While J.J. Abrams did a superb job in reinvigorating the Star Trek franchise with his two films, newcomer Justin Lin is simply the better filmmaker for the job. This is, after all, the director who brought back the Fast & Furious franchise from the dead after killing it, making it the biggest, most excitingly creative and diverse franchise in modern existence. If anybody knows how to keep an ensemble franchise fresh, interesting, relevant and fun, it’s him.
Star Trek Beyond picks up a little more than halfway through the Enterprise’s 5 year mission on the outer reaches of space, an expedition teased at the end of Into Darkness. After volunteering to perform a rescue mission on an isolated planet beyond a nebula, the crew find themselves stranded on the planet after having their ship torn apart by a ruthless military leader, Krall (Idris Elba). Teaming up with an escapee from his prison camp, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), Kirk and his crew must work to free their people and stop Krall from releasing a terrifying bio-weapon on the galaxy.
Justin Lin ditches the gloomy, dire overtones of Into Darkness (and I say this as a firm defender of the film) and instead thankfully chooses to simply have giddy fun with his installment. That’s not to say the movie is lacking in stakes or emotion, Lin just does a great job balancing these heavier aspects with the explosive, unashamed joy of what a Star Trek film should be. The stakes are high, but never so serious that the film runs the risk of drowning in immediacy. Beyond has a natural, welcome sense of humor that keeps the film grounded in a sense of bouncing,necessary levity.
The action is some of the best in the series, bringing back the surprisingly pleasing trope of Kirk just getting the shit beat out of him from the first film. Chris Pine is somebody who just manages to look so good taking a beating, which is something I’m not sure can be taught. Lin lends his action chops in the impressive hand to hand combat scenes, shot with wild wonder and clear focus. Beyond also contains the greatest music moment of the year, something that is just too good and joyous to spoil, it almost feels like the trilogy has been building to this moment specifically. The feeling is pure ecstasy in how the images are edited to the music.
Lin’s understanding of how to balance an ensemble without devaluing any character or using them as simple set dressing is essential to the progressive and all-inclusive ideals of Star Trek. Side characters are essential here, getting their moments and journeys and the whole cast getting room to stretch their talents. The character of Jaylah is emblematic of Lin’s sense of inclusivity and balance. She’s not there to be hit on by Kirk, not there to be objectified like the bizarre sexism towards Carol Marcus in Into Darkness. Boutella is also the right actress for the job, communicating a history of resilience and self-reliance underneath all that makeup. It’s sad that having a female character treated with dignity and equality in both importance to the film and to herself – simply put, as an actual character – is a mark of progress, but it’s still progress nonetheless and should be noted.
Krall spends the first 2/3rds of the film seeming regressively cardboard cutout, evil just to have a villain present, and holding back Elba’s natural intensity and focus. But to the film’s credit, it reveals more about him in the climax that makes up for it all, an interesting, thoughtful backstory that gives his actions and motivations credibility. More importantly, Elba sells you on the reveal, delicately displaying the wear and tear of the lifetimes of erosion that Krall has lived. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s script puts the excitement first, but still manages to retain strong character moments and overarching themes about hope. It seems it’s not just Lin this franchise needed all along, it’s also this writing pair.
It’s impossible to talk about this film and not discuss the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin we all experienced just a month ago. Beyond, even if through sad coincidence, is a fitting and touching tribute to Yelchin, giving him more to do here than in the first two films combined. He had so much to still give the world, and Beyond is a beautiful love letter to Yelchin. It’s hard not to feel something when Kirk raises a glass and gives a toast “to absent friends” with Yelchin in the shot as those words leave his mouth. I think that’s the moment that gets everyone. The film has earned that moment too, earning the sighs and tears.
Lin provides a fresh breath of optimism not only in the series, but in the state of Hollywood franchise filmmaking. His films are exciting when they could easily run the risk of feeling stale and derivative in other filmmakers’ hands. Lin simply does the meat and potatoes of these large films, the simple things that most directors take for granted, so well that he makes it look easy. Lin is easy to take for granted as far as studio filmmakers go, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he came from independent roots. He’s an example of what happens when you give a creative the money and resources to match his ambition, the standard of studio filmmakers we should all aspire to. If only Lin could be rented out to every ensemble franchise, then the world might just be a better place – at least at the cinema.