If there’s one word which sums up the Star Trek ethos, it’s hope. If Star Wars is a classical Greek vision of the universe, with good and evil in constant balance and conflict, Star Trek is more of a Quaker vision. A society of friends, bringing into existence a better world through sheer faith in the fundamental goodness of all people (and aliens who look like people but with weird foreheads).
Justin Lin’s latest instalment in the rebooted Star Trek franchise delights most in this idea, and the strongest parts of the film are those when we see the makeshift family of the Enterprise bonding together in shared adversity. There are also, of course, plentiful sequences of things being blown apart as well, so don’t worry.
The story is vintage Star Trek through and through: someone needs help, the crew go to help, it turns out that helping means fighting a bunch of aliens. There’s a mysterious artefact, a deranged tyrant, and an uncomfortably sexy alien. You feel the film getting slightly bored with the plot after only a short while. Narratives screech to a halt mid-arc to allow for another space battle, and some of the more interesting characters (most notably the aforementioned deranged tyrant, played by Idris Elba) aren’t given nearly enough space to become something approaching genuinely well-rounded.
The best moments happen when the crew are just shooting the breeze instead of the aliens. For all the Hollywood sun he’s been soaking up you can still hear that distinctive Simon Pegg voice running through the script. The dialogue comes easily, avoiding the trading of portentous declarations – which mar so many science fiction films – in favour of what a group of friends might actually say to each other in these situations.
The scenes with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban, with what still seems like an awfully stilted and deliberate delivery – unless that’s just how people from Georgia really talk) are particularly enjoyable, the back-and-forth between two friends with nothing in common but their shared experience being a welcome break from all the lasers and explosions and stuff.
It’s the action sequences which are the most disappointing. It’s especially frustrating coming from Lin, who proved in the Fast & Furious franchise that he’s more than capable of making slickly delightful scenes of high speed whiz-bangery, which are more than just a cinematic slap in the face. Explosions, deep-space dogfights and shoot-outs which make Stormtroopers look like expert marksmen drag us kicking and screaming out of the more human aspects of the film and are at times so clumsily done that it’s difficult to tell who’s shooting who or which side of the screen we’re supposed to be cheering on.
It feels like two films forced together, like a Hollywood executive smashed an orange and an apple together and then tried to sell us a new fruit. Somewhere in Simon Pegg’s desk draw there’s a full, funny, warm-hearted Star Trek Beyond script, fully imbued with the spirit of the original series while also incorporating the best of this generation’s self-awareness. I want to watch that film. Of course somewhere on Lin’s hard drive there’s probably six more hours of big spaceships crashing into things and aliens being punched in the face that I could do without.
The problem is that this film wants to be everything. It wants to cater to the long-time fans, so there are in-jokes and sly nods to old episodes – but all that does is remind us what this film could be. It wants to pull in the Saturday crowd, so there are explosions and not too much waffling on about final frontiers and galactic peace – you know, the things that Star Trek is all about. It needs to set up for the endless sequels stretching away to the horizon, so characters are introduced and then allowed to fade with the implicit promise that all of that will be dealt with at a later date.
It’s Star Trek by committee; a fine enough action film, with some good lines and good performances and good CGI. But Star Trek by committee is hardly Star Trek at all. For a film about the endless possibilities of the universe, it all ends up feeling awfully familiar.