“It can be a challenge to feel grounded when even the gravity is artificial,” confides a burned-out Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in the unusually personal captain’s log entry that kicks off Star Trek Beyond, the third installment in the most recent reboot of the venerable franchise. (Entries one and two were directed by J.J. Abrams, in 2009 and 2013; here, he takes a producer credit while the Fast and Furious franchise’s Justin Lin directs.) It’s three years into the starship Enterprise’s five-year mission, and, as Kirk further notes in a wry nod to Star Trek’s televisual origin, “things have started to feel a little … episodic.”
Viewers no longer able to remember a summer when they weren’t bombarded by recycled versions of familiar pop-culture spectacles will identify with the captain’s obscure sense of malaise. But we don’t have to spend too long in the dumps with Kirk; not long after asking a Starfleet superior (Shohreh Aghdashloo) for a transfer to a desk job, the hotheaded young captain gets all the action he could ask for. After making a routine provisioning stop at a Federation base called Yorktown—an ingeniously designed floating city whose intersecting multidimensional skylines would do M.C. Escher proud—the Enterprise is attacked by a fierce rogue alien named Krall (Idris Elba, all but unrecognizable under an elaborate reptilian mask). Krall’s aim: to take possession of an ancient alien weapon that the ship is carrying back to its planet of origin on a diplomatic mission. (This brick-sized “death machine” bears the impressively silly name “the Abronath,” a word I propose henceforth be used interchangeably with Hitchcock’s term MacGuffin. You can’t have a proper sci-fi space adventure without a good solid Abronath.)
In his eagerness to get his scaly hands on this all-important rectangle, Krall winds up causing the ship to crash-land on a spiky-surfaced planet called Altamid. As Kirk’s beloved Enterprise is being torn to a heap of debris—a sight that’s always hard to watch for a Trek fan, no matter how many times we’ve seen the ship destroyed and rebuilt—the crew separates into rescue pods, leaving them scattered on different parts of the planet with their vessel inoperable and their communications cut off. Kirk and Chekov—the young Russian officer played by Anton Yelchin, who died last month in a wrenching freak accident—wind up together, accompanied by a tentacle-headed alien played by Lydia Wilson. Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the ship’s doctor, McCoy (Karl Urban), are also stranded together, allowing for some enjoyably crabby interplay between the cool, logic-driven Vulcan and the passionate, empathic doctor. Ship engineer Montgomery Scott—endearingly played by Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script with Doug Jung—meets up with a forbiddingly tough alien woman (Sofia Boutella) who’s been squatting in another crashed Federation vehicle, using her martial arts–style fighting skills and technical know-how to stay alive in this inhospitable environment. The rest of the crew, including Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken prisoner by Krall.
I’d be hard pressed to explain the precise reason behind each of the extended space battles that make up Star Trek Beyond’s mushy middle section. The ship’s crew is besieged by hordes of “destroyer pods,” Krall’s weapons of choice, which swarm together like bees or schools of fish. Meanwhile, in an inspired bit of MacGyver-ing whose mechanics I won’t spoil, the Federation manages to combat these flying claws by making a weapon out of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” (“Is that classical music?” asks McCoy, reminding us that all this is taking place sometime in the 23rd century.)
Those clouds of silvery swarming doodads are mesmerizing to watch as they dart and swirl through space, and Lin makes the most of the awe-inspiring effects of scale that the IMAX format allows. But Star Trek Beyond is most rewarding when it returns to human-scaled interactions: Kirk gradually regaining his captainly mojo as he devises a plan to rescue his crew; Spock struggling to reconcile his feelings for Uhura with his duty to repopulate New Vulcan; or Sulu heading off for some R&R with his daughter and male life partner (played, in a dialogue-free cameo, by the film’s co-writer Doug Jung). The original Star Trek as conceived by Gene Roddenberry was a bastion of liberal utopianism in a constricted Cold War world. Among other things, the series included one of American television’s first interracial kisses—even if Kirk and Uhura were being compelled to smooch by evil godlike aliens. In our arguably more inclusive age, expanding that universe to include a gay character feels right—especially when that character is Sulu, played in the original series by the out-and-proud actor George Takei, who has insisted that his recent remarks objecting to the character’s newly revealed sexuality were taken out of context.
What really makes this most recent Star Trek iteration worth watching, even in lackluster chapters like 2013’s Into Darkness, is the beautifully chosen cast. Kirk and Spock, two iconic characters wedded in the minds of several generations of fans to the actors who first played them, must be daunting roles to take on, but Pine and Quinto manage to convey their most essential qualities—Kirk’s short temper and forceful-yet-intuitive management style, Spock’s intellectual curiosity and dry sense of humor about the illogical foibles of his human crewmates—without ever slipping into mere impersonations of, say, William Shatner’s staccato line delivery or the impeccably raised right eyebrow of the late, great Leonard Nimoy. It’s to Nimoy, and the heartbreakingly promising Anton Yelchin, that this film is dedicated. Star Trek Beyond may not go where no Trek has gone before, but it’s that very fidelity to the show’s original values that will keep fans trekking to the box office.