“Beyond” turns out to be somewhere pretty familiar.
The third film in the franchise reboot that began in 2009, Star Trek Beyond has the feel of an obligatory installment, an effort aimed mostly at meeting a summer release date and fulfilling cast contracts. This time around, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew receive a low-stakes mission: respond to a distress call on a far-flung planet, where they encounter a conniving warmonger (Idris Elba, wasted beneath lizard makeup). What ensues is something less than the witty, lively polish that director J.J. Abrams brought to the last two films and more like the turgid, obligatory adventurism that marked most installments in the franchise, going back to the 1979 original.
Missing is the nice Kirk-Spock dynamic that Pine and Zachary Quinto had been developing.
And so we get a lot of onboard phaser-play (who knew the U.S.S. Enterprise had so many corridors?), a planet that looks like a pre-gentrified version of Avatar’s Pandora and a villain whose motives and methods are muddy at best, mundane at worst. It’s all inoffensive and uninspiring. Missing is the nice Kirk-Spock dynamic that Pine and Zachary Quinto had been developing (they’re apart for most of this film) and any real relevance to contemporary events (a clever opening gambit about failed diplomacy is soon abandoned). Meanwhile, the spark of Abrams’ on-point casting (Zoe Saldana as Uhura; Simon Pegg as Scotty; John Cho as Sulu; Anton Yelchin, in one of his last screen appearances, as Chekov), has worn thin, save for the reliably amusing Karl Urban, whose take on “Bones” McCoy has gone from a cheeky impression of DeForest Kelley to an actual improvement on the character.
Abrams has handed the directorial reins to Justin Lin, who helmed Fast & Furious, my favorite film in that franchise. (His odds were good, having directed four of them.) Unfortunately, what he was so adept at there — using practical effects to give the insane car stunts a veneer of “realism” — is nearly absent here. CGI reigns, even in a climactic sequence in which Kirk commandeers a vintage motorcycle (long story) that nonetheless moves mostly through digital space.
Star Trek Beyond appears to be a big-screen theatrical endeavor, then (one that looks particularly terrible in 3-D I should add), but the movie has low-key, television-episode ambitions. It’s bombastically limp. At the beginning of the film, while entering a captain’s log, Kirk laments the malaise he feels being in the third year of a five-year mission. Sounds about right to me.