Star Trek Beyond is my personal favorite of the three new Star Trek movies.
Now I’m going to walk that back a bit and admit I don’t think Star Trek Beyond is a better movie than J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek. Abrams took a property that seemed dead and brought new life into it by reintroducing us to the original characters in a colorful film that just moved, but also respected the source material. It’s pretty remarkable it worked at all, let alone seems to be so liked by everyone (which is rare for anything Star Trek).
Okay, so let me explain why I like Beyond so much and, if you’re like me, then maybe you will feel the same way.
The first Trek I ever saw was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was boring, weird, and pretty – which means, today, as an adult, I like it. But I didn’t then. (I remember getting some sort of cardboard cutout of the shuttle Scotty uses to take Kirk to the Enterprise from the box of a Happy Meal. This was my official introduction to Star Trek. And I did play with it for about 30 minutes, until I got home and saw my Millennium Falcon again.)
Then I saw Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, which, like most normal people, I loved – and I was genuinely amazed because I couldn’t believe Khan was played by Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island. I’m also one of those people who loved The Search for Spock. It was around 1985 that the local independent television station where I lived started playing repeats of the original Star Trek television series. It was kind of amazing to watch when, before, I had only been exposed to three movies. It was glorious to find out that these characters had been on roughly 79 other adventures. (I knew there was a television show, but it was difficult to find back then. Around the same time, the episodes started to be released on VHS and Beta. We had Beta, so the 10 episodes I had became worthless about two years later when my parents ditched Beta for VHS. Alas.)
It was just amazing to watch these characters, who all seem to like each other, go on all these adventures. (Well, Bones and Spock act like they don’t like each other, but they aren’t fooling anyone.) Some of the adventures were great, some were dumb: but it didn’t matter, really, because I was watching for the characters. That was the appeal. There was no origin story. The closest we got was the first filmed episode (not aired, that was “Charlie X”), “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” But even then, not really: The crew was already into its five-year mission, it’s just the uniforms were a little more bland and some characters were different (Kelso!). So my whole history with these Star Trek characters was: They all know each other, they all like each other, and I like them and want to watch them hang out.
That’s why it’s so weird it took so long to get to this point in the movies. In Star Trek Into Darkness (a movie I liked the first time I saw it, but like less and less the more times I see it), they all know each other, but they don’t seem to like each other all that much. And Abrams’ biggest flaw with this movie is that he wanted it to be grandiose. And to do this he brought back a watered down version of Khan to give the film a sense of importance, yet spent the entire press tour denying Khan was in the movie. It was all a big misfire – and wasn’t the reason I (or most people) like Star Trek. I just wanted to watch these characters I like, who like each other, go on missions together.
Okay! As you have probably guessed by now, the reason I like Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond so much is that it delivers exactly what I described above. Let’s talk about Justin Lin for a second:
Why do we like the Fast and Furious franchise? Is it the car races? Is it the action scenes? Those are all fun, but a lot of movies have that. The appeal is the characters. And Justin Lin, over the course of the four Furious movies he directed, figured that out.
When Lin was first hired, I just assumed it was because of the way he can handle action. But the truth is, he was hired for the way he can develop characters amidst all this action. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. And Lin has a way of somehow getting a big cast all involved in the action (of course a lot of credit here goes to Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s script) and making it feel like everyone is relevant. Every single member of the cast has something to do in Star Trek Beyond. (And it’s really nice to see the late Anton Yelchin with a big role as Chekov, he spends most of the film alongside Chris Pine’s Kirk.)
There’s not a lot to the plot of Star Trek Beyond, which is maybe the point. The crew of the Enterprise finds themselves attacked, which leads to the Enterprise crash-landing on a remote planet. The main crew is separated, which allows for a lot of fun teams: Kirk and Chekov find themselves together; Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are separated from everyone else; Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) find themselves captured with the rest of the mostly unnamed Enterprise crew; and Scotty (Simon Pegg) is off by himself until he meets Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, who agrees to help Scotty in exchange for Scotty repairing her ship. It’s all a lot of fun.
Idris Elba makes a fine villain, but I did find myself wishing he wasn’t buried under all that makeup. But whatever, this is about the characters finally – finally – working together as friends on a mission together. It’s just like watching a big budget version of The Original Series. There’s even a party scene where we see the crew all wearing their casual attire. It made me smile. It’s the first movie of this new film series that shows us what these characters do when someone isn’t shooting at them.
Star Trek Beyond also has a lot of touching moments I won’t spoil, but the recent deaths of two important people in the Star Trek universe aren’t ignored. And there’s one moment at the end where I felt myself tearing up a bit. It’s sad, but it’s sad because we care about these characters. Star Trek thrives on its characters. And just like Justin Lin discovered Fast and Furious works as a family, here, he finally brings the Star Trek family back together.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.