3 stars (out of 4)
Star log, 2016: The summer movie season is littered with tired sequels nobody asked for. Only a talking blue fish has earned blockbuster street cred. Something called a Pokémon is a breakout star.
Now potential salvation has come in the form of Star Trek Beyond (opening Friday July 22), the third installment in seven years. To use a trite-but-apt phrase, it doesn’t go where no Star Trek film has gone before. But it is freewheeling enough to entertain a casual moviegoer — and faithful enough to please a Comic-Con nerd.
The crew of the Enterprise, including Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Scotty (Simon Pegg, also a co-screenwriter), Sulu (John Cho), Bones (Karl Urban) and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), are three years into their five-year exploratory mission. And, as Kirk explains, everyone is suffering from a serious case of malaise. Spock and Uthura (Zoe Saldana) have split up. (It turns out Vulcans aren’t dashing romantics.) Kirk wants to give up his title. They’re all desperate for an adventure.
While stationed at a sleek star base called Yorktown, they get one. An endangered female alien sends a distress call and reports that her ship’s crew has been taken hostage. They decide to rescue her on a faraway planet, unaware they’re being lured into a trap. The resident tyrant named Krall (a menacing, unrecognizable Idris Elba), you see, longs to get his slithery hands on an ancient chemical weapon — that happens to be in Kirk’s possession. His end goal: to start a war because he believes peace fosters weakness. He has ulterior motives as well, but they’re of the spoiler variety.
That ho-hum premise falls more in line with, say, a first-rate TV episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than an epic two-hour film. Trekkies will be the first to rave that their beloved saga excels at posing deep philosophical ideas and wringing human pathos in outer space. A vengeful-dude-wants-to-destroy-the-world plot essentially describes the story line of 99 percent of all testosterone-fueled action flicks. Where’s the originality? The crew even repeats the same variation of a rescue operation multiple times.
No wonder director Justin Lin (taking over for J.J. Abrams) packs in a barrage of noisy special effects — only one of which qualifies as a true mouth-agape dazzler. (You’ll know it when you see it.) Lin is a veteran of the Fast & Furious franchise, and his overt rock ’em–sock ’em sensibilities are evident in every set piece. Indeed, one sequence in which Pine takes charge by riding a 20th-century motorcycle might as well have been a deleted scene from Furious 7. Though it’s only fair to also credit Lin with a soundtrack that thumps with Public Enemy and an ol’ Beastie Boys favorite.
Yet for all the state-of-the-art CGI spectacles, the movie’s strength lies in its vintage characters. They’re as fierce and funny as ever. For most of the second act, the splintered crew must partner off and problem solve. This is a rare opportunity for the supporting players to shine — especially Yelchin’s quick-thinking Chekhov. Bones and Spock, meanwhile, are a more potent comedy pairing than Kevin Hart and The Rock. Quips the doctor to his confused Vulcan cohort in the wake of his breakup: “If an Earth girl says, ‘It’s me, not you,’ it’s definitely you!” (Bones sneers because he cares, dammit!)
This is the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, and a disappointing installment would have been an intergalactic disaster. But this is a worthy chapter indeed. And perhaps it’s only fitting that the most indelible moment of all is a respectful nod to the past. The scene is not only poignant, but it truly captures why this legendary franchise remains out of this world.
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