Review: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ Updates the Formula While Working Within It

In this latest outing of the franchise, the loneliness of the soul is mirrored in the loneliness in space.

A still from the movie Star Trek Beyond

A still from the movie Star Trek Beyond

Waking up each day to news of bombings and shootings, one wonders if deep space, and other planets, would be better than ours. Star Trek Beyond, as the title suggests, takes you Beyond to distant galaxies but makes you realise once again, that the greatest enemies– fear, mistrust, and insane indoctrination–are within.

It’s an old fashioned ruse that the Star Trek brings up repeatedly—of facing fears both known and unknown, while sticking to the stolid Trekkie value of being a loyal team player. And Beyond accomplishes this with a dollop of fun, great acting and happily giddy camera angles, while making a serious effort of mirroring the world we live in, albeit in Outer Space.

If Star Wars was all about creating moral polarities of the ‘dark side’ and the ‘right path’, its slightly less philosophical cousin, Star Trek, is more about adventure within a nearly school-boyish Federation rule book and fairly linear moralities. You’ll have Captain James Kirk usually playing the quintessential Space 007, bending a rule here and bedding a female there, and the stories follow similar trajectories—the crew holds fast to the Federation’s peacekeeping mission and accompanied with frenetic pop science, the adventures boldly take you where no man (or woman) has gone before.

Yet, there is comfort in this formula, especially since Beyond updates it even while working it. We see, for instance, a discomfiting view of ‘exploration’ after the adventures and adrenaline have faded. Life is episodic, Kirk says, and repeated scenes show how the ship’s bridge is more like a stilted drawing room, coffee cups in hand, than the stage for exciting sci-fi cliffhangers. The loneliness of space is mirrored by the loneliness of the soul, a theme explored fully in this movie. Space becomes a construct, an understanding.

For Krall, the terrorist in the movie (Idris Elba), space is madness and loneliness; for the crew, an acid test of loyalty and courage; for the alien Jaylah who has lost her family, it is a promise. The same thing has different connotations for different players. This is precisely what makes the movie work. It mirrors the problems of the world today as we frantically and universally search for meaning in chaos. It explores the madness of a barely legible individual who moves from militancy to terrorism with a deadly agenda, like so many terror attacks we have felt and known.

Krall orders the takedown of the USS Enterprise (“cut off its neck”, he says) and the crew loses that which is most familiar for them: their ship, the bedrock of each Trek movie. The Enterprise has sometimes been a living room laced with awkward silences, or a Bridge with all protocols followed, often an engineering marvel, but always home. The movie chronicles the gaping loss of the USS Enterprise and the suddenly unknowable quality of Space and a new planet, the true beginnings of terror. In losing the ship, we also have a masterstroke—both an emotional turning point for the crew as well as a means of exploring the Trekkie brand of science and innovation.

Part of the crew finds the USS Franklin—an old USS Ship—exploring how old technologies don’t die (as long as the USS brand exists). So you have tinkering with nearly extinct radio frequencies, the problem of how to launch a ship from a planet’s surface when it was always supposed to be docked ‘in orbit’ (and thus, never meant to take off from a planet), energising people from energisers meant for cargo, and a charming old motorcycle that Kirk takes for a spin, all story-telling tropes which will be loved by older fans as well as newer geeks alike. The vintage technology is also a clever throwback to the adequate production values of this movie versus the campier, older TV series. The USS Enterprise and space outpost Yorktown are just as shiny as the older tech is vintage, and both are played up well.

But it is the human quality of the human and non-human crew, and not the technology, that is the hero of the film. The crew is a basic family unit. In one poignant scene which asks how far you would go for your family (explored somewhat in the last movie, Star Trek Into Darkness) many are killed as their “unity is their weakness,” in the words of Krall. What values would you choose in the face of terror, the movie seems to ask.

But finally, when terrorist agendas are pitted against the Enterprise crew, the outcome provides a sliver of hope for (inter-species) humanity. It reminds of the French father who after losing his wife in the 2015 attacks in France said that he and his toddler son would continue being happy, even in the face of terror. And the movie terrorist is more homegrown than alien, a much too uncomfortable truth in our world today.

There are other hints of our contemporary world too. This movie, I’m happy to note, is sans Kirk’s casual affairs, and has no objectification of women, which has been a longstanding criticism of the franchise, including of the last movie. In what is seen as a nod to the sexual orientation of George Takei, who played Sulu in the Star Trek TV series, Sulu (played by John Cho) is shown as gay. Yet, this is more a statement of normalcy than an overtly political act, argues Cho, and I would tend to agree.

In yet another meta-reference to the world we are in, the movie plays homage to the late Leonard Nimoy, who played the beloved Spock in the Star Trek TV Series. He passed away recently, and is also shown to pass away in the movie. This pauses the narrative for quiet moments of introspection, providing good foil for the breathtaking action, which is otherwise mostly laughable and PG-13 in its improbability.

Other (intentional) laughter is provided by breakout scenes which explore bromances rather than romances (Sulu and Chekov; and the straight-talking Bones with the straight-faced Spock). The cast plays its parts well. This is also the last time you will see Anton Yelchin, who died recently in a car crash, as Chekov. But the world Star Trek Beyond throws up, clinging stubbornly, fist-clenchingly, to hope, goodness and loyalty, is one that we can expect will also pay tribute to Yelchin/Chekov in the future. It is the kind of hope one wishes belongs more to the world today, than to just escapist cinema.