'Things have started to feel a little episodic," laments James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), voice-overing a new entry in his captain's log at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond. And sure enough, there is something a little off - and old-school series TV-ish - as the crew of the Starship Enterprise warp-speeds through deep space, on the 966th day of its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go yada-yada.
Cowritten by Simon Pegg, who double-duties as Scotty, the ship's steady-as-she-goes engineer, Star Trek Beyond moves beyond the central dynamic of the first two franchise reboots, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). In those films, the action pivoted around Kirk and his Vulcan best bud, Spock (Zachary Quinto). The rest of the Enterprise crew had face time on the bridge, but in Star Trek Beyond, the playing field is leveled.
So is the Enterprise itself, when a surprise attack in an uncharted nebula brings the pride of the Federation's starfleet crashing down in horrific shards on the highly hostile planet Altamid. Kirk, played by the increasingly Shatneresque Pine, gets stranded with young Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin - the film is dedicated "for Anton"). Spock finds himself in the company of the cranky medico "Bones" McCoy (an Al Gore-ish Karl Urban). Uhura (Zoe Saldana), smarting from her breakup with Spock, explores the treacherous terrain of Altamid with Sulu (John Cho). And Scotty eventually teams with a new cast member, an agile alien warrior with black lines etched on her mime-white face. Jaylah is her name, and Sofia Boutella, from Kingsman, plays her with a mournful scowl, strange diction, and some deft MMA moves.
The villain of the piece is a rumbling entity called Krall (Idris Elba, virtually unrecognizable under layers of reptilian prosthetics), who wants to get his gargantuan mitts on a "death machine" artifact. It's the 23rd-century MacGuffin that sets everybody running around, firing their phasers, frantically trying to regroup and restore order to the universe. Before the universe is destroyed.
There is plenty in Star Trek Beyond for diehard Trekkers to enjoy, and director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) guns the action sequences - even if that motocross machine that Kirk is ostensibly riding looks totally fake and video-game-ish.
The original Star Trek series - launched in 1979 with a soporific thud, redeemed with 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and then onward for four subsequent titles before the Next Generation crew took over - followed a definite pattern. A lame one alternated with a game one, a clunky entry, and then a smart and nimble follow-up.
Compared to its J.J. Abrams-directed forerunners, Star Trek Beyond comes across as kind of a dud. Which may augur well for the next installment, announced this week, star date to be determined.
Star Trek Beyond
**1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Justin Lin. With Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense sci-fi action, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.