Any other year, the latest entry in the Star Trek movie franchise, Star Trek Beyond, would feel like one of the middle of the road blockbusters. It has the most base elements of the fixture — entertaining moments, charming banter, and a ring of characters people are apt to root for — but it never cuts to the heart of anything bigger than itself. This last point wouldn’t be a pre-requisite on most other franchises, but for one that has origins in a rich and diverse background, it is expected.
Lucky for Beyond, it comes out in the folds of an un-precedented blockbuster season that is full of excruciatingly long run-times, extravagant casting lists, and plots that make about as much sense as the current political climate. The joy that comes from watching Beyond is not its multi-layered plot or its profound comments on society, but in its restrained storytelling, adept action sequencing, and a nuanced understanding of what makes this franchise work so well both on the big and small screen.
Penned by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung with Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin taking over the director’s chair for J.J. Abrams, Star Trek Beyond catches up with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the middle of their five-year mission, which they had just departed on at the conclusion of the previous entry, Star Trek Into Darkness. At this point in the mission, the crew is growing weary with their time in space with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) wondering whether he lives up to the massive expectations left on him from his deceased father.
There isn’t much time to reflect as the crew is cast off into uncharted territory in search of a crashed ship, which turns out to be an ambush by Krall (Idris Elba), who is in search of an ancient artifact in hopes of using it to give his legion immeasurable power.
The charm in Beyond comes from Pegg and Jung’s ability to instill the episodic concept that is more common in television and bring a much similar model to a feature film. After Krall’s fleet attacks and dismantles the Enterprise, the crew is left separated and in pairs, which allows for a wider-range of exploration into these characters and leaves the dynamic between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto), which dominated the storylines of the previous two entries, to the side.
It also allows for characters such as Scotty (Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) to interact with each other and add much more depth that we were previously offered. The sectioned members works as episodes of a larger series and creates different (and very fun) dynamics between a lot of the cast members who haven’t had the chance to play together before.
It seems similar to a technique used by Lin in Fast Five, where he breaks apart the well-known characters and allows them to thrive in a space that isn’t dominated by the more commanding presences like Vin Diesel (or in this case Chris Pine).
This episodic dynamic is broken up once the crew re-unites and leads to a mostly satisfying conclusion that is anchored by well-imagined set pieces. One sequence where Kirk is creating a distraction by riding a motorcycle around Krall’s camp (aided by 19 other holograms of himself) feels much more grounded and contained than a lot of the sequences from the previous two films and continues this very restrained aesthetic.
While Beyond is a gleeful entry into the movie franchise, it does beg the question of whether this franchise is better suited for television (a reality that will be happening in 2017) due to the effectiveness of these smaller moments gaining larger light. It is remarkable that Pegg, Jung, and Lin were able to create such a rich texture for these characters over the course of two hours (a lesson that most superhero franchises could take a page from), but again affirms the point that these faces may be better suited for episodic examinations.
It is unfortunate because the cinematic iterations of these characters are spirited (Pine has truly grown into the role and formed his own interpretation as has Quinto with Spock) and the films are always worth seeing multiple times, but it seems like these stories are better suited for more exploration over the course of many episodes.
Compared to other blockbusters, Beyond feels like an anomaly — only introducing a couple new characters, keeping the story bound to a much smaller scale, and wrapping up the story without requiring the audience to tune in next time to fill in the blanks — and this is what is working best for it. The movie isn’t exceptional by any means and has its share of problems, but there seems to be a pleasant quality that it exudes that places it above most of the large outputs from Hollywood this season.
In a time when everything must be bigger and flashier to bring people to the movie theater, Star Trek Beyond contains these qualifications while still keeping a grounded and engaging storytelling approach. The characters grow and this affirmation of relationships being a cornerstone of life is a sweet sentiment to be preaching.
It isn’t a game-changer for either the franchise or blockbusters as a whole, but Star Trek Beyond is a welcome reminder that characters and story matter for blockbusters, and that doesn’t always mean that bigger is better.