Star Trek Beyond, the third entry in the new franchise that began with J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, feels in many ways like an apology for its predecessor, 2013’s messy Star Trek Into Darkness. Although it’s hitting theaters with seemingly little fanfare or expectation, Beyond is better than it has any right to be and has personally renewed my faith in this franchise, which was shaken considerably by Into Darkness. Beyond is better than that film in pretty much every way that matters, with a new creative team in the form of director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, who seem to both adore Star Trek and understand what longtime fans of the series want out of a blockbuster film. It may not be quite on par with Star Trek 2009 (it will take a bit of time and repeated viewings to know for sure) but it is the turnaround this franchise badly needed. Here are 10 reason why Star Trek Beyond is superior to Into Darkness.
10. It Feels Like An Episode Of The Original Series … And That’s A Good Thing!
Of the three reboot films released so far, Beyond feels the most like classic Star Trek, especially when compared to its direct predecessor. The tone of Into Darkness was all over the map, as it felt too dark to be a proper Star Trek film and more like J.J. Abram’s audition for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens directing job than a worthy follow-up to his surprisingly good 2009 reboot.
Beyond’s tighter focus on the Enterprise crew and smaller narrative reach make it feel like an episode of the original series; albeit one with a significantly bigger budget and more action. It’s actually kind of a shame that Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and the rest of the modern cast are part of a movie franchise and not a TV series because I could easily get on board with spending multiple seasons with this particular cast, thanks to Beyond doubling down on establishing the right tone.
9. A Better Villain
To be fair to Benedict Cumberbatch, there was nothing wrong with his actual performance in Into Darkness; he was suitably menacing and brought his usual undefinable charisma to the role. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to follow in the footsteps of Ricardo Montalban’s original Khan, especially when everything hinges on J.J. Abrams’s “Mystery Box” gambit (which, for the record, failed miserably; we all knew Cumberbatch was playing Khan months before the film was even released).
Thankfully, Beyond features a much stronger villain in the form of Krall, played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba. Krall is not only a new addition to the Star Trek franchise, but a mysterious and ruthless villain whose motivations are slowly revealed as the film progresses. He still doesn’t quite live up to Eric Bana’s Nero, but it’s refreshing that screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung didn’t just toss in a new interpretation of Klingon Commander Kruge from The Search For Spock and called it a day.
8. A More Satisfying Twist
Like Star Trek Into Darkness, Beyond also features a third act twist revolving around the film’s villain; the difference is that Beyond’s twist is actually satisfying. As previously mentioned, pretty much every viewer with a basic understanding of Star Trek lore rightly predicted that Benedict Cumberbatch’s renegade Starfleet operative John Harrison was actually Khan Noonien Singh. In contrast, while you very well might see Beyond’s big twist coming (which I won’t spoil here), it’s still much more satisfying. The twist actually changes the dynamics of the film’s plot trajectory in a meaningful way, unlike the “Hey, look who it is!” reveal of Into Darkness that really didn’t add anything meaningful to the proceedings.
7. Jaylah Is A Fantastic Addition
Although Star Trek Beyond is still a little lacking in the female character department, it does introduce a wholly new one in the form of alien scavenger Jaylah. Played by Sofia Boutella of Kingsman: The Secret Service fame, Jaylah is immediately likable thanks to her considerable combat prowess and genuine curiosity in the Enterprise crew’s way of life. In contrast, Into Darkness’s most significant new female character, Alice Eve’s Dr. Carol Marcus, was used primarily as eye candy, something that is unintentionally reinforced in Beyond. Eve not only isn’t part of the cast, but her character is never once mentioned by any member of the Enterprise crew, despite the fact that she set off with them on their five year mission at the end of Into Darkness. One can only hope that Jaylah doesn’t receive a similar fate, as she definitely deserves to be in the next film.
6. The Character Pairings Are A Blast
A significant portion of Star Trek Beyond sees the Enterprise crew scattered into smaller groups, which turns out to be a masterful stroke. Although the pairing of Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is somewhat disappointing because they aren’t really given much to do, the other pairings all work wonders. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) make for a great team, and Scotty’s (Simon Pegg) unlikely pairing with newcomer Jaylah leads to some great laughs.
However, the standouts have to be Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban), as having the serious-minded Vulcan paired up with the intensely sarcastic doctor leads to some satisfying Odd Couple-like moments, as well as some surprisingly emotional scenes. Although it never truly feels like any of the characters are in real danger, splitting up the Enterprise proves to be a good creative choice, as getting to see the interplay between certain characters is arguably worth the price of admission alone.
5. A Return To Optimism
I’ve already mentioned how Star Trek Beyond feels like an episode from the original series, but another important way that it honors the franchise’s roots is by returning to the optimism espoused by Gene Roddenberry’s original creation. Into Darkness’s focus on warmongering made it easy to forget that the picture of humanity’s future presented in Star Trek is an idealized one. You can see it in Beyond’s Yorktown space station, a beautiful utopia where humans and other species live in peace and harmony. Heck, even the central conflict of the film is centered around whether or not a society can truly exist without conflict and if not, at least it’s something worth pursuing. Even if you’re not on board with this kind of narrative focus, you have to give credit to Beyond for going out of its way to return to the roots of the series through a modern lens.
4. Justin Lin Is A Good Fit In The Director’s Chair
The best thing that can be said for Justin Lin’s direction in Star Trek Beyond is that it is perfectly serviceable and doesn’t distract in any significant way. That is not a knock against Lin, who has proven himself to be quite the adept blockbuster filmmaker with his work on the Fast and Furious franchise, but the truth is that this film could have turned out a lot worse if someone else was sitting in that chair. Although he’s arguably the more accomplished director, having J.J. Abrams off of Beyond turns out to be beneficial, as you could tell that Into Darkness was not a film he was really into making (plus, there’s a lot less lens flare in Beyond thanks to Abrams’s absence, which is fine by me).
But the truly great thing about Lin directing Beyond is that the job almost went to Roberto Orci, who you may recognize for his bad screenwriting on films such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and, oh, Star Trek Into Darkness. Paramount Pictures made the right decision in replacing Orci with Lin, as his straightforward style allows Pegg and Jung’s script to flourish.
3. It’s Self Aware
Star Trek has a bit of a reputation among outsiders for being a stuffy sci-fi series for old people, a notion which the modern reboots have done a good job in dispelling. Star Trek Beyond goes a step further by not only acknowledging the legacy of Roddenberry’s original series, but also slyly poking fun at it on occasion. One of the best moments of self awareness comes early on during Kirk’s lengthy captain’s log recording, where he laments that the Enterprise’s five year mission is starting to “feel episodic,” a clever callback to the serialized nature of the television show. There are also jokes scattered throughout that reference certain episodes of the series (which I don’t want to spoil here), which make for clever homages that are both humorous and reverent.
2. It’s Surprisingly Emotional
Although the most emotional moments in Star Trek Beyond owe a debt to unfortunate real life tragedies, it’s to the film’s credit that it handles these situations with grace and respect. The last couple of years have been an emotional roller coaster for Star Trek fans, with Leonard Nimoy passing away in early 2015 and the much younger Anton Yelchin tragically dying in a freak accident on June 19 of this year. The film acknowledges Nimoy’s passing with an in-canon tribute that is neither distracting or too sentimental; come to think of it, it’s pretty much perfect. As for Yelchin, it’s hard not enjoy his Chekov even more knowing that it’s the last time we’ll ever see him in the part and it’s fortunate that he seems to have a bigger role in this film than he did in the previous two. Oh and make sure you stay for the credits.
1. Satisfying Mixture Of Action And Character Development
Star Trek Beyond strikes a good balance between its action set pieces and character moments, even if it leans a little hard on the action throttle at times. Once the film gets settled in, a steady alternating structure is revealed, with the film taking the time to slow the pace down in between action scenes to make room for some more character development or to introduce a new story beat.
For instance, while the space battle between the Enterprise and Krall’s drone forces goes on a little too long, it concludes with arguably the greatest shot in the whole film. I can’t really say much about it other than that it involves Kirk, who conveys so much emotion through a scene of silent observation that it somewhat makes up for the fact that the film maybe doesn’t slow down enough at times to really let these characters dig deep into what’s going on around them. All of this contributes to Beyond feeling like it was made by Star Trek fans, for Star Trek fans, which is something that can’t really be said for Into Darkness.