Warp back twenty years and tell a Trekker that the series would one day reach a point in which Kirk and Spock have to use the musical power of the Beastie Boys to save millions of lives, and the poor Trekkers would inform you that the alternate time-line that you come from is the darkest one. We live in a sad era of Star Trek when we must continuously witness the furthering erosion of our favorite sci-fi series, caused by pounding explosions, jump cuts, and frenetic energy, all set to the pounding music of 1990’s rap rock band, the Beastie Boys. Oh, I am not joking about the film using the music of the Beastie Boys as an actual story device to defeat snarling aliens. Considering that Star Trek was once known for its philosophical intrigue, and social commentary, I would almost call this usage of loud rock music to defeat the evil aliens a jumping-the-shark moment, but the movie already has Kirk riding on a motorcycle, and jumping over the heads of aliens who sort of look like sharks, so I guess that moment qualifies by default.
The film is the third in the rebooted series set forth by J.J. Abrams, preceded by Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the 2009 film, Star Trek. There seems to be no slowing down from this new direction that the franchise is veering into. It’s revving its motorcycle engine, taking this series away from ethical dilemmas, toward conventional space western stuff of the explodey-bang-bang variety. And as such, Star Trek Beyond is instantly forgettable. After the movie was over, my wife asked me what I thought of the film and I told her it was about as memorable as Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. She asked me, “Which one that one was again?” My response: “Exactly.”
Maybe I’m being too harsh on The Search for Spock, though, because in that one, it could actually elicit real emotions to see damage being done to the Enterprise. When that ship goes down, and you see the pain in the eyes of those who commandeered her, it feels like a true loss of a dear family member. That original ship was home. This new ship in Beyond is treated with the same intimacy as a brand new Hennessey Venom GT engine being discarded into a junk yard. Early in the film the Enterprise is completely sliced apart from warp nacelles to saucer section. Given the frequency of how often this ship gets ripped into and blown apart over the course of these rebooted films, it feels like the filmmakers are in an abusive relationship with the Enterprise, and this time, they finally did her in.
The film mostly takes place on the surface of an alien planet, with the Enterprise crew being scattered and separated. The alien villain, Krall, is played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba. Krall lures Kirk and his crew to this planet for some nefarious reasons that make absolutely no sense even by Star Trek standards, and this was a franchise that had an episode in which one of Plato’s stepchildren mind-controls a dwarf to ride Shatner like a horse, saying “Neeeigghhh!”
At its peak, Star Trek has had some of the best villains in science fiction television history. The episodes about the Cardassians rationalizing their use of torture, forced labor camps and genocide are chilling. The episodes about the Borg erasing individuality and plugging people into a linked hive-mind, inspire rich post-episode discussions about the concept of self. But here in Star Trek Beyond, we have another standard villain of the Disgruntled Starfleet Officer trope, who is angry with the Federation, not because of foreign policy, or the sociological fallout of the Prime Directive, or any reason coming out of thematic exploration. He doesn’t have a real motivation that actually makes any kind of sense, and it’s a criminal waste of Idris Elba’s talent. The film falls back on a trope and hopes that no one will notice that the villain’s motives wouldn’t even make sense for a Power Rangers episode. It seems like Starfleet has had more problems with evil captains, admirals and high ranking officers to the point that you’d expect them to improve the vetting process by the 23rd Century.
The film is a step up from the atrociously bad Star Trek: Into Darkness, but that’s not saying much, considering that movie was poorly doing the exact same beats as Star Trek II like a bad rap rock cover of a beloved classic (Limp Bizkit, anyone?) One of the things that Beyond does better out of the three rebooted films is that it seems to understand the dynamics of its characters a whole lot more. The film separates the crew into smaller teams, which allows them to interact with each other instead of having everyone only interacting with Kirk. We get to see the classic Bones-Spock frenemy relationship explored, warts and all. The few minutes of human banter feels more real than the hundred-million dollar special effects. Kirk on that CGI motorcycle, jumps the shark in more than one way.
While the interpersonal dynamics, which are a Star Trek staple, make a welcome return, the core conflict in the film is muddled. Kirk is supposed to be conflicted about heading into the frontier, and his directionless feeling of being lost is supposed to parallel with the villain’s. “Out here the frontier pushes back,” Krall sneers. This conflict of civilization vs. the frontier would have been an interesting theme to explore, but the movie is just as confused and lost as its ill-fated characters on that M-class planet. Star Trek Beyond has a giant, nebula-sized theme, but it has no navigation; the movie drifts like it just lost power to its warp nacelles. Hopefully with the next film, the series will get the helm back online and lay in a course for deeper thematic territory, but this time, at a power greater than Half-Impulse.