The long, heavy shadow of Star Trek’s history can be either a gift or a curse for any new additions to the franchise. Clearly, Star Trek Into Darkness falls into the latter category, having expensed natural drama in the name of high-grade throwbacks. Where as the almost universally denigrated 2012 film was desperate for a taste of the Trek heyday, Star Trek Beyond goes about its relationship with the Enterprise of yore a good deal more casually. Though not entirely absent of references—some plot-pivotal, though nothing quite to the degree of, “My name is Khan”—Star Trek Beyond is instead happy to rest on the laurels of simple, sublime familiarity.
The film beams with a proud consciousness of just how attuned we are to the way these characters are meant to work. It seems to know that, consequently, surprise and deconstruction aren’t devices it can get away with. But instead of fighting this, as its predecessor did, it celebrates it, riding higher and higher the more it opts to play into the gambit of putting characters we know in situations not too dissimilar from those we’ve seen them in before, and then having them act as we might expect. It may be breezy, but it’s not dull. It’s another delightful go ‘round with an ensemble that pop culture has adored for half a century.
Perhaps you’d more appropriately call Star Trek Beyond an episode in the Star Trek canon than you would a feature film experience. In fact, Kirk even drops the word “episodic” in description of his deep space missions of late during the captain’s log that opens the film. The movie has all the cogs that an Original Series outing might employ: funky terrains and creative new tech, a broad (albeit effectively easily quashed) moral question at the center of the conflict, and screw situations for its characters to engage with disparately.
Early on in Beyond, the Enterprise’s top brass are thrown from the comfort of their hull to various points across a hostile alien planet. More fun even than the hurdles they’re bound to undertake are how the film opts to pair up its characters: swaggering Kirk (Chris Pine) and innocent Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the perpetually frazzled Scotty (Simon Pegg) and the tough-as-nails zebra-faced alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and—best of all—Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose rapport is notorious enough to even necessitate adjectives here. Note: Uhura (Zoe Saldana) winds up with Sulu (John Cho), though we don’t derive quite as much fun out of that pairing.
All parties set off separately on their quests to neutralize the central threat—i.e., Idris Elba’s Krall—to overcome their own personal anchors—both Kirk and Spock having been enduring second thoughts about their life choices lately, roping Bones and Uhura into the mix—and to espouse the greater message, one that comes into play both in-universe and extratextually, that these people really are quite a team.
Yes, all conclusions come about somewhat weightlessly, and often goofily—the big climactic set piece is one of the sillier moves that the Star Trek franchise has enacted, but one I found to be nothing but good natured fun. From the get-go, you might know how just about every external and (especially) internal conflict is going to turn out, though Star Trek Beyond doesn’t seem to be under the impression that it’s pulling any bait-and-switches. These are familiar stories for beloved characters; we’re not supposed to be shocked, caught off guard, or thrust into any new territories—at least as far as this film is concerned. Instead, it just wants us to have a good time with some old friends. And we do. So I guess we can put this one in the “gift” category.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos
Images: Paramount Pictures
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist.com Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.