Before I start, for the sake of discretion, I must admit to being the most casual of fans of the Star Trek franchise. I’ve not seen the films prior to 2009’s reboot, and I’ve only watched a handful of episodes from The Original Series. This may render me somewhat unqualified to talk about Star Trek, but here I want to discuss the fundamental issue with Star Trek Beyond, and how it creates a tonal imbalance for a trilogy that may not get a fourth entry.
In 2016 Star Trek Beyond marked the third film in the big-screen reboot launched by J.J. Abrams in 2009. Beyond also marked Abrams’ directorial departure from the franchise, and in the end what could have been a sound closing chapter for a series whose future is uncertain feels more like a “day in the life” episode that would slot better into the newly launched Star Trek: Discovery television series.
In comes Justin Lin, who is famed for his directorial work on the Fast and Furious franchise. The cast of the previous two films returns and Chris Pine seems, at this point, to relish the role of Captain James T. Kirk. However, Beyond fails to meaningfully develop Kirk further to the same extent that the previous two films had managed. The same can be said for his First Officer, Spock. Abrams is a summer blockbuster filmmaker through and through and he’s damn good at it. For all of the epic battles and run-of-the-mill one-liners that come with the job, Abrams allows just enough time for his characters to grow.
In the aptly titled first film, Star Trek, Abrams and co. commit themselves to telling the Starfleet Crew’s origin story whilst simultaneously making it abundantly clear that this new tale exists outside of the far-reaching continuity of last century’s original timeline. Before we’re thrust into the present, we witness Kirk’s birth which takes place at the same time as his father’s death. Before we again meet an adult Kirk, we get a glimpse at a young Kirk and young Spock’s lives. It’s a well-constructed setup for their meeting later on and heavily insinuates the personality gap between the two.
By the time Kirk is starting a bar fight in the film’s first act, we’ve got a pretty stereotypical leading man; destined for greatness but brash, immature, and self-centered. Star Trek is at odds with itself in that it so desperately wants to tell a ‘Year One’ story even while it’s in such a hurry to put Kirk in the captain’s seat. Kirk’s rise through the ranks is abrupt. He’s named First Officer shortly after being recruited to a mission simply because “he wasn’t supposed to be there anyway.”
The relationship between Kirk and Spock is perhaps the film’s greatest strength and Spock’s importance to the overall narrative is satisfying in and of itself. The conflict that brews throughout the first film evolves into friendship in the sequel, and in both films the characters mostly maintain equal importance to the story. In Star Trek, the two are trying to live up to their ancestry, albeit in very different ways. Star Trek: Into Darkness sees the crew, without the baggage of last film’s need to set all the pieces into place, taking on a common enemy together. The sequel ramps up the stakes, and coming aboard is Benedict Cumberbatch. Kirk’s leadership is solidified and the film is far grimmer than its predecessor.
Into Darkness’s opening act is a mess. It throws the status quo into disarray only to repair it almost immediately. Kirk is relieved of his duty and Spock is transferred, seemingly for the sole purpose of having both characters in the same room together when the film’s dramatic turn takes place. Apart from this its remaining two acts are well constructed science-fiction, allowing for plenty of twists and turns. This is where Pine truly embraces the role of Captain Kirk, playing an authoritative and commanding yet also brash and impulsive man who, while young, has an enormous amount of responsibility placed on his shoulders. The film as a whole is far less exploratory than Star Trek or Beyond, in that it’s mostly a revenge tale set in space. Despite being a much-maligned attempt at re-imaging Wrath of Khan, the acting here is at its finest. Not to mention Michael Giacchino’s score is both wondrous and hauntingly grim.
While in the first film Kirk steps into the same shoes his father wore “on a dare,” Into Darkness sees him forced to seriously contemplate what it really means to be captain. His leadership is called into question early on and by the end his devotion to not just himself but to his crew is complete. Star Trek Beyond had a great opportunity to capitalize on this growth and to round out the arc. In fact, it gives itself this very opportunity in the first act. Speaking with Bones privately, Kirk begins to consider “what it means to be Jim Kirk” now that they’re three years into the five-year journey through space that the starship set out on at the end of Into Darkness. Beyond gave itself ample opportunity to allow Kirk an external journey to discover his internal desires. By the time the crew made its pit-stop, the voyage had clearly begun to take its toll and Kirk was ready to stay grounded in an entirely new position. While the final act inevitably addresses the standing application for a change in scenery, we never really learn why he comes to this decision. Beyond often loiters on what it means to be a crew and the importance of unity, but it only ever explores these themes through exposition.
Dividing the cast on a strange planet allows for some fun dynamics and theoretically, a chance for some lesser-seen supporting characters to really shine. In the end, instead of feeling like a culmination, Beyond feels like an opening crawl. A minor event in the grand scheme of the stories that have come before. For this reason, from a storytelling standpoint, Paramount needs to give this franchise one last closing chapter. Beyond inhabited nearly all of the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster but had very little of the spark that makes them so enduring, These are the kinds of films that rely on our attachment to the journey these characters are on.
While Beyond is a solid film with a reasonable story matched with some beautiful scenery and its share of semi-intriguing plot-turns, it lacks the development of its cast that Abrams infused into the first two chapters. If this modern rendition of Star Trek on the big screen ends here it will end in a weird kind of limbo. It has no conclusion, only the promise of more adventures to come whether we see them or not. Maybe, as fans, we can pretend that this was the point all along. But surely there’s some finality to be had for the Kelvin timeline and the characters that exist within it.