‘Star Trek Beyond’
Director: Justin Lin
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto
3 (out of 5) Globes
Is it wrong that the brainy “Star Trek” movie franchise has been saved by the director of the biggest, dumbest movies on the market? His name is Justin Lin, who transferred from making four “Fast and/or Furious” monstrosities, meaning he’s gone from cool thieves driving sweet rides to scientists who like to debate the ethics of unified governance. And yet he’s made the kind of movie the bloated second one should have been: a one-off romp — a super-sized version of an old episode, just with more hot-dogging motorcycle stunts and stuff going boom.
Actually, Lin is just lucky: There’s almost no heady debating in “Star Trek Beyond.” There wasn’t much deep thought in the previous two either. Since being rebooted, the movie wing of "Trek" has dumbed things down for mass consumption, like fan fiction written by a jock. (“Feeling philosophical, are ya?” Karl Urban’s reliably grouchy Bones growls to Zachary Quinto’s Spock when he turns briefly introspective. The movie’s on his side.) That’s not a bad thing. This is a fine throwaway adventure, and refreshing in an era of interlocking franchise entries that assume we remember everything about an installment from three years prior.
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Credit shouldn’t really go to Lin, who’s more a hired hand to keep things sprightly and explode-y. The real hero is Simon Pegg. On top of returning as mega-engineer Scotty, he co-wrote a script (with Doug Jung) that feels old school “Trek”-y enough. Here, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, still enjoyably smarmy) and his rainbow color band of Enterprisers launch off on what they assume is a rescue mission. Instead their beautiful ship is destroyed beautifully by a wraith of tiny ships that look like a horde of wasps. Stranded on an obscure rocky planet outside of Federation jurisdiction, they have to MacGyver together an escape while defeating an alien menace who you might not realize is Idris Elba under pounds of makeup until the finale.
Elba’s Krall — whose name is perhaps too similar to both Nick Kroll and the movie “Krull” — turns out to be the head of an aggrieved species, a couple of whose dolled-up faces look like designs bought from Matthew Barney. Krall has been seeking a magical MacGuffin that will allow him to destroy the civilized world. He’s also too vaguely defined, even after the movie gifts him with an empathetic backstory. Even with Elba’s inevitable gravitas, he’s a generic bad guy — a villain of the week in a series that won’t have another episode for another three years.
Or is the disposability part of the charm? There’s a lack of pretense to “Beyond,” especially compared to the self-important and joyless “Darkness.” Lin mostly keeps things grounded in character, allowing Bones and Spock to bicker and Scotty and Kirk to befriend a whip smart loner local (“Kingsman”’s Sofia Boutella, in white face). When he goes big, he tends to disappoint. Lin is one of the few blockbuster directors who cares about making sure you can follow action spectacles, but here his set pieces are largely incoherent flashes of stuff. One tussle in a realm with multiple forms of gravity is a big whiff, with Lin weirdly passing up the chance to indulge in real visual wit. The exception is the climactic space battle which, with its orgiastic use of a pop classic, has almost the same idea as the end of Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” in which the day is saved by music.
Is it terrible that these days we cheer when something’s slight but fun? Definitely. But some of the finest pop entertainments are just there to get the job done. There is a touch more here than mere enjoyment. “Trek” arrives steeped in death and melancholy, from the recent, bizarre death of Anton Yelchin, its excitable Anton Chekov, to Leonard Nimoy’s passing last year. The movie stops dead no less than thrice to honor Nimoy.
But usually it’s in pulp mode, too busy to even give the fact that New Sulu (John Cho) has a husband more than a cursory mention. (The homophobes seething about this reinvention will be happy that they do no more than pat each other’s backs, because we're still in an era when blockbusters have to treat same-sex couples as special "friends.") “Beyond” is a lot like its version of Kirk: The guy that partied rather than hit the books, but still managed to charm his way to a passing grade. Still, if this is what "Trek" is now, at least at the cinemas, then let it them all be like "Beyond."
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge