I never thought I'd like, let alone love, another Star Trek film.
Trek is a big deal to me. I watched Next Generation as a child every week with my dad and the mysteries of distant galaxies offered me a vision of an exciting and hopeful future.
The Trek movies, with few exceptions, were never as good as the television shows were, and I think the J.J. Abrams-led reboots betrayed the franchise. In Abrams' hands Star Trek became another dumb sci-fi action series. It wasn't about big ideas anymore. It was about explosions and lens-flare.
Worse, the intrepid explorers of the starship Enterprise spent more time engaging in suspect military actions than they did boldly going where no one had gone before. I expected Star Trek Beyond to be more of the same. But I'm a pop-culture masochist, so I saw it anyway. And it blew away my low expectations.
Beyond is the best Trek film since First Contact, and manages to be that while also being a fun summer action movie. And it refutes the militaristic trajectory of the first two films, thus saving the franchise's soul.
It's as if the last film never happened.
Star Trek Beyond picks up two and a half years into the Enterprise's five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. James T. Kirk and crew have fallen into a familiar routine. They chart the stars, eat their meals and distract themselves as best they can. Space has become routine.
The film opens near Kirk's birthday. He realizes he's one year older than his dead father ever got to be. Worse, he's wondering if he actually wants to be a captain—or if it's just something he did to honor his dad's memory.
At the same time, Spock and Uhura are on the outs because Spock feels—yes, feels —he may have a responsibility to help repopulate New Vulcan. Trek's main characters, much like the franchise itself, are suffering an identity crisis.
The Enterprise docks at Yorktown Star Base to resupply when the plot kicks in. A mysterious stranger emerges from a nearby nebula and says she needs help to rescue her stranded crew on the other side. Kirk and company suit up and jump into the gas cloud to help…and fall into a trap.
A swarm of stealthy ships destroys Enterprise and scatters the surviving crew on a nearby planet. The nebula cuts off communication with the Federation and Kirk and company must find each other, learn the planet's secrets and uncover the horrifying plot of the villainous Krall.
It's a lot of fun.
Star Trek Beyond feels like a Star Trek movie and that's good. It's not a grim-dark Apple commercial like Into Darkness. In fact, one of the reasons Beyond is so good is that it completely ignores Into Darkness.
Forced love interest and Kirk baby-mamma Carol Marcus is gone. No one mentions the Klingons or the looming threat of war. Khan's superblood is no magical panacea. It's as if the last film never happened. Screenwriter Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty, took over screenwriting duties from Into Darkness scribe Roberto Orci—and that makes all the difference.
Pegg is obviously a Trek fan and his script does everything it can do to be both fun as Hell and pull the franchise back from the brink of military conspiracies and tragedy-porn. In fact, the script goes out of its way to refute the philosophy of Into Darkness. But more on that later.
The cast shines—but then, it always did. One of the most frustrating aspects of the reboot series has always been how it wasted its perfect casting. Chris Pine's Kirk is better than Shatner's ever was. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban as Spock and Bones, respectively, are so charming it's as if Paramount grew them in a lab just to play these parts.
That applies to everyone, from Zoe Saldana's Uhura to the late Anton Yelchin's Chekov.
Justin Lin is directing this time. The man's golden touch turns even the silliest action franchise such as Fast and the Furious into box-office gold. Lin's masterful action-directing and Pegg's script come together to create what is both a popcorn flick and a genuine Star Trek story.
That's a special kind of alchemy, one I never thought possible.
But what sets Beyond apart and makes me so excited for the franchise's future is its ending and its villain. To talk about both, I'll have to spoil Beyond's pleasant surprises. So, fair warning: Spoilers follow.
Seriously, stop reading now if you don't want to know how the movie ends.
Okay, you've been warned.
What sets 'Beyond' apart and makes me so excited for the franchise's future is its ending and its villain.
Idris Elba plays Krall, a strange-looking alien bent on destroying the Federation using a space-McGuffin bioweapon. He's been alive a long time and absorbs the life force of the living to keep himself young, but the process warps his physical appearance and makes him more monstrous each time.
As Krall and his bad guys make their final push to take down Yorktown and move into greater Federation space, I realized I didn't know why Krall hated the Federation—and that bothered me. During his requisite villain monologues, he tells Uhura that struggle defines the universe and makes people great.
It seemed to me that Krall just wants to start a race war and return the universe to the state of struggle he feels defines existence. To me, his motivations felt off.
And then I learned the real reason he hated the Federation and in the final moments Star Trek Beyond went from being a movie I liked to a film I loved. Krall isn't really Krall. He's Capt. Balthazar M. Edison of the USS Franklin.
Edison's crew flew through the nebula and crashed on the unnamed plant more than a hundred years ago. His crew used old, abandoned tech they found on the planet to prolong their lives and build the strange swarm ships they now command. He hates the Federation in part because the Federation abandoned him, but also because he's a soldier and was never suited to be a captain.
Edison is old enough to remember the universe before the United Federation of Planets. He fought for Earth in the Xindi Incident and the Federation-Romulan conflict. To him, war is the natural order.
But the wars ended and the Federation brought a kind of peace to the galaxy. The Federation made Edison the captain of a starship and told him to go explore. He didn't take it well. He's gone through an identity crisis, much like Kirk has. "I know what I am," he tells Kirk. "I'm a soldier."
"You won the war," Kirk replies. "You gave us peace."
"Peace is not what I was born into," Krall tells him.
In the end, Kirk defeats Edison and strikes a blow for unity between races—and for the Federation as the main unifying force. This is in stark contrast to the paranoid, divisive, hawkish Federation Into Darkness depicts.
The ending battle between Kirk and Edison plays out as a battle of ideas as much as a battle between two men. Kirk realizes he believes in the mission of the Enterprise and the purpose of the Federation. He refutes the militaristic bent of a bitter old soldier and, in doing so, reaffirms the franchise's commitment to big, humanist ideals.
It's the Federation's unity and cooperation that makes it strong. Shared goals and mutual respect are strengths, not weaknesses. In the final moments of the film, the crew of the starship Enterprise delivers the old, familiar lines.
The ship blasts through space and the audiences hears the voices of Uhura, Chekov, Spock, Kirk and Bones blending together, celebrating the starship's five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.
That old feeling of hope and wonder I used to feel sitting next to my dad on the couch every week washed over me again. I actually teared up in the theater.