The newest installment in Star Trek’s canon rolls off the assembly line this weekend, christened with a focus-grouped and forgettable title (“Star Trek: Beyond”). Like most of what rolls off the assembly lines these days, the third installment in the rebooted “alternate original series” is serviceable enough, even pretty from certain angles; it offers a polished and effortless ride, depositing you outside the theater two hours later and ten dollars lighter, wreathed in a thin cloud of distraction. It does not, however, possess much of a soul, and if it seems churlish to complain about the lack of “soul” in a multimillion-dollar spectacle featuring the wholesale destruction of a USS Enterprise (complete with the startling phrase “Detach the saucer”), I can only plead affection for simpler fare. Isn’t the concept of hull breach terrifying enough, without seeing the Enterprise literally drawn and quartered in space, then dropped in several large chunks onto the planet below? In a quest to outdo the previous installments’ many and varied crash landings, “Beyond” goes, well, beyond, turning the beloved ship into a piñata and multiplying her attackers until they become a terrifying CGI swarm of… well, what were they, exactly? A character calls the evil army “bees” at one point, but bees have purpose—the antagonists’ motivation remains unclear until the very end, in which the chief baddie (Idris Elba, encased in mysteriously shifting prostheses) explains his Evil Philosophy, which nudges the audience from mere uncertainty into complete confusion. We never truly understand who he is, why he’s become a murderous fanatic, and why he has near-unlimited numbers of kamikaze-style followers willing to die for him. Say what you will about Eric Baña’s scenery-chewing Nero in the first installment, at least he had a motive (I lost my planet—let’s see how you like it).
Motive is sorely lacking on the protagonists’ side, too: in a too-neat voiceover at the beginning, Kirk expresses a desire for meaning in a life become rote. This would work better if the movie hadn’t opened with a “never a dull moment” scene from Kirk’s challenging life as a diplomat, or if the movie had meaning to offer besides “Keep the bad guy from getting the MacGuffin to the place before it’s too late to reverse the things.” Spock, too, is having doubts—his alternate-universe-counterpart, the sheared-off version of himself played by Leonard Nimoy, has died, causing him to once again question his relationship with Uhura: while the tributes to Nimoy are effective (and, in one scene, startlingly beautiful), the threat to Spock and Uhura’s relationship is less so, because we’ve seen these stakes before. We’ve also seen “bombardment from the skies/civilians in peril” quite a few times recently—this trope looked cool in “The Avengers”, tolerable in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, tired in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and exhausted in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; now, the sight of a citywide evacuation reads as pure visual filler.
What the movie lacks in forward impetus, however, it makes up for in color: the characters are lovingly unpacked and given time to mingle, which is precisely as it should be—Star Trek at its best is a character drama, not an action franchise. McCoy and Spock are given an especially generous amount of development time, and even Scottie gets a bit of dimension beyond his comic relief role. Watching these classic characters interact is pleasure enough to balance out the dull bits, and the climax strikes the perfect note of giddy nostalgia: it’s common enough to note that actors “look like they’re having fun”, but how often do they visibly bounce with excitement? This is a summer blockbuster as indistinguishable from other blockbusters as one Honda from another, but there’s cheesy fun aplenty for those willing to turn up the music and put the pedal down.