The United Federation of Planets starship Enterprise visits a place of my science fiction dreams in Star Trek Beyond, and it is a place I didn’t even know I longed to spend time in until I saw it here: Starbase Yorktown. Forget the toy-tops-in-space that were the starbases of the 1960s TV show. This Yorktown is a gemlike sphere floating in infinity, with no up or down except as dictated by the local gravity of the many curved planes that crisscross its internal bubble: it’s those wheeled-city-in-space illustrations of the 1970s expanded into a whole artificial world, a vision of sparkling urbanity of architecture and culture, of millions of people of many species living and working in harmony in a place of their joint creation. It brought out a big ol’ geek grin from me, and then tears of geek joy.
After the grimness of Star Trek Into Darkness, the previous installment of the rebooted Trek series, Yorktown and everything it represents is a very welcome return to the optimism that has always fueled Star Trek. And yet it’s also the thematic focal point of a plot that is about reconciling the problem (one that I’ve mentioned before) that has always been at the heart of Trek: Can we really imagine, even at our most hopeful, that humanity could transform itself in the course of the mere few hundred years between now and Trek’s 23rd century from a species prone to and geared for violence and bigotry on levels both personal and societal to one that goes out of its way to universally reject such ugliness? I have no doubt that über geek Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Collision Course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who doesn’t just portray Scotty again here but who also cowrote the script with Doug Jung, has contemplated this conundrum for as long as I and other fans have. I’ve often worried that such a transformation would require a fundamental change in human nature, which seems vanishingly unlikely. This new Trek series, with its first two installments, seemed to have been finding a middle ground between us warmongering apes of the 21st century and the near-utopian idealism and peacefulness of the 24th-century-set The Next Generation, and here it is ultimately all about acknowledging that even getting to its more plausible but still very optimistic version of the 23rd century is going to leave behind lots of people and lots of philosophies that many today would consider not only useful but noble.
None of that heady stuff gets in the way of Beyond’s very intense, often literally breathtaking action-packed story. Kalara (Lydia Wilson: About Time, Never Let Me Go), escape-podded survivor of a lost survey ship from a previously unencountered alien species, shows up at Yorktown — the starbase is at the very edge of Federation space — and the Enterprise takes on a rescue mission to find the rest of her crew, presumed to have crash-landed on a planet inside an uncharted nebula. The mission goes south very fast, and Kirk (Chris Pine: The Finest Hours, Horrible Bosses 2) and Co. find themselves dealing with baddie Krall (Idris Elba: Bastille Day, The Jungle Book), of yet another previously unencountered species. He’s sort of lizardy, with technology that is sort of insectile, all of which plugs into our human hindbrains to say “scary”… but the fact that he is an entirely new kind of villain for Star Trek — he’s not a reboot of any bad guy we’ve seen before across the franchise — means we have no idea what to expect from him. Which is also terrifically scary and suspenseful.
What’s the beyond of the title refer to? There’s the uncharted nebula, of course, and also how multi–Fast & Furious director Justin Lin navigates action when he is actively engaging the reality of no-up-or-down. It’s sometimes confusing and doesn’t always work — ironically, more when Lin tries to apply his space-based visual dynamic in a gravity field — but forgivable: the filmic language of this is still being developed. Mostly, though, beyond has meta meanings. This Enterprise is, Kirk informs us, three years into its five-year mission, which means it’s starting to move into a realm that the original Enterprise crew never got to (their show was canceled three years in; their movies picked up many years later). There’s tons of Trek-style humor here, stuff that could have been plucked from the 1960s show as well as riffs on its beloved tropes — it’s smart, funny acknowledgement of Trek’s roots while moving Trek in a new direction. The rebooted characters here are starting to truly take alternate-universe paths that will distinguish them from the ones we’ve known before. This is dealt with in a particularly poignant way as Spock (Zachary Quinto: Hitman: Agent 47, What’s Your Number?) uses the news of the death of Ambassador Spock (tracking the death of actor Leonard Nimoy), who crossed universes into this one, to make big decisions about what to do with his life. There is also accidental meta poignancy in how the sudden death last month of Anton Yelchin (Green Room, Experimenter), this alt-universe’s Chekov, must now take a very different road; producer J.J. Abrams has said that the role will not be recast. (Chekov gets a bigger role here than he has in the previous two films, and shows off some major Starfleet skills; I’d love to imagine that Chekov will get a big promotion and go off to have his own adventures apart from the Enterprise crew.) There is freshness in how Karl Urban (The Loft, Walking with Dinosaurs) is given room to get his Bones McCoy out from under the shadow of original Trek, and in how Zoe Saldana’s (The Book of Life, Guardians of the Galaxy) Uhura is set up to be a damsel in distress and then totally sidesteps that; it’s a clear smackdown of a cliché that needs to die. And yes, John Cho’s (Grandma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) Sulu is gay, which we learn only sidewise in a sequence that highlights how difficult long-term deep-space missions are when you’ve got family waiting at home for you. (Cowriter Jung cameos as Sulu’s partner.)
Ah, and there’s also the second fantastic wholly original female character of the 2016 summer blockbuster season (after Ghostbusters’ Jillian Holtzmann): Sofia Boutella’s (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Monsters: Dark Continent) Jaylah, of yet another new alien race who reveals herself to be tough, prickly, competent, and full of angst. Hooray.
Nodding to the past, navigating the present, and looking to the future? Nothing could be more Star Trek.