The first lines of dialogue from Star Trek Beyond offer a caustic auto-critique: Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) of the USS Enterprise uses the franchise-familiar Captain’s Log device to muse about not knowing “where one day ends and the next begins,” and about missions that feel “episodic.” Were this a J.J. Abrams film, this self-aware setup might lead to a string of winking meta commentaries on the series’s progression up to this point. But instead, this particular script direction plays right to new director Justin Lin’s established strengths: Like the Fast and the Furious films, Stark Trek Beyond emphasizes the inter-personal dynamics of the Enterprise’s crew, and functions best as an extended team-building exercise.
A new mission from the Federation necessitates that the Enterprise travel to “deep space,” an uncharted territory wherein an ambush awaits that tears the vessel to pieces. Scattered across an alien planet in neatly organized pairs, the spacecraft’s crew has to utilize their own smarts and some vastly outdated Starfleet technology in order to regroup and counter-attack their enemy. This is a rudimentary premise, but it provides Lin with ample genre frameworks to exploit—a “corporate retreat”-style plot, brought on by Kirk’s initial apathy toward his role as captain, that turns into a wilderness-survival film, and the “one last job” template the director uses to set up the characters’ coordinated prison-break effort. More importantly, the divided nature of this conflict gives Lin a fractured team that he can actively work to unify.
An important contrast in Star Trek Beyond is established between the soulless, CGI-rendered enemy aircrafts, piloted en masse by the lone mind of a radical extremist orchestrating synchronized assaults, and the strengths of the Enterprise crew, a team that can think in multiple directions at once, and whose collaborative creativity allows them to find potential in antiquated technologies. An unearthed, centuries-old Starfleet ship is this film’s classic car—and its outmoded anachronisms (a boombox playing “Fight the Power,” for instance) a representation of human resiliency.
Lin largely delivers Star Trek back to the agency of its characters, after Abrams used the franchise as practice for remaking Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (2009’s Star Trek) and as a soapbox-political Wrath of Kahn retread (2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness). Which makes it a real shame that Lin’s cardinal weakness as an action director has yet to be remedied—namely, that he’s just not very good at directing action. As in the majority of his Fast and Furious films, Lin shoots kineticism in close-up, resulting in a disorientation of space that, ironically, distances us from the characters whose dynamics he’s otherwise so good at developing. This is particularly a problem aboard the besieged Enterprise, as the director’s quick-cut edits, cramped framing, and wild camera movements render an early set piece incoherent, and disengage us from the vast mortal toll of the battle taking place.
Much stronger are the scenes between the film’s action beats—the boisterous banter, coy romantic gestures, and maybe most vital of all, the communal drinking. The latter kind of scenes have become something of a calling card for Lin, who locates within them both a feeling of jocular celebration and catharsis—a tone that falls somewhere along the spectrum of the drinking scenes in Howard Hawks and Terence Davies movies. In Star Trek Beyond, Lin ends on one of these scenes, and it’s a modestly powerful tribute not only to the late Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin (actors to whom the film is dedicated), but to the very idea of socialization as a source of comfort and strength in the aftermath of loss.