In many ways, Star Trek Beyond was a film no one wanted.
Paramount Pictures’ reboot of the classic sixties sci-fi, first helmed by JJ Abrams in 2009, were initially well received but as time went on devotion seemed to dwindle. Enthusiasm on this 21st century Star Trek waned most after the 2012 entry, Into Darkness, went through something of a reappraisal after its first release and came out the other end in a bad light.
Still, a third film was on the horizon but on it there were a lot of doubts cast, from both outside and within – Karl Urban, who portrayed Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the first two films, said he didn’t want to reprise the role. He did though, as well as the rest of the Enterprise crew, and after some delay full of troubling events – a lot of back and forth between the filmmakers which saw foreign investors and a new director brought in – the film that became Star Trek Beyond was finally set for international release in the Summer of 2016.
During that period however, an uneasy feeling had grown among onlookers that this reimagining of Star Trek was moving away from creator Gene Rodenberry’s original intentions and instead shifting to a more action-centric, mainstream model. Early news reports seemed to reaffirm this: first the hiring of Fast and Furious doyen Justin Lin to direct; then Simon Pegg, now co-writer in addition to playing the part of Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott, saying the studio wanted his and fellow scribe Doug Jung’s script to be re-worked after deeming it, in his words, “too Star Trek-y”.
The poor reception that was met with the first trailer, which seemed to confirm anxieties that the unique qualities of the property had been forsaken, proved to be the final straw and dampened any chance at generating more hype. This was seemingly confirmed by its later performance: despite plenty of favourable reviews, it did not make the box-office returns needed for it to be an outright success.
Some of the early criticisms levelled again Star Trek Beyond are valid, but looking at the final product, while it is geared for wider audiences, is a spectacular thrill-ride, made as a film with a lot of love for what inspired it. To some it appeared that Star Trek had been turned into something that it is not, but that may have worked in its advantage.
One way Beyond does this is by paying homage to old ideas, but not re-hashing them. The previous film, Into Darkness, may be fun but when looked at subjectively is more or less just a re-tread of 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. The tension there suffers at the moment when Benedict Cumberbatch’s true identity is revealed. After that, only those with no prior knowledge of Star Trek could not tell what was going to happen next. (Even then it was obvious as to what would happen next.)
It could be said, then, that Beyond is more aligned towards the Trek faithful on the grounds of it not trying to pass off old plotlines as new ones. Its story is definitely reminiscent of many classic episodes of the show that inspired it: a voyage to a distant planet and a battle of minds and muscle with a megalomaniacal foe bent on wreaking destruction.
What’s more, those behind this third film do a better job of fulfilling the brief. JJ Abrams did well in his duties to update Trek when he first came on board, but by Into Darkness it was clear he didn’t seem to know where to take it. As evidenced in that film, his “mystery box” style of storytelling doesn’t work in all instances and his insistence on using lens flare as much as possible proving to be an annoying distraction.
While Justin Lin was not a popular choice for the next custodian of Star Trek, he brings a new energy, strikes a good balance between action and story and does not dilute or sell the source material out short. He is also responsible for putting together Beyond’s many exciting action sequences. Beginning with the Enterprise, attacked while on a rescue mission near the remote planet Altamid, coming under attack from a swarm of alien ships, the action continues at a brisk and constant pace for the remainder.
Yet the filmmakers know what makes Star Trek work is not just its effect sequences, but the camaraderie between the Enterprise crew. The first two films focused on Kirk and Spock, perhaps rightly so as Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto had both nailed their respective roles. Here they give all of the main characters a chance to come out from the background and into the fore front, allowing the audience more insight into each of them.
There are new characters to contend with as well; feisty Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), stranded on Altamid like the crew, who find her resourcefulness and wits of great use in their survival mission. It’s on this strange new planet they all find themselves at the mercy of the villainous Krall (There’s no point in naming the A-lister who portrays him, as it could be anyone under all that heavy makeup). In many ways a classic Star Trek villain: megalomaniacal, destructive, with a grudge against Star Fleet and looking somewhat like a man in a rubber suit.
Beyond is not all throwback, though, as it tries to put its own spin on old tropes and give new situations and dilemmas for its characters to overcome. For example, the previously adventurous Kirk has grown tired of exploring the never-ending expanse of space and through the events of the film, re-learns what it was that first made him want to explore the universe. As with all series, Star Trek was in danger of becoming repeatedly treading old ground and Beyond invents new directions for all involved, making it a more intriguing joruney.
Well-written and made with expertise, the biggest selling point of Star Trek Beyond is that it is, pure and simply, good fun. It has the feel of a time before all studio films became dour and serious, but while this film is serious in wanting the audience to care about what happens, the tone is not a dour one which causes events to drag.
Unfortunately on release it was not met with the audience it needed or deserved, which was disappointing and also bringing this new Star Trek series to a grinding halt. A sequel to Beyond was on the cards but has failed numerous times to get off the ground, even with some of the biggest names in the game attached to it. As of summer 2021 Paramount have stated a follow-up is on the horizon, but it’s uncertain what the eventual final product will look like.
Another reason for the post-Beyond stagnation may be the loss of a main cast member. Not long before the film’s release, Anton Yelchin died in tragic circumstances at the age of 27. His performance as Pavel Chekov in all three of these Star Trek films was his most visible and for him to have gone so young left an air of sadness over what was to be his final performance in the series. His absence would have to been addressed in any further films, as he would have to be re-cast or written out.
Star Trek Beyond‘s difficult birth saw it miss out on its chance to enthrall the world even more than its two predecessors did. With everything firing on all cylinders, it’s easily the best of the three films made to date. It is ripe for re-discovery – and what better time than its five-year anniversary.