that greatest of Star Trek staples: Kirk and the villain facing off with just their fists, but done in a near-zero gravity environment against a dizzying backdrop (if you suffer from strong vertigo, I would advise against seeing this film in 3D). The movie also sacrifices the shining Apple-influenced hallways and bridge of the Enterprise for a more primitive NX-class starship (cue the Star Trek: Enterprise fans cheering, although it's not that one) and brings back a genuine sense of wonder to the graphic design. Starbase Yorktown is a jaw-dropping creation, a multi-sided city floating in what is effectively a snowglobe, evoking not just previous Star Trek designs but also the Citadel of the Mass Effect trilogy.
The film also remembers it's the 50th anniversary year and uses the recent death of Leonard Nimoy to pay homage to that: young Spock learning of the passing of his older, other-dimensional self and then discovering a box of his possessions allows the movie to tip its hat at what came before in a surprisingly effective move which informs Spock's excellent character development throughout the rest of the movie. Zachary Quinto has less to do than in either of Beyond's two predecessors but his character arc is considerably more satisfying, emotional and, as some may say, logical.
New characters are surprisingly thin on the ground. The villain Kraal is well-played by Elba, but for most of the film lacks decent motivation. The finale finally explains who he is and what he wants, and it's a great moment, but comes rather late in the day. Still, Elba's villain satisfies far more than either Benedict Cumberbatch-trying-to-be-Ricardo-Montalban or Eric Bana's way too expositionary and over-explained Nero. Also impressive is Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, a native of the new planet who quickly becomes a key ally of Scotty (and later the rest of the gang). Boutella gives Jaylah just the right mix of badass warrior and slightly overwhelmed local girl, and her fascination with science and engineering plays well into the finale. I hope we see her back in the next film (if there is one; Beyond's opening numbers are looking a bit iffy at the moment). Shohreh Aghdashloo also gets a memorable cameo as a Federation commodore, a pick-up shot to help with exposition and sell Kirk's motivations a bit better. Given it was a late addition to the film, I do wonder if Lin and Pegg had seen her in The Expanse (or, more likely, the trailers) and decided to borrow her authoritative space leader charisma for their movie. In that case, good job.
It's not all a glorious bed of roses, though. There's a fairly obvious plot hole in why Kraal decides to stay on his rubbish planet long after he managed to take control of a swarm of warp-capable spacecraft which could have taken him anywhere he wanted in the galaxy. The Beastie Boys return to the soundtrack for a very well-explained (indeed, somewhat oversold) reason but it still feels out of place, and Star Trek Beyond tries to get a lot of mileage out of a joke that was a toss-off in a 1965 episode of Doctor Who (modern rock music is described as "classical music" by people in the future...BECAUSE THEY ARE IN THE FUTURE!). Kirk also gets to ride a motorbike because, hell, why not?.
But ultimately, Star Trek Beyond (****½) brings a surprising amount of heart to proceedings, doesn't entirely neglect the brain, engages in some great characterisation and team interplay, pays homage to its departed castmembers in a genuinely moving way (a toast to "departed friends" gains tremendous pathos during Anton Yelchin's reaction shot) and features Kirk punching an alien in the face, McCoy and Spock bickering like an old married couple, Scotty pulling off an engineering miracle, Sulu pulling off an insane piloting maneuver, Uhura figuring out how to communicate with an alien species (also: best depiction of the universal translator ever), and Chekov explaining how Russia invented everything, including Scotch. It is, inarguably, the best Star Trek movie in twenty years, since First Contact, and may even (much more arguably) be the best in twenty-five, since The Undiscovered Country. The film is on general release now.