The guy who made 3 of the 4 best Fast & Furious movies just released probably the best Star Trek film in at least 20 years.
Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. But I'm not joking.
My relationship with this newly-rebooted series - begun with J.J. Abrams' Star Trek in 2009 - is slightly complicated. I was ready to hate that first film, primed to loathe it after the annoying trailers and jettisoning of what I saw as the frachises's core spirit (exploration, optimism, and social conscience) for the stuffing in of as much slam-bang action as Paramount could shove into every one of their franchises post-Transformers.
But I didn't hate it. I liked it. A lot. And I dearly wish it had been followed up with EXACTLY THIS MOVIE.
One of the basic problems with Abrams' '09 reboot was that it set itself a ludicrous number of plates to spin. Resetting the timeline with the destruction of the Kelvin and death of Kirk's father, covering the "academy years" of Kirk and Spock's established younger selves, then finally getting the crew on the Enterprise and everyone in their familiar places makes for some insane leaps of logic. And Into Darkness suffered from - among other things - repeating the same beats from previous movies (mostly The Wrath of Khan and, oddly enough, Star Trek '09) but still keeping the series earthbound and dour.
Star Trek Beyond has no time for that nonsense, starting right smack dab in the middle of the show's iconic 5-year mission and hitting the ground running, but giving ample time to catch up with everyone. Kirk may not have the melancholy of middle age that Shatner's admiral dealt with in The Wrath of Khan, but he's just turned 1 year older than his father ever got, and is wondering where his place is. He's cheated death, saved millions, but his life has become - as he calls it - episodic and he feels lost. Spock is also dealing with a conflict of duty in the wake of an unexpected loss. However, as well-implemented as these opening character beats are, the film is far more focused on the ensemble than the previous two entries. It should come as no surprise that the filmmaker who turned the rivalry of the Fast & Furious films into a surrogate family of super thieves, but the crew dynamics are almost as good as anything in a Joss Whedon joint, and part of how the film plays this is by splitting the crew up after crashing the hell out of their ship.
The basic idea of "we're trapped on an alien planet and now have to science and/or punch our way off" is about as basic Trek as you can get without gluing goatees on someone, but here it works like gangbusters. Partly because director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung treat the much-maligned "feature-length episode" idea more as excuse to craft a story that would feel more like a fully-loaded season finale with the sort of budget that TV could only dream of. Character relationships - both the ones that you know from "legacy" Trek and have seen develop in the films - are used to grand effect (Pine has never felt more at home in the captain's chair than he does in the fist-pumping finale), and the basic "optimism and unity vs. backwards militant aggression" is not only in keeping with the franchise spirit, but timely as hell.
Hell, this movie is so "Trek" that it has Kirk pause a fist fight with a guy in makeup to debate philosophy before they resume struggling for a super-science doodad.
The only real gripes about the film are strictly surface-level. While Lin is an accomplished action director, he hews a little too close to dark and jumpy with his lighting and cutting in a couple early action scenes, and while the pace of the film is as breezy as it's been for the series for the last 7 years, there feels like there was even more room for the characters to bounce off each other (though there's still a LOT of that). But overall, the fact that the film establishes personal and relationship stakes that tie the crew to locations like the Enterprise or the deep space station Yorktown make the destruction or threatening of these safe spaces feel immediate and frightening.
And the movie also features one of the best needle drops of this decade, full stop.
In what has been an overall lackluster summer, Star Trek Beyond soars as an accomplished blockbuster that celebrates both the unconquerable spirit of the classic series as well as basic narrative functionality. The film both feels intimate and isolated in setting but also like it's pushing forward rather than retreading old locations or stories, delivering strange alien worlds, technological marvels, comfortable character banter, and the occasional gutting tribute to "absent friends."
May this crew's mission ever be ongoing.