The Star Trek reboot universe as pioneered by J.J. Abrams has always had one very consistent problem: the films are referential to the original Star Trek television series in the extreme, borrowing its visual design and incorporating the series’ most iconic characters and locations, but it never really felt like a revival in the spirit of the series. The Original Series was about scientific exploration and discovery across a fantastical galaxy where the unknown was always just beyond the next jump to warp speed, yet the Abrams-verse films were largely grounded to Earth or in space battles, only occasionally visiting other worlds that were well-established in Trek lore and barely getting any nostalgic mileage out of them. Now that Abrams has left the Star Trek director’s chair, though, fresh creative blood has come to the series in form of director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious 3-6) and writers Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, also playing Scotty in the film) and Doug Jung, and the results are not only pretty darn great, they are the truest to the spirit of Star Trek that the films have been since 1986’s Star Trek IV.
The setup is one that would have functioned as a high-budget episode of The Original Series, something that feels right at home as a piece of episodic storytelling but with way more financial leeway to bring the high concepts at play to life. Captain Kirk and crew are a few years into their multi-year voyage to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations when they come across a lone escape pod, carrying an alien woman who claims that her ship has damaged and that her crew is in need of assistance. However, when the Enterprise goes to investigate, they are attacked by a swarm of tiny ships that proceed to tear the ship apart. Now, stranded on an alien world, the crew of the Enterprise is split up and must reunite to escape from the machinations of the mysterious Krall, the one responsible for the destruction of their ship.
Gone is the focus on individual character arcs that dominated the previous two films; the only two characters that have fully developed thematic arcs are Kirk and Spock, and those mostly exist in the background and aren’t bogged down by notions of destiny or purpose, just relatable internal conflict. What acts as a welcome replacement is a reliance on the strength of the characters to carry the film through fantastic character moments. Watching Bones and Spock bicker feels classic, Scotty is a delightful source of insult and chicanery (likely symptomatic of Mr. Pegg saving the best lines for himself) and though Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura are more supportive in their roles than they have ever been in the reboot series, they still get to shine for their respective strengths in key moments. Chris Pine, an actor who only ever seems to come alive when playing James T. Kirk, is at the best he has ever been, giving dimension to the character beyond the blind bravado of his first two outings and allowing us to feel Kirk’s subtly world-weary disposition.
Equal, if not greater, credit for the fantastic character work must go to the screenplay. Pegg and Jung give a comic punchiness to the dialogue that is not only consistently entertaining, but also offers insight into the characters that goes beyond the surface-level depth of the previous films. Instead of focusing on rehashing the Hero’s Journey yet again, they understand that the strength of Star Trek is in the personalities that we observe the alien worlds through, so this time around themes of crew unity and a sense of familial camaraderie shine through as most important. It’s a breath of fresh air for a series that was quickly becoming stagnant.
But let us not forget director Justin Lin’s contribution. He may not be as visually dynamic as J.J. Abrams, but he is a more than capable action director who proves himself just as capable of crafting epic sci-fi set pieces as he is at car stunts. He understands that Star Trek at its best marries its philosophical underpinnings with ridiculous spectacle, so he delivers some fascinating displays, including one of the coolest musical cues in recent memory (you’ll know it when you see it, and it will undoubtedly be what everyone is talking about as they exit the theater).
Star Trek Beyond isn’t a transcendent or potentially classic piece of action or science fiction cinema—it’s a little too thematically shallow for that—but it is the revival that Star Trek has deserved for over a decade and has been continually mishandled in the meantime. We may never see this cast, these writers, or this director take on a weekly series to bring us to where no one has gone before, but this movie is the truest interpretation of what a modern Star Trek should look like. We can only hope that this revival lives long and prospers.