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Star Trek Beyond – The phaser, the furious

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Insert captain here: Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, with Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

The rebooted Star Trek universe has become a curious success story. The first entry, 2009’s minimalist-titled Star Trek, gave the franchise new vigour, while breaking the series’ longstanding ‘odds are bad, evens are great’ rule, being the eleventh adventure, and one of the betters. The less said about the 2013 ‘Rehash of Khan’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a cine-cesspool I have already emptied into at length, the better, but it’s fair to say that both films played a major role in giving their director J. J. Abrams the impetus to resurrect the flatlining Star Wars saga with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Trek Beyond, the first of the series without Abrams in the captain’s seat, was likely to prove a challenge to succeed, and yet, here we are. It’s a fun ’un!

Originally set to be the directorial debut of Star Trek and STID (and, ugh, Transformers 2) co-writer Roberto Orci, that idea was thankfully jettisoned into space early on, like so much dead Spock. Justin Lin, whose revitalisation of the Fast & Furious franchise (entries 3 thru 6) will no doubt result in statues being built to his memory some day, was brought in to take the wheel. He’s suitably made it the most high-octane entry in the franchise’s history, no matter how much that jars with the legacy of a show about space diplomacy and thinly veiled arguments against racial prejudice. (Actually, come to think of it, given how racially progressive the Fast & Furious franchise became under Lin’s watch, maybe there’s a direct connection there…)

Lin directs from a script by Doug Jung and ensemble member Simon Pegg, which finds the crew of the Enterprise crash-landing on an uncharted planet, with an angry alien warlord hunting them. Our heroes Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are facing nicely paralleled mortality issues: Kirk has just passed the age his father was when he was killed in film 1; whereas Spock has just learned that his time-travelling alt-future self has died (allowing the film to delicately mourn Leonard Nimoy) – an intriguing metaphysical ball of angst that the film never dares dig into, but deserves much credit for addressing. The idea of the fear of death trickles in and out of the film, but it’s all just basic emotional dressing for the grander set pieces.

The first of these sees the Enterprise grounded as a fleet of compact armoured alien ships tears through its hull, whipping about in a swarm of black darts. It’s frightening stuff, although the speed of the ships (and their being black on black of space) does make it all a tad hard to see. That the starship’s fall to earth is with a crunching thud and not an enormous Bayhemic explosion is a rare but admirable show of restraint. The death toll unclear (thousands?), the villains seize most of the survivors, barring a few of our principles, of course. Scotty, absent for a sizeable chunk of STID, gets the most to do here; perhaps Simon Pegg taking advantage of his new status. He teams up with orphaned alien scavenger/engineer Jaylah (think Newt from Aliens mixed with, um, that guy Laurence Fishburne played in Predators) to help rescue the team and find their way off the planet. Jaylah, played by Kingsman henchman Sofia Boutella, is the film’s crowning glory – impish, stubborn, and extremely competent, never overly sexualised; she sits comfortably amongst the leading ladies of the recent feminist action hero wave.

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You’ve got me on my knees, Jaylah: Sofia Boutella as alien newcomer Jaylah, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)

When the crew finally reunites, it’s a few skirmishes to take down the villain (although thankfully there’s room between them to breathe, which was the undoing of STID). Lin determinedly inserts a motorbike for Kirk to ride both fast and moderately furiously. The Enterprise crew then goes up against the swarm again in a delightful over-the-top (and LOUD) space battle that is one of the most joyous in recent memory. It’s dumb fun made by smart people.

Like too many recent blockbusters, the villain is the weakest element. Played by Idris Elba in alien Nosferatu makeup so thick you’d never know it was him, Krall is another angry-with-the-system rebel, whose rants against the Federation sound more BREXIT than ISIS. As cool as his army of hive-minded spaceships is, his sinister plan to kill lots of people with a bio-weapon is so old-hat you’d imagine it was outlawed in the future along with anti-gay prejudice.

The design is solid, especially the space station Yorktown, which is all crisp white futurism and glass, but toys with gravity like Norman Foster playing Super Mario Galaxy. Lighting is all too dark in some sequences, and the edits during the action can be a little sharp, but mostly it’s a pleasantly bright and thrilling adventure, a strong blockbuster in a summer of flops and stillbirths. Even the acting has gotten better. Pegg no longer grates as Scotty, and Pine finally begins to feel right for the role of captain. Once again, Karl Urban steals the show as Dr. McCoy, given the best of the bantery dialogue to snarl in Spock’s face. Sadly, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is largely sidelined, as is, more tragically, the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, a glorified extra in his last space adventure.

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The old and the new: An iconic reference

It’s curious that the marketing for the film chose so strongly to reference the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film in this series this latest least resembles. Beyond is a hyperactive adventure, contrasting sharply with the unjustly disliked but criminally overlong TMP, with its true-sci-fi mystery plot. But there are fleeting references, such as the villains in Beyond using old Starfleet probes for reconnaissance, while the “villain” of TMP was the Voyager probe made sentient. One shot, sped up to rapidly circle the entirety of the Enterprise in all its glory, seems to josh TMP’s notorious three-minute ogling of its famous model. Indeed, while Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk suffering the malaise of his mission, and considering relinquishing the captaincy to become an admiral, TMP saw Kirk’s frustration with the admiralty return him to his rightful place. With Nimoy, and thus Spock-Prime, now gone, the original adventure is truly brought to a close. Star Trek Beyond is just another bump on the new road, but it’s one that offers one hell of a thrill.

3/5

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