The best shot in Star Trek Beyond is boring. At the start of the film, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), three years into his peacekeeping mission, creaks open his closet full of identical yellow shirts and sighs. Three films into this reboot, the brash young Kirk we met in 2009 seems light-years away. Space has that effect, cautions Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Humans can't whiz through an infinite, omnidimensional map without scrambling two mental, metaphorical needs: direction and gravity. Groans Kirk, "Things have started to feel a little … episodic."
In the first Trek, Pine looked like a fresh-pressed Ken doll, face still shiny from the heat. [Note: The franchise is produced by Paramount, which shares a corporate parent with MTV.] He was always good. Seven laps around the sun later, he's interesting. Pine is now the same age William Shatner was when he launched the role. As he and the cast have grown up, their fresh-hatched portrayals of the characters are merging into caricatures of the originals like 3-D glasses coming into focus. Karl Urban’s Bones is Bonesier, Simon Pegg’s Scotty is more Scottish, and the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is once again insisting scotch was invented by a little old lady from Leningrad, as he did 49 years ago in “The Trouble With Tribbles.”
They’re even fusing with reality. John Cho’s Sulu has mind-melded so much with George Takei that he's been given a husband — sort of. He doesn't have a wedding ring, but an unnamed Asian man wordlessly hands him a baby and slings an arm around his waist, low-key enough that conservatives can convince themselves the hunk is just his brother. As for Zachary Quinto, the one actor who actually shared scenes with his prime, there's a lovely, quiet moment when he learns about the death of the original Spock. (Leonard Nimoy passed away last year after a half-century of playing the alien he described as “more human than anyone else on the ship.”) Two Vulcans silently hand Quinto the older Spock's things — a man literally willing his belongings to himself — and director Justin Lin backs the camera 50 feet away to let him privately absorb the loss.
During this scene, we’re on the space base Yorktown, a hollow globe that looks like Bodyworlds plastinated Earth and sucked out all of the dirt. It’s neat, and then soon after we’re off to an uncharted nebula to battle the evil Krall (Idris Elba, hidden inside an armadillo shell) and his fleet of flying metal fleas that can chew up a ship faster than you can say “Moses, spare us this plague!” It's an ironic weapon for a villain whose main talking point is that real warriors fight solo. “Unity is not your strength, it’s your weakness,” hisses Krall, while his swarm clogs the sky. Someone’s not listening to their own script. But Krall gets his wish when the USS Enterprise’s crew is scattered on his planet, along with an alien scientist who looks like a retro macramé blanket and an acid-washed female warrior (Sofia Boutella) with the ability to multiply herself into fighting holograms. At times, the crew feels cloned, too. Once the action starts, these individual weirdos that fans have loved for five decades become just bodies without their own personalities, discernible only by face and increasingly insane accent.
Lin was handed the keys to the Enterprise after salvaging the Fast and Furious franchise with Fast Five. The gig makes sense. When he wants to, Lin can steer an ensemble. He makes machines go zoom and bros bump fists. But in deep space, no one can hear your engine rev. For one thing, now the engines are pixels and the highways green screens. Beyond doesn't have the tactile crash-smash thrill of Vin Diesel gunning a Charger. It’s more like that dumb gag in Furious 7 when cars skydive from a plane. Freed from reality, Lin turns into a kid gifted a box of markers and glitter: Everything is manic and distracting. There’s a cool swoosh where the lens surfs behind the Enterprise as it accelerates through a tube, but mostly the tricks are garish. We zoom up and around the actors as though Lin’s using the camera to write “pretty!” in cursive. Settle down, cinematography. Just because you can swirl doesn’t mean you should.
The plot chases after the visuals like a greyhound on the track. There’s little conversation, and most of it is wasted on twin subplots where both Captain Kirk and Spock debate quitting the Enterprise — the one place we know they’ll never leave. By Beyond’s final floating fistfight, Kirk probably longs for the monotony of the opening scene. I did — it’s one of the only moments that feels lived in, even though these actors have been inhabiting these roles for a fifth of their lives. I found myself grateful for cheap-looking shots of Bones and Spock kicking it on gold spray-painted rocks, about the only time the film chills out long enough to let the cast show off their chemistry. Bones argues that Spock is a stalker and we’re forced to agree. “The Vulcan heart is where the liver would be?” asks Bones. Spock nods. Follow-up question: Where’s their movie’s heart?