Fans celebrate Justin Lin for sending cars, trucks and motorcyles flying through the air with the greatest of ease in his four insanely overblown Fast and Furious movies. Now here he is directing the jokey, place-holding Star Trek Beyond, reverentially scripted by Doug Jung and avowed Trekkie and co-star Simon Pegg. It’s an odd fit, because the movie is light on firepower and only features a couple of action sequences. With its deep space exploring and intra-character intrigue, it’s about as close to an episode of the original Star Trek TV series as anything that’s come since.
Nobody goes boldly in this, the third film in the franchise expertly rebooted in 2009 by J.J. Abrams. The Starfleet crew is in year three of a five-year mission to poke around the cosmos, and junior-year fatigue has set in. We meet the now familiar gang—Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho and (the late) Anton Yelchin—sitting at their command stations, pushing buttons, taking readings, looking all smart and professional and exchanging quips. Things are not OK, though. Spock (Zachary Quinto, once again the franchise’s ace in the hole) hears dire words from Ambassador Spock (we catch a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy), his relationship with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) has hit the skids and his bromance with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, solid and charming) has cooled off considerably. As for Kirk, he’s at such a crossroads in his personal and professional life that he even makes moody, existential crisis noises like What’s it all about? What are we doing, anyway? Mostly, he and his crew are just waiting for an inciting conflict to kick in.
Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the crew gets a distress call that forces them to abandon their vehicle and strands them—for a really long time—on a craggy planet. They’re in for a heap of trouble from the evil and powerful Krall, who commands a fleet of bee-like ships and is after a secret weapon as maddeningly vague and standard-issue as the character himself, no matter how much the wonderful, sadly underused Idris Elba throws himself into playing it. Happily, dancer-actress Sofia Boutella takes up the slack as a ferocious, kickboxing, black-and-white-painted alien called Jaylah, a name and character Pegg says is inspired by a heroine played by J-Law herself—Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. Karl Urban (playing Dr. “Bones” McCoy) gets to hurl some wicked insults at Spock, who lobs back a few of his own, and their smack talk has energy and zing enough to goose-up the slow patches.
There’s nothing new in Star Trek Beyond, the latest installment in the venerable 13-film series, but its least inspired stretches still manage to play like a crowd-pleasing and exceptionally well-acted Star Trek clip show. Even shifted into cruise control, the franchise will live longer and prosper.