“Star Trek Beyond” plays like an episode of the old “Star Trek” TV series.
This, I submit, is what’s enjoyable about it.
It’s longer, of course, with a different cast, a more hectic pace, and state-of-the-galaxy digital effects. But those boulders strewn across the planet on which the characters have landed look like Styrofoam even if some of them are real, and the dramatic stakes are the kind that get resolved in an hour with commercial breaks rather than two hours-plus of epic cinema. It might even feel like you’re back in your rec room, circa 1967, drinking Tang and waiting for the Tribbles.
Gone is the exuberance of “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), movies in which ringmaster J. J. Abrams reintroduced 21st-century audiences to Gene Roddenberry’s original “Star Trek” characters with wit, flair, and pop-culture affection. Justin Lin is now directing — Abrams is still overseeing as producer — and with four installments in the “Fast and Furious” franchise under his belt, Lin at least knows how to keep things moving.
So if “Star Trek Beyond” takes a while to rev its engines to warp speed and if it never comes close to the delirious peaks and emotional depths of the earlier films, the movie ultimately cruises along with workmanlike charm and energy, buoyed by the playing of actors who by now know each others’ rhythms well. It’s a fine summer B-movie, and it gives good Trek.
It says a lot that most of the plot unfolds on one planet, just like an episode of the show. First, though, the USS Enterprise docks for R&R at the interstellar space station Yorktown, which looks like a city-state that M.C. Escher might have designed after studying a gyroscope. (“Star Trek Beyond” wasn’t screened for the press in 3D, but it’s the rare movie I wish had been.)
Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is having a smallish existential crisis after too long at the helm, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) have put a halt on their romance because Spock apparently wants to raise the kids Vulcan. We briefly glimpse Sulu (John Cho) reunited with his husband (Doug Jung), while Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Jung) and “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) mostly riff on their long-established characters.
And every time the camera passes across the face of Anton Yelchin as Chekov, you’re allowed to feel a pang of grief, since this gifted young actor died just last month in a freak auto mishap. (The movie is dedicated to him and to the late Leonard Nimoy.) Life is far crueler than anything a Hollywood screenwriter could invent.
“Star Trek Beyond” quickly gets the crew out of Yorktown and beyond a distant nebula to rescue a ship captained by the alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who sets off ambush alarms in the audience but not, surprisingly, onscreen. A long action sequence in which the Enterprise is beset by an immense swarm of fighter pilots — they’re called “bees” and they look like them — is eye candy of the first order, after which our heroes are split up into subgroups as they run around the planet’s surface.
We meet an alien bad guy, Krall, played by Idris Elba under heavy latex, and even if his villainy feels puny by, say, Khan standards, Elba’s regal bearing goes a long way. (Unlike Oscar Isaac in the recent “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Elba escapes with his dignity intact.) We also meet an alien heroine, Jaylah, who looks like Daryl Hannah’s kabuki vixen in “Blade Runner” and who is played with propulsive grace by the Algerian dancer-model Sofia Boutella.
Both those new characters are welcome, but “Star Trek Beyond” knows we’re here for the old gang. The movie panders to the blockbuster summer marketplace more than it should. For a story set in the 23rd century to wedge in “classical music” like the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy is a cheap crowd-pleaser. (It’s also foolproof.) But it always comes back to the bedrock of these 50-year-old figures, much loved, virtually indestructible, outliving even the people who’ve played them.
“Beyond” indulges the catchphrases and intra-crew rivalries and in one lovely moment shows all the characters communally brainstorming a solution to a major galactic crisis. After so many decades spent together on our screens and in our imaginations, there are no leads or supporting players on the bridge of the Enterprise. Everyone’s essential. Everyone belongs. Life may be cruel, but a half-century in, “Star Trek” has become a comfort. It’s one of our oldest futures and one of our better utopias.
★ ★ ★
STAR TREK BEYOND
Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on characters created by Gene Roddenberry. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, and Idris Elba. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 122 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi action and violence).