The third installment of the big-screen reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s venerable space opera differs from the first two (2009’s “Star Trek” and 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness”) in being directed by Justin Lin rather than J.J. Abrams. Despite that, however, “Beyond”—a subtitle that really doesn’t mean much—maintains the quality of the franchise, though without adding appreciably to it. It’s an enjoyable if unexceptional episode in the ongoing series, more place-holder than game-changer, not the culmination of a trilogy but a solid springboard for further adventures.
The theme of “Beyond” is the consolidation of the Enterprise crew into a unified team—which might seem unlikely since the first half-hour sees the destruction of the ship and the deaths of many of those serving on her. After an amusing introduction that finds Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) coming up short in arranging a treaty with a group of pint-sized but aggressive aliens by offering them an ancient artifact they decisively reject, the Enterprise returns to a massive Federation space station where both Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) contemplate moving on in their lives. Before they can reach a decision, however, they are called away on a mission to rescue the crew of an alien ship that have been taken prisoner on a planet that lies beyond a dangerous, unexplored nebula.
The mission turns out to be a trap arranged by the warlord Krall (Idris Elba)—a sort of prototype of Khan—who has lured the Enterprise into proximity to his base planet so that he can rip it to shreds using his swarm of mechanical “bees” and take its surviving crew members captive too—but not before he has retrieved that ancient artifact from the ship’s archive. It is, as we will learn, a component for a weapon of mass destruction that he intends to employ in annihilating the Federation’s station, and the Federation itself.
Krall manages to destroy the ship, but while many of the crew—including Sulu (John Cho—and yes, there is a personal revelation about the character here) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana)—are locked up in his subterranean lair, where he literally sucks the life out of helpless victims to stay alive himself, others survive the pod trip to the surface and must work in small groups to survive and find one another. An injured Spock is teamed with doc Bones (Karl Urban), and the two bicker their way to mutual understanding. Kirk finds himself with not only anxious, nerdy Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin), but the alien captain (Lydia Wilson) whose plea for help led to the mission. And chief engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script) finds himself dependent on an alien named Jayla (Sofia Boutella), whose striped face and catlike fighting skills are combined with a desire to attack Krall for her own reasons. It also helps that she has found the wreckage of a long-lost Federation ship and turned it into her home, restarting many of its functions in the process.
Naturally, Scotty can oblige with the rest, including reactivating the transporter, which turns out to be key not only to reassembling the characters who have been wandering the surface, but to providing Kirk and his soon-freed crew with the means to foil Krall’s plot against the Federation space station, as well as an antique motorcycle, which—with some modern modifications—plays a major role in liberating all of Krall’s prisoners. The crew’s final success involves not only one of those Hail Mary passes that “Star Trek” has always relied on, but a revelation about Krall that also fits into a long tradition of Federation history involving commanders who have gone, as President Muffly said of General Ripper, “a little funny in the head.”
Pegg and Doug Jung’s screenplay does a good job of balancing what have always been the twin foundations of the “Star Trek” recipe—intimate, character-driven scenes leavened with touches of wry humor, and action sequences. In the current big-screen incarnation, of course, the latter are far more massive than they used to be, thanks to the possibilities afforded by CGI, and director Lin, who sharpened his teeth on the “Fast and Furious” franchise, revels in the opportunity to leave the earth behind and maneuver the vehicles (and Krall’s “bees”) through the vastness of space. But even here, the action scenes ultimately come down to face-offs between individuals, and the final one here is a doozy. Needless to say, their shared experience ends any thought of breaking up the team.
By now, the new cast members have settled comfortably into their “Star Trek” characters, and work comfortably together, their rapport seeming effortless. The bits of business they share—Spock’s romance with Uhura, Bones’ consternation with Spock’s inhuman rationalism—are handled with ease. Elba suffers through most of the picture from the same impediment that Oscar Isaac faced in the recent “X-Men: Apocalypse”—being encased in so much makeup that his expressiveness is severely limited; but his menacing voice certainly makes an impression. And Boutella has an auspicious debut; it’s not difficult to predict that she’ll be returning in future installments. The technical side of the film is equally reliable, with solid production design (Thomas E. Sanders), spry editing (Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Steven Sprung) and good costumes (Sanja Hays) and makeup (Joel Harlow). Stephen F. Windon’s cinematography is also fine, although the 3D effect does not offer any significant reward. Michael Giacchino’s score is suitably propulsive.
The film pays its respects at the close not only to the late Leonard Nimoy, but to the entire original “Trek” cast, and also to Yelchin, a remarkable young actor whose Chekhov will be greatly missed in upcoming installments. Abrams, now the overseer of the franchise, has said that the role will not be recast—and given what Yelchin brought to it, that’s the proper decision.