Despite the futuristic tilt in the title, Star Trek Beyond works best when it boldly goes retro. The third chapter in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, with J.J. Abrams ceding the captain’s chair to Justin Lin, is plenty fast and furious (Lin directed four of those adrenalized F&F babies). But it also openly gives its heart to what came before; any Trekkie that doesn’t choke up at this 50th-anniversary edition is no longer in the club. Feelings run deep stemming from the death last year of original Spock Leonard Nimoy at 83 and for Anton Yelchin, as the Russian navigator Chekov, who died last month at 27 in a tragic accident. The movie is rightly dedicated to both of them.
And quite a movie it is. Playing like a mega-budgeted episode of the Gene Roddenberry TV series that took the time to develop characters, Star Trek Beyond may be hell on short attention spans. But patience and faith yield surprising dividends. The movie finds both Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) in a thoughtful mode: In the middle of a five-year tour for the Federation, Kirk wonders if he wants to be promoted to Vice-Admiral. He’d rather the job went to Spock, who’s thinking — after the death of Spock Prime (Nimoy) and his breakup with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) — that he should turn away from his human side and go back to Vulcan to start a family there. (Survival of the species and all that.) Kudos to Pine and Quinto, who bring new depth and feeling to their roles.
Don’t worry: The angst evaporates when the Starship Enterprise gets attacked. Screenwriters Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, know the rules of engagement. While docking at the utopian spaceport of Yorktown, where alien cultures live in harmony and Sulu (John Cho) shares a hug with his husband and their daughter (yes, he’s gay, even if the original Sulu George Takei, himself gay, doesn’t like it), the Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission that turns into an ambush. An enemy horde, led by the fearsome Krall (Idris Elba), blows the Enterprise to pieces, leaving the crew separated and stranded on the alien planet of Altamid.
That’s the setup, which allows for some playful pairings. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban, terrific) snipe at each other hilariously. Kirk and Chekov (damn, that Yelchin is good) set out to rescue the captured Uhura and Sulu. And Scotty matches wits with Jaylah (a scene-stealing Sofia Boutella from Kingsman: The Secret Service), an alien notorious for her white-and-black warpaint, attitude for days and combat skills accentuated by a trove of old-ass music called rap (“I like the beats and the screaming”). Scotty calls this dynamo “lassie.” He would.
Those are a lot of plot points to juggle. Luckily, Lin doesn’t drop too many balls, and the actors don’t just go through the motions. Elba makes a fierce villain, even when mostly buried under layers of prosthetics. (Why are we doing this to many of our best, most expressive actors? Look at Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises and Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s like acting with a paper bag over your head. Elba can do it — he can do anything — but it’s a trend I’d like to see fade.)
Lin pulls out all the VFX stops in the final siege at Yorktown, a sequence that shatters the rafters. Yet, Star Trek Beyond manages to knock you for a bigger loop with just the sight of one man staring at a photograph. You’ll know it the moment you see it. Come to Star Trek Beyond for the pow; stay for the emotional wipeout.