Beneath the ostentatious, rat-a-tat action and state of the art technology underwire, Justin Lin’s newest Star Trek feature is a séance for an antiquarian spirit that dishes on not only the usefulness of seemingly past-its-prime technology but reminisces for and embodies a long-lost ethos in big-budget blockbuster cinema. In this case, it is the progenitor race of the Star Trek universe that is resurrected, with the aww-shucks nature of Gene Roddenberry’s original television show surprisingly at home in the casual riffing and interpersonal dynamics that girder Lin’s more casual, insular take on the material. The result is an exultant ode to camaraderie and ingenuity much closer to the spirit of democratic interpersonal imagination as an avenue for overcoming conflict and feeling out one’s own humanity that was the backbone of Star Trek in its original incarnation.
Star Trek Beyond is close to wall-to-wall action, but beneath the knuckle-dusting charisma lies a vigorous treatise on the Star Trek crew, the characters that were once the lifeblood of a series about the human soul. And characters who were unceremoniously downshifted in import once JJ Abrams malformed and squished the series into the big-budget version of his childhood Star Wars play-set. The very balls-to-the-wall demeanor that frightened so many fan-boys in the trailers of Beyond is the spark that kindles this Star Trek into a liberating break from the grandiloquent space opera shenanigans of Abrams’ two-time attempt to turn Star Trek into a study in his own ego.
Rather than shoehorning in themes, Lin’s version inscribes meaning in the action itself, cold turkey dropping the stultifying political commentary of Star Trek Into Darkness like a bad habit. What Lin singularly understands is that accepting the more primal silliness and gung-ho camaraderie lying dormant in the series’ heart is itself a wellspring of purpose. In the spirit of the classic Roddenberry television show, this simple story – little more than “crew is stranded on alien planet, besieged by unknown force, must rely on craftiness and cunning to escape” – becomes an ode to having each others’ back not because our friends are us, or like us, but because of our differences. The interrogation of the democratic principle, of the interaction of living species and their collective ability to problem solve through present-minded consideration of each other’s skills and even their foibles, is alive for the first time in this series since the fond memories of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Which means that, as with almost every episode of the classic show, production design and character are the focal points, with the minutiae of the Enterprise crew’s personal ticks and eccentricities serving as the galvanizing principle of the film’s action; each shootout and chase sequence belies a fount of interplay and interpersonal riffing that crystallize an exploration of the Star Trek crew itself. Although Beyond channels these conflicts through the realm of violent confrontation rather than serving as an envoy to character comedy conversation pieces, a la The Voyage Home, the overall raffish jubilance of the production occupies a similar neighborhood in the galaxy.
So rather than inducing neo-baroque lethargic portent as the onset of a multi-year, multi-film relationship, Beyond is content to settle for a one-and-done midnight tryst. It’s fleet of foot as a principle, emphasizing its agility and litheness as a spiritual guide rather than doubling down on the world-ending crises and speechifying tumultuousness, preferring the forward thrust of the action and the momentum to clarify the stakes rather than stopping to codify and compartmentalize what we are supposed to think at every moment. Beyond is a very present-tense motion picture, considerably freer and less ossified in its rhythms than either of its immediate predecessors; it rides the waves of the moment, enjoining the characters to react to crisis with a spirited cadence and an energetic countenance, rather than sanding down the filigrees of fun with the antiseptic brush of monolithic meaning. It’s not termite art or anything – it’s hardly even art at all – but in an age of grotesquely indulgent, over-baked blockbusters garbing themselves in middlebrow airs, Beyond is stimulating in its small-scale ambition and brazen in its simplicity.
Throughout, Lin stages conflict as the same communal biome he eventually settled his Fast and the Furious franchise into after several inconsequential early entries; the camera weaves around technology and the wonderful production design – part primordial forest, part ship graveyard, part malevolent rock obelisk – but also traces the tactical contours of the characters as they invade space relative to each other. Rather than always emphasizing masturbatory bombast, the film surfs with an undulating, spry ambition between characters as they function in heated agreement or fluctuating harmony with one another, their limber, prickly differences ultimately saving the day when mere technology cannot. The film’s look is deceptively labyrinthine, but its heart is that of a digital film with an analog spirit, a rattling claptrap of a production that earns its idiosyncrasies rather than a streamlined straight-and-narrow that sands those personal ticks down.
It doesn’t expand beyond its roots, per-se, but Abrams’ two-fer expended their chances “expanding” in the wrong direction, copying another, more commonplace aesthetic rather than finding a third way. With a fizzy goodwill and an emphasis on exuberance rather than exposition, this new Star Trek knows its place in the world, and in an epoch of blockbusters timidly attempting to boldly go where no blockbuster has gone before – which in practice means going to exactly the same dark and dreary watering well every blockbuster over the past ten years has gone before – there’s something downright rogue about the scrappy, old-fashioned genre thrills of this production.
Which is to say, this is a bounded, limited production, but Simon Pegg’s giddy, flamboyant screenplay and Lin’s craft-oriented direction are comfortably bounded and swivel into a reverie out of the act of admitting their limits, rather than pretending to boundlessly devour an omnivorous dinner of variegated hot-trend themes, a la Marvel: Civil War, and having their limits clarified for them out of failure. So many blockbusters feign pushing the boundaries of pop entertainment and then wimp out at the last minute, pursuing the sketch-work of drama without the corollary nuance to fill-in the boots they’ve donned. They become so submersed in their rudderless deep-dives, microwavable depth, and plastic maturity that they forget to come up for air; Beyond is all air, all sketch-work, and it’s pleased to meet you there.