Star Trek Beyond has just opened, directed by Justin Lin and starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Simon Pegg as well as a whole slew of other people. I rushed out to see this on its opening night so that I could get this to you early in case it was a total bomb and I could warn you. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
I grew up with Star Trek, not in its original run on TV but in re-runs in the 70s which I saw as a kid and then the movies in the late 70s and 80s which really solidified my status as a hardcore Star Trek fan or Trekkie. I’ve seen the original series and the movies multiple times. I didn’t get into the spin off series as much, mainly because when they were on TV I was occupied with other things, but I liked the majority of what I did see of the Star Trek: The Next Generation. So maybe I’m not as objective a viewer as some others, but for me Star Trek will always hold a special place in TV and cinematic history and deservedly so.
Where the first two J.J. Abrams re-boots were more parallel to those 1980s Star Trek movies, this new Star Trek Beyond takes it back to the original TV series. At the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the crew was just revving up to start the famous five-year voyage of interstellar discovery. This movie opens with that mission now three years along and in just the first ten minutes you are given a lot of nods to the old show and can imagine a lot of what has been going on for those three years. There’s also some thought put in to things the original show didn’t ever address about what kinds of things a crew would have to go through being out in space for five straight years with mainly themselves to keep each other company and the wilds of unexplored space biting at them day after day.
As I understand it, actor/writer Simon Pegg who co-wrote this with writer/producer Doug Jung, was a pretty hardcore Trek fan before he even signed up for the first film and his care for the integrity of what Star Trek is actually about definitely comes through. First and foremost, Star Trek has always been about humanity and the potential we have to grow, change and evolve to a better place and condition. That is what is at the core of this story and for that reason, I liked this better than the earlier two movies. It was a more pure adaption of series creator Gene Roddenbery’s original vision. For old school Star Trek fans like me, that’s important stuff.
After establishing where things stand with the crew now and what is going on in the Federation, the movie throws everything overboard. It’s no spoiler to say that the Enterprise is destroyed – it’s in every trailer – and that the crew are stranded on a mysterious planet due to a devastating attack by the villain Krall, played by one of my favorite British actors, Idris Elba. He’s a very bad guy from the first moment you see him, but his final motivation for being such a horrible person isn’t revealed until practically the very end of the movie, keeping you guessing as to what he’s all about and why he’s so hell bent on destroying the Federation. Once you find out, it’s a motivation that makes sense and doesn’t come down to the simplistic “oh, he’s just a psycho racist” or something like that.
Director Justin Lin, most famous for the higher quality Fast and Furious movies, definitely brings his gravity-defying action chops to the forefront and there is plenty of it going on. Some of it is a little outrageous but nothing insanely impossible like the infamous inflatable boat falling out of a crashing airplane that Indiana Jones and company survived in the first few minutes of Temple of Doom. Make no mistake, there is crazy stuff going on here and some people will definitely consider the “Kirk has seconds to stop the bad guy or millions will die a slow and agonizing death” to be too much, but as a fan boy, I just have to say I’m not one of those people. Which brings me to my next point.
The first two Star Trek re-boot movies got a lot of grief from critics and fans because of logical inconsistencies in the stories and for certain plots elements which frankly just didn’t make any damn sense. They were valid criticisms but as a viewer, I didn’t really notice them until after the movies were over and someone else pointed them out. It’s not that I didn’t think about these movies while they were happening, it’s just that I was so caught up in the quality of the story and the acting and visual experience of it, that those points didn’t distract me. I’m not watching Star Trek for hyper-realistic fights, deep philosophy or NASA-inspired spacecraft trudging through space at sub-light speeds and taking months to get from one planet to the next.
When you watch a film as a critic, it can be a different experience then just someone who is watching it to be entertained and that can be difficult. That’s why I don’t do that. When I start watching a movie, I clear my mind and try to just experience it like any regular fan or viewer. I try not to get into thinking too much about it unless the movie gives me a reason to. In fact, I have what I guess I’ll call the Shelton Distraction Test because I’ve never heard anyone else say or do this as a movie critic. It goes like this: if during the course of the movie, I’m enthralled, entertained, delighted or otherwise completely engrossed in what is going on and nothing about what’s happening throws me out of the experience, then I’m a happy camper at the end and that movie is a rewarding and entertaining experience. In the end, that’s what most movies are trying to do anyway, especially action/adventure/sci-fi flicks like Star Trek. They take you away to another time and place and show you things you’d never otherwise see or hear and maybe teach you a thing or two along the way.
Star Trek Beyond definitely passes the Distraction Test in spades. Not once was I thrown off or did I start wondering why something was going on or start thinking about what I was going to say in this critique. There were many and frequent nods to the old and new Star Trek universes, with homage paid especially to Leonard Nimoy and even to George Takei in a certain story point which you may have heard of but I won’t spoil it here in case you haven’t.
If you want a really fun, good time in the Star Trek universe with familiar characters who act more like the original people they were first created as than in the earlier Star Trek movies, then Star Trek Beyond is the movie for you. I think you’ll come out with a big smile on your face just like I did, which is why I’m giving this one a rating of Sheer Awesome.
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