Musing in his Captain’s Log as his birthday approaches, James Tiberius Kirk, his eyes as blue as the lens flare that accompanies the first shot of the Starship Enterprise, finds himself in a funk. “Things are starting to feel a little … episodic,” he confesses, in what even a sympathetic viewer might interpret as a meta-statement, a confession of franchise fatigue. Chris Pine, who has played Kirk since the big-screen reboot in 2009, is on his third voyage. This character, originated by William Shatner, has endured a lot more. The larger “Star Trek” enterprise has been boldly going on for a half-century, and more hours of television and cinema than I possess theGoogling acumen to tally.
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So you can understand why James T., a good soldier and also a bit of a loose cannon, might want to break out of the rut, and the title of the latest movie,“Star Trek Beyond,” teases the audience with the promise of novelty and risk. It’s not necessarily a criticism to note that not much materializes. Directed by the action maven Justin Lin from a script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, the film answers the question “Beyond what?” with a diffident “Well, nothing, really. Don’t worry!” It should have been called “Star Trek Within” in honor of its determination to color inside the lines, obeying the ironclad conventions of brand and genre.
Which is not, in itself, a bad thing. Not every wheel needs reinventing, and one of the abiding pleasures of “Star Trek,” in its old and newer iterations, lies in its balance of stubborn consistency and canny inventiveness. The characters never change, but the stakes can shift wildly from one adventure to the next. Fans love “Star Trek” precisely because of its episodic nature, which allows for a certain amount of variation in theme and tone. Sometimes the future of the universe hangs in the balance. Sometimes Kirk and his crew have to deal with local disputes and personnel issues. Or weird random stuff, like tribbles or Joan Collins-related time travel.
Unfortunately, 21st-century big-budget action movies are made according to a more rigid template, and “Beyond” follows its immediate predecessors,“Star Trek” and “Into Darkness” (both directed by J. J. Abrams), in sacrificing some of the old spirit to blockbuster imperatives. The Hollywood rule book stipulates that the climactic sequence should involve the noisy destruction of a lot of buildings and an extended hand-to-hand fight between the good guy and the main villain. The villain should be motivated by the usual villainous grudge. Millions of lives should be in danger, and the actual casualties should be numerous and filmed bloodlessly enough to preserve the PG-13 rating.
Up until the tedious and bombastic finish, though, you can have a pretty good time. In his work on the “Fast and Furious” movies, Mr. Lin has shown a playful willingness to extend — and, if necessary, suspend — the laws of physics, and his visual brashness can be a refreshing antidote to Mr. Abrams’s fussy tries to combine digital spectacle with old-fashioned cinematic discipline.
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Most important, the gang’s all here, and Mr. Lin proves once again to be an adept ensemble wrangler. Kirk grins and grimaces his way through yet another existential career crisis (and also does some motorcycle stunt driving). Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) experience some love trouble. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) take their bickering-astronaut vaudeville double act on the road once again. Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Mr. Pegg) provide technical support and comic relief, as necessary.
On the surface of a distant planet, the crew encounters a new nemesis and a new ally. The big baddie is a murderous warlord named Krall (Idris Elba, masked). The scrappy sidekick is a stranded fighter named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, in zebra-stripe makeup). Things go more or less as you expect, with enough surprises and “reveals” to make you mad at me if I say too much more. The crew hops into, and out of, danger. Machinery fails and is repaired in the nick of time. Highly complicated imaginary science is explained with breathless urgency.
Sometimes, I have to say, the scientific breakthroughs feel a little too convenient. Jaylah has some kind of technology that makes giant spaceships invisible, and another kind that shoots fast-drying resin (or something). And there is some business at the end on an enormous space station that I did not buy for a minute. The nerd in me wants a bit more rigor, a bit more plausibility underneath the exuberant fakery. Maybe in the next episode.
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