Justin Lin, the director who revived the “Fast and the Furious” franchise into a thriving film series, has brought his flare for inventive action and machismo-fueled melodrama to the final frontier with “Star Trek Beyond.” Lucky us. This beautiful and bouncy sequel is just the escapist adventure we need this summer.
The third installment in this rebooted film series kicks off with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) scrambling to broach a peace treaty with a pugnacious band of goblin-like aliens. When things go sour, he escapes by the skin of his teeth, sneering that’s another ripped shirt, and another bad day at the office. Kirk is half-way through his latest USS Enterprise deployment, and is flat-out sick of traversing space and all its infinity. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, he’s seeking a promotion that would give him a cushy desk job. But first he must respond to a distress beacon deep in a hard-to-navigate nebula. There, the crew of the Enterprise face off against Krall (Idris Elba in so much prosthetics, he’s only recognizable from his signature growl), an other-worldly tyrant who has plans to bring down the Federation once and for all.
The plot of the film is basically bad alien with murky motives goes after the Enterprise crew. The specifics take their sweet time to gel, but it’s hard to be too bothered when the writing team of Lin, Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) packs the pic with so much fun. Once the Enterprise crash lands in a surprisingly harrowing early sequence, the crew is scattered to the winds across an unknown planet. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken prisoner along with hundreds of unnamed crewmates. Wounded and lost, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) bicker, while Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) search for their captured colleagues. And Scotty stumbles across another stranded survivor, the scrappy engineer Jaylah (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”s Sofia Boutella).
Leaping back and forth between these groups and settings gives the story a sense of grand scale that’s been lacking from so many other summer movie franchise. Both “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Ghostbusters” got so caught up in laying down Easter Eggs and allusions to their predecessor pics that their pacing was bungled, and their story narrowed. But “Star Trek Beyond” glides swiftly from set piece to set piece, yet takes time to build in character moments like Spock aggravating Bones by misunderstanding slang (“That’s horseshit!”), Sulu embracing his daughter and husband, or Jaylah head-bobbing to classical music (Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”) as she repairs a damaged spaceship. These moments are small, but as Marvel movies have shown again and again — from Thor hanging up his hammer to Bucky begging for a bit more legroom — they are crucial to connecting us to these characters. So even if the exact threat the Enterprise crew faces may be vague, knowing it could be deadly to our crew is enough to keep us engaged.
Of course it helps that Lin’s been gifted such a charismatic cast. Few people play flustered as funny as Pine does. Quinto pushes at the boundaries of Vulcan stoicism as Spock ponders mortality and his relationship with Uhura. Though Saldana gets little screentime this sequel, she deftly reconfirms Uhura as an unflappable yet passionate Lieutenant. Cho brings a steely confidence to Sulu, while Yelchin makes Chekov a lovable rascal, bunk hopping from one alien girl’s bed to the next. Urban as Bones is always a delight, seething with a hilariously futile fury, and Pegg is once more plucky comic relief as Scotty. But it’s the newcomers that make the biggest impression on this Federation mission.
Elba has been tearing it up this year, voicing bruisers, baddies, and haggard police chief in a trio of animated movies: “Finding Dory,” “The Jungle Book” and “Zootopia.” Considering much of his face is caked in intense prosthetics, his role here might almost be counted as a voicework. But even unrecognizable, Elba brings a menace to every line, flinging his lower lip, exposing his gnarly extraterrestrial teeth and leveraging his broad shoulders as an ever-present threat, a predator on the verge of pouncing. Still, much like Oscar Isaac in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” it’s a shame such a great face was cast only to be covered up in so much marring makeup.
Yet the true scene-stealer of “Star Trek Beyond” is Boutella. She broke out as the razor-stemmed henchman in “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” But here, Boutella is given more to do than CGI-enhanced stunts and glowering. Jaylah bursts onto the scene in a dizzying 3:1 battle, then deftly ushers Scotty into her escape plan from Krall’s treacherous territory. Painted in stark white make-up with graphic black markings, and a cobbled together but utilitarian outfit, Jaylah is striking and instantly iconic. And much as she did in “Kingsman,” this Algerian actress handles the fight choreography with ease and aplomb. But it’s the humor and heart Boutella breathes into Jaylah that makes her such a stupendous addition to the “Star Trek” franchise. Whether she’s casually chucking herself into a Federation captain’s chair, fighting for her life, or detailing her heartbreaking backstory, this elegant and fearsome ingenue is mesmerizing, and reason enough to check out this sequel. Bonus: Lin’s learned from J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” missteps, not reducing this female character to casual eye candy, or wedging in a tedious love subplot.
But the best bits for genre fans might be the sheer spectacle.
Lin’s enthusiasm for the world of “Star Trek” can be felt as the CG-enhanced cinematography sweeps through the wondrous space community of Yorktown, where the city folds up and around itself in a beautiful ballet of design and artificial gravity. The music charged with classical strings and the occasional Beastie Boys’ hit fills the theater with anticipation. Whip pans from one battle blow to the next make Lin’s excitement for these action sequences contagious. Admittedly, reliance on tight shots in some setups makes for a muddy fight geography. Still, Lin, a mastermind of car chases, brings his imaginative sense of spectacle to space, and the result is something truly sensational, and befitting a summer blockbuster.
“Star Trek” opens Friday, July 22.
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