'Star Trek Beyond,' the highly anticipated next installment in the globally popular Star Trek franchise, created by Gene Roddenberry and reintroduced by J.J. Abrams in 2009, returns with director Justin Lin ('The Fast and the Furious' franchise) at the helm of this epic voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her intrepid crew. In “Beyond," the Enterprise crew explores the furthest reaches of uncharted space, where they encounter a mysterious new enemy who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.
"I like the beats and shouting."
As much as J.J. Abrams' first reboot movie in 2009 breathed some fresh life into the then-flagging 'Star Trek' franchise, his follow-up, the disappointing 'Star Trek into Darkness', quickly lost much of that good will. Although it still made a lot of money, the film's weak story and shameless recycling of elements from the classic and far superior 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' drew the ire of fans, some of whom went so far as to vote it the worst of all the 'Trek' movies at the 2013 Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. When Abrams then ditched 'Star Trek' for a chance to go play in the 'Star Wars' sandbox, the producers at Paramount struggled to determine a direction for their series. Wanting to placate longtime fans on the one hand while still catering to the broader action movie market on the other, the eventual third film in the reboot timeline, called 'Star Trek Beyond', represents an awkward clash of sensibilities.
Even so, it could have been much worse. Soon after Abrams quit, his collaborator Roberto Orci, a hack screenwriter whose credits include the dreadful 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' and 'Cowboys & Aliens', lobbied hard to take over the ship. Despite the fact that Orci had no experience at directing whatsoever (not even so much as a music video or a TV commercial), Paramount initially hired him to helm its upcoming $185 million summer tentpole. This news was greeted with disdain within the fan community, who held Orci largely responsible for everything they disliked about 'Into Darkness'.
Fortunately, when it became clear that Orci couldn't handle the job and that nobody liked his plans for a third movie, Paramount let him go and asked series co-star Simon Pegg, a beloved figure among sci-fi nerds and fanboys, to write the new screenplay instead. This seemed like a very encouraging development. However, the fact that Pegg wound up sharing screenwriting credit on the final product with TV writer Doug Jung suggests that the studio may have hedged its bets on that decision. The further fact that, of all other possibilities, directing duties fell to Justin Lin of the 'Fast & Furious' franchise, demonstrates that what the suits at Paramount want from a 'Star Trek' movie is not necessarily what 'Star Trek' fans want or expect from a 'Star Trek' movie.
Nonetheless, 'Star Trek Beyond' has some decent ideas at its core. Set three years into the U.S.S. Enterprise's five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, a now more experienced and more mature Capt. James Kirk (Chris Pine) is growing weary of the monotony of his routine. When a rescue mission into an uncharted nebula seems like it might provide a little excitement, Kirk gets way more than he bargained for. He's lured into a trap by a new villain named Krall (Idris Elba), whose battle strategy is unlike anything the Enterprise has ever encountered and quickly overcomes its defenses. With the ship disabled and most of the crew captured, the command team is separated and spread out over an unfamiliar planet, left with few weapons and no hope of rescue. Luckily, our heroes are resourceful, and Scotty runs into a new ally named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who has some surprises that may prove useful.
That plot setup could provide a solid foundation for a classic 'Trek' adventure. It has all the necessary elements: a trip into unknown territory, a vengeful enemy with a vendetta against the United Federation of Planets, and personal conflicts for both Kirk (feelings of disillusionment with his job) and Spock (pressure to put the needs of the Vulcan race ahead of his Starfleet duties) to overcome. Splitting the core characters into smaller pairings (Kirk and Chekov, Spock and McCoy, Uhura and Sulu) is a refreshing change of pace from the usual triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy working together to save the day, and Jaylah is a spunky and appealing new character.
The film's centerpiece action scenes, in which Krall attacks the Enterprise with huge swarms of small ships, are inventively staged and feel legitimately threatening. 'Beyond' also introduces the most ambitious and visually dazzling new location the franchise has ever conceived – the vertiginous metropolis of the new Starbase Yorktown, a massive spherical installation where gravity is reversed and hundreds of skyscrapers line the interior of the hull pointing inwards toward the center. Imagine the folding cityscapes of 'Inception' built into a functional living environment, complete with an elaborate network of tunnels that allow starships to fly beneath the streets. 'Star Trek' has never shown us anything like this before, and it's quite a sight to behold, especially when Kirk ventures to the center of the sphere where gravity behaves in very weird ways.
Unfortunately, for as much as Pegg's script (or however much of it he wrote) tries to show us new things and shake up the franchise formula, the plot ultimately turns pretty dumb, and does so a lot. Krall's motivations and intended goals are almost hopelessly muddled. This makes three weak villains in a row for the reboot movies. An extended motorcycle stunt scene (yes, an old-fashioned motorcycle, in the 23rd Century) feels like an outtake from one of Justin Lin's 'Fast & Furious' movies and culminates with the kind of groan-inducing outrageousness more appropriate to that franchise than this one.
That motorcycle is one of several callbacks to J.J. Abrams' prior two movies. (You'll recall Kirk riding a flying motorcycle early in the 2009 film.) A certain piece of "Classical music" also comes around again, and we have another example of starships flying underwater, which was one of the dumber concepts introduced in 'Into Darkness'. While it might be argued that these represent the reboot trilogy coming full circle, or perhaps Pegg was trying to justify some of the pointless bits of business Abrams inserted into his movies by bringing them back to pay off later, it feels more like this third entry is doubling down on earlier mistakes rather than moving past them.
To that end, 'Star Trek Beyond' also fails to learn a critical lesson from 'Into Darkness'. Almost as if willfully ignoring all the viewer complaints about that film being an inferior retread of 'Star Trek II', the new movie blatantly copies a critical plot point from 'Star Trek III' (which had even already been recycled once before in 'Star Trek: Generations'). This problem is really getting to be ridiculous. Will the fourth movie in the reboot series involve time travel and saving whales?
As director, Lin brings polished production values and a lot of high-octane action, but his ADHD is even worse than Abrams'. Lin's camera is constantly in motion in every single shot, restlessly swooping through sets, tilting and twirling and bouncing up and down even in simple dialogue scenes. It's fatiguing to watch. I wanted to yell at the screen for the director to just stop for a damn minute let us actually look at something without zipping right past it. And like far too many modern action movies, 'Beyond' turns into a destruction porn spectacle, with confusingly choreographed set-pieces and far too many climaxes. Every time the movie seems like it's over, we get another action scene, and then another, and then another, until the film finally just collapses from exhaustion.
Even with these faults, 'Star Trek Beyond' is more entertaining and enjoyable than 'Star Trek into Darkness'. Its character interaction and camaraderie are very strong, and it tries to do a few things we've never seen before in a 'Trek' movie. As a mindless summer popcorn flick, it does its job adequately enough. I never actively disliked it while watching. It's essentially middle-of-the-road 'Trek'. I'm much more likely to cue it up for rewatching in the future than some of the true dogs in the franchise ('The Final Frontier', 'Insurrection'). But 'Star Trek' is capable of functioning on a higher level than this. Speaking as a lifelong fan, I simply don't feel that this is the direction I want the franchise to go any further.
Paramount Home Entertainment premieres 'Star Trek Beyond' in a variety of options for fans to choose among. In addition to the standard Blu-ray (the copy reviewed here), the movie is also available in SteelBook packaging (via Best Buy), in 3D, in Ultra HD 4k (2D only), or in a gift set with a spaceship statue (via Amazon). A copy at Walmart stores includes three spaceship miniatures, while one at Target comes with some character art cards and an additional disc of bonus features. Other retailer-specific exclusives may also exist.
On November 21st, a SteelBook with artwork similar to the Best Buy version will be released in the UK. The advantage to that one is that it has both 2D and 3D discs in the case, whereas the domestic SteelBook is 2D only.
The standard, general release edition is a 2-disc set with a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. All are housed in a keepcase with a slipcover. Annoyingly, the Blu-ray starts with several forced trailers before the main menu.
'Star Trek Beyond' is the first movie in the franchise to be photographed digitally rather than on 35mm film. Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon (a veteran of the 'Fast & Furious' series, where he worked with director Justin Lin) shot it primarily with Arri Alexa XT cameras output to a 2k Digital Intermediate. Despite the change in format, the visual design of the film remains largely consistent with the style established in the previous two movies by J.J. Abrams. The 2.40:1 picture is very shiny and glossy, with most of the spaceship interiors looking like they were shot inside an Apple Store. Lin and Windon throw in some occasional lens flares, but have largely dialed back on Abrams' obsession with that gimmick. The digital photography also has much less grain or noise than Abrams favored.
For the most part, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode appears acceptably crisp, but it rarely stands out with exceptional detail. Lin's camera is constantly moving and shaking and swooping and spinning around. There's hardly a single stable shot in the entire movie where the camera might rest and capture a nicely detailed image. Additionally, the extensive CGI visual effects (as you can imagine, a movie like this has CGI in almost every shot) have quite a lot of motion blur applied. This isn't terribly bothersome while the movie is playing at regular speed, but it contributes to a general feeling of softness and lack of depth. When I freeze-framed to capture screenshots for this review, most VFX frames I stopped on were seriously wanting for surface detail. I'd be very surprised if any of the effects in this movie were rendered at higher than 2k resolution.
Colors and contrasts are likewise solid but undistinguished. While watching, I kept wishing for the Starfleet uniforms to be a little more vibrant and the black of space to be a little darker. Many shots of spaceship exteriors appear slightly flat and washed-out. I'm not sure if that's a lighting issue or a color-grading issue.
I'm not currently set up for 4k UHD in my home theater. I'd be very curious to see how much better the Ultra HD Blu-ray, which has been graded for High Dynamic Range, looks. As it stands on regular Blu-ray, 'Star Trek Beyond' is an all-around decent disc. It's even quite attractive in many respects. But I've seen a number of comparably- or even lesser-budgeted movies look more impressive on the format.
Unlike some studios that treat immersive audio as an Ultra HD exclusive feature, Paramount thankfully supports the Dolby Atmos format on both UHD and regular Blu-ray. (There is absolutely no technical reason why a standard Blu-ray couldn't or shouldn't include an Atmos soundtrack.) If your home theater equipment isn't currently Atmos-capable, the track will automatically downmix to lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1.
The Atmos track for 'Star Trek Beyond' is a very energetic mix with plenty of smooth directional pans zipping through both the ground level channels and the overhead speakers. Any battle scene involving the swarm of enemy ships is guaranteed to have a ton of activity buzzing all around and above you. The height speakers rarely call attention to themselves with distinctly discrete sounds, however. Rather, most of these scenes devolve into a bombastic barrage of noise from every direction. In my opinion, the few quiet moments in the film are the most aurally effectively, when subtle ambient sounds immerse you in the environment.
As an action movie, 'Beyond' naturally has a lot of shooting and explosions. The Atmos track has numerous nice bass hits, but none that are truly devastating. The biggest bass moment in the film, the crash of the Enterprise saucer, is more rumbly than infrasonic.
Michael Giacchino's musical score occasionally swells up nicely, but is strangely flat overall. This has the negative consequence of making most of the action scenes in the movie feel uninvolving. The dumb Rihanna pop song that plays over the end credits sounds a lot better than any of the music in the body of the film.
The bonus feature package for 'Star Trek Beyond' is so anemic that it's practically an embarrassment. Listed in bullet-points, the disc may seem to have a decent number of items, but they're each barely a few minutes long and insubstantial in content.
The thirteenth film in a durable but sometimes very uneven franchise, 'Star Trek Beyond' attempts to correct some of the mistakes of its disappointing predecessor while repeating others and making some new ones of its own. It's a fun movie, but also often a frustrating one. At the box office, it was the poorest-performing of the three 'Star Trek' reboot movies so far, which will hopefully indicate to the powers-that-be at Paramount that trying to turn 'Star Trek' into a knuckleheaded 'Fast & Furious' adventure was not the smartest decision they could have made.
The Blu-ray is a decent package in terms of audio and video, but the weak selection of bonus features is a letdown. The disc is recommended for fans of the series, though I can't help but suspect that a more comprehensive special edition will be released in the future.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.