Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams film from 2009, has yet to be topped as the best franchise reboot film. A lot of credit should be given to Abram's knack for casting. John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, and Anton Yelchin are all wonderful actors in their own right, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By tapping into that magic, Star Trek Beyond follows up on the promise of the 2009 film, leveraging the cast in a way that Star Trek Into Darkness (plagued by hamfisted decisions all over) never did. The USS Enterprise is three years into its five-year deep space exploration mission. Captain Kirk (Pine) ponders if he has been in space too long and applies to become a Vice Admiral. Spock (Quinto) ponders if he is needed more by the Vulcans or by his friends in Starfleet. While taking shore leave and supplies on at the starbase Yorktown, the Enterprise and crew are dispatched on a rescue mission inside a nearby nebula. There they encounter Krall (Idris Elba), a peace-hating renegade bent on pushing back against Starfleet's encroachment on the frontier, and loner Jaylah (Sofia Boutella).
It may seem weird to praise a Trek film as being a great action movie, but this is a genuinely thrilling adventure. Justin Lin directs the action in a way that is simultaneously propulsive and thrilling, but is also peppered with story beats. Both sides work together to make the action more intense because there is a real sense of peril, and the story gains momentum due to the action. Early in the film, the Enterprise is destroyed, stranding the crew on Krall's planet. The destruction scene is nothing short of spectacular, and Lin makes excellent use of geography, making the scene feel chaotic, but not difficult to follow, even in IMAX 3D.
Separating the crew for part of the movie gives all of our heroes a chance to shine, and flesh out some of the relationships that have been underserved in the previous two films. Karl Urban's take on Dr. McCoy, which has consistently been one of the best performances of the franchise, is paired off with Spock for an extended sequence, bringing back the most fun relationship in all of Star Trek. Kirk and Chekov (Yelchin) also have some great moments, and allowing this version of Chekov to grow into something more than just the whiz kid of the previous two films.
In addition to honoring the cast and characters, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung's script strikes a masterful balance between moments of "fan service" and answering the mission of 'strange new worlds' (there is a huge callback to one of the television series I never expected, but those who aren't as familiar will likely not even realize they are building on previous continuity). Beyond feels original and fresh, from Krall's swarm of ships to the design of the Yorktown space station, which plays with our perception of gravity. And most importantly, all of the problems encountered by the Enterprise crew are solved as much with smarts as with bravery. And nothing embodies this more than a scene right near the climax, which is a bit silly, but which hits with such an unbridled sense of joy that I couldn't help but grin wide in sheer delight.
But the most important thing that Star Trek gives us is a hope for the future. Given the current climate, having a movie that has a message of peace, diversity, and unity encoded at its core is not only refreshing, but necessary. The world feels dark and uncertain, but every incarnation of Star Trek answers that with a shining beacon that can show us the way forward.
Star Trek Beyond opens in Philly theaters today.