The centerpiece of the latest Star Trek film is a bright celestial bauble, a tremendous re-imagining of a Federation starbase, named Yorktown.
Yorktown is on the scale of a Death Star, but instead of incinerating worlds it is presumably dedicated to a lot of peace-mongering bureaucracy and some very nice apartment buildings. To quote Memory Alpha, “Yorktown’s structure consisted of a matrix of city-sized interlocking rings and radiating arms enclosed in a spherical translucent surface; Enterprise doctor Leonard McCoy likened it to a giant ‘snow globe’ in space.” At the center of it all the tips of opposing skyscrapers nearly touch, and the artificial gravity gets jumbled into an Escheresque milieu.
One of the best aspects of this film is its level of self-containment. While last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens relied on narrative connections to future films and the expanded universe, Star Trek: Beyond shies away from serialization. As a result, it feels a lot like a shot of the original series or The Next Generation, back when episodes of television stood on their own instead of tying together intricate season-long plotlines.
On the other hand, the Enterprise does very little trekking in this film. All the action takes place between Yorktown, an intervening nebula1 and a star system on the far side. Lured from Yorktown through the nebula and to the star system, the Enterprise is utterly destroyed by a swarm of alien drones, and its crew marooned. This is perhaps the most spectacular, fetishistic demolition of the Federation’s flagship in history, and it recalls the other times it has been sacrificed for the silver screen. As in Star Trek: Generations we see the saucer section crash-land on a planet. And as in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock we see a new Enterprise under construction at the end of the film, ready for more box office openings.
Another asset to this film is a complex bad guy who carries plausible motivations for his homicidal rage. Whereas most sci-fi villains tend to be one-note, bloodthirsty evil-doers, Krall carries ideological motivations that Kirk very nearly demolishes in a short conversation. Krall does what he thinks is justified. He’s not a narcissistic ubermensch like Khan, or an irredeemable alien like many of Trek’s cinematic villains. He’s also not an inanimate object, like the primary antagonists of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. He’s a human soldier who feels betrayed and abandoned by his commanders, a relic from the past who rejects the Federation’s liberal multiculturalism and wants to disintegrate anyone who takes part in it.
This film also recalls an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew discovers a long-lost starship (the Pegasus) trapped inside an asteroid. In Star Trek: Beyond, the crew discovers Krall’s old ship, the Franklin, which had been missing for a century. This time capsule allows the movie just enough narrative headroom to whip out a bad-ass motorcycle for Kirk to ride and the Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage” to clinch the climactic space battle. I’m not sure whether these elements are cheap stunts from the director of four Fast/Furious movies, or a fun exploitation of Earth’s history within the Trek franchise, but Wil Wheaton leans toward the former.
At any rate this is a fun film, built on strong performances, great characters, stunning visual design, and a tight if sometimes wonky plotline.
1. As for the “nebula” it’s full of more wildly careening rocks than the “asteroid field” in The Empire Strikes Back. This is a step backwards for Star Trek as it represented the Enterprise navigating through a more accurate depiction of a nebula in The Wrath of Khan. As GeekWire writes, “the clouds of gas and dust that make up a nebula are so thin that a starship would have no place to hide – and nothing to dodge except for protostars.” And per Wikipedia, “although denser than the space surrounding them, most nebulae are far less dense than any vacuum created on Earth – a nebular cloud the size of the Earth would have a total mass of only a few kilograms.”↩