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Film review: "Star Trek Beyond"

To infinity and beyond


At first blush, director Justin Lin might appear an odd fit to take over the "Star Trek" film series. While helming four of the seven entries in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, Lin proved himself a maestro of swaggering action, crunching metal, and revving engines, all characteristics that seem a far cry from "Trek's" earnest tales of exploration and diplomacy.

Still, when you consider that both the "Fast and Furious" and "Star Trek" franchises follow a diverse team of individuals who band together to form a makeshift family, climb aboard meticulously designed vehicles, and move through space at blistering speeds, the connection becomes a bit clearer.

A product of the optimistic mid-60's, the original "Trek" television series was an aspirational depiction of what our society could be. The crew members of the USS Enterprise made it their mission to search out strange new worlds and civilizations, and reflected the progressive ideals of creator Gene Roddenberry. But under the guidance of J.J. Abrams (acting as executive producer here), the new films have drifted away from the morality tales of the original television series. Abrams' films are a product of the modern blockbuster era, emphasizing action above all else. "Star Trek Beyond" feels like a slight course correction -- there are indeed new worlds to explore, though they mostly serve as stage to set the explosive action. The self-contained nature of the plot lends the film a feeling of an extra-long episode.

The film finds the crew of the Enterprise three years into its five-year mission, and Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is starting to feel apathy toward his adventures. He's lost his sense of purpose, lamenting in his captain's log that the routine has begun to feel "episodic." Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also experiencing an existential crisis of his own after he receives word that Spock Prime has died.

Despite the general malaise, the crew is sent off on a mission to rescue the crew of a ship stranded in the far reaches of space. But once there, the Enterprise finds itself lured into a trap set by an alien tyrant known as Krall (Idris Elba). The vicious attack leaves the Enterprise demolished and the crew scattered across an uncharted planet. Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are captured along with a good chunk of the film's anonymous crew members; Kirk and Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin) search for the missing; Bones (Karl Urban) provides aid to a wounded Spock; and Scotty (Simon Pegg) gains the assistance of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), one of the planet's alien residents.

The strength of the new "Trek" films has always been the appealing group dynamic of its cast, and this film manages to emphasize the strength of its ensemble by dividing them up. Splitting the crew into unexpected groupings provides each actor with new personalities to play off of, and no matter how you shuffle them up, they remain as appealing as ever. Though it's missing the Kirk and Spock banter that's served as the heart of the past two films, the rest of the cast rise to the occasion.

Small character details, like giving Sulu a husband and daughter back on the star base that eventually becomes Krall's target, help give the climactic battle some weight. And any film that finds a role for wonderful Iranian actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo (Oscar-nominated for "House of Sand and Fog") -- who plays Commodore Paris here -- is already ahead of the game.

In last week's review of "Ghostbusters," I brought up the frequent problem summer blockbusters seem to have in coming up with memorable villains, and despite having an actor of Elba's caliber underneath all those prosthetics, Krall does nothing to break the pattern. He's yet another revenge-seeking bad guy searching for a Macguffin with the potential for mass destruction. And while there's a revelation about his true motivations which adds some intriguing ripples to his character, that discovery comes far too late in the film.

But there's a breeziness to Simon Pegg's and Doug Jung's screenplay that keeps things engaging, and they do a nice job of threading their theme of unity in the face of adversity throughout their tale. The message is particularly meaningful in our divisive political climate, and it's one the script might have pushed even further.

Oddly for a filmmaker known for his action chops (and seriously, "Fast Five" is aces), the film fumbles most frequently during its action sequences. Particularly during hand-to-hand combat, the shaky camerawork at times borders on incomprehensible, and the scenes sometimes feel edited to within an inch of their lives. But a late sequence nearly makes up for it with the best musical cue of the summer thus far.

Celebrating its 50 anniversary this year, the sheer positivity of the "Star Trek" franchise makes it stand out. With its timely message about our need to work harmoniously toward a brighter future, and its faith in humanity's ability to rise to the occasion, "Star Trek Beyond" might just be the blockbuster we need right now.

Check back on Thursday for additional film coverage, including a review of the new thriller "Nerve."