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'Star Trek Beyond' Stumbles The Beloved Franchise Through Another Installment

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While making a sequel to a successful film is always an inevitability in Hollywood, another Star Trek film in 2016 holds some dramatic irony. When J.J. Abrams was tasked in 2009 with rebooting the series with a new cast, the success was essentially based on its resemblance to another mega-nerd science-fiction franchise. Now in this third iteration with its crew, Star Trek no longer needs to model Star Wars, and Trek can once again be its own thing. But as Chris Pine's Captain Kirk ponders in one of the early winking moments, what can Star Trek Beyond do to avoid being another episodic tale?

The truth is not much. Sequels gonna sequel. Beyond ponderously wallows in setting up dramatic arcs for its characters—Kirk still has daddy issues, Zachary Quinto's Spock considers quitting, Karl Urban's McCoy just wants some peace and quiet—before finally shoving off its crew into another space adventure. This time our heroes battle against Krall, a gray skeletal Nietzschean supervillian played by Idris Elba, whose sentences gurgle out of his mouth. Krall's introduction provides some much-needed spectacle as his metallic swarm-like ships slowly tear the U.S.S. Enterprise apart limb by limb in a balletic opera. Under the gaze of Fast & Furious franchise helmer Justin Lin, the camera takes on a grace in its unwavering Stedicam-like flow, turning the horrifying destruction into almost a giddy joy.

This scatters the crew across a planet of vast granite mountains, wooded forests, and metallic mines, creating a smaller scale and character driven adventure than the Into Darkness's weighed tedium. The script, written by Simon Pegg (returning as Engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung, skips around from Kirk and Chekov (recently departed Anton Yelchin) to Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) to McCoy and Spock. All of them have goals and move from point-to-point, which is one way of saying Beyond flows at a decent pace.

Of course, Beyond just barely hits the marks that have become all too thin in blockbuster filmmaking, causing dead stops with the film's monotonously thematic conversations and constantly growing expository backstory (when will villains simply be evil again?). Though running what now must be considered brief at two hours, there are still too many beats pounded on by Michael Giacchino's score; a late action set piece scored to the Beastie Boys almost rescues the picture and gives the film an indelibly humorous and human moment: a throwaway shot of Yelchin tapping his foot to the beat while stoically piloting. Lin, who took over from Abrams after his departure for The Force Awakens, at least knows how to show off; the camera glides with agility through different corridors both big and small, and the reliance of the lack of gravity allows for unexpected digital process shots that create surprises in where our eyes follow in any aerial direction (close-quarters combat, however, is still an entire blurry mess). But as much as he has an eye for spectacle, the weighted gravitas does no favors.

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Abrams had an eye for casting his actors for this reboot, but now they look bored; still a bit too baby-faced to hold the weighted existentialism that the script forces onto them. Urban's Southern drawl and knack for spontaneous outbursts of comic pain remains a highlight, as well as the addition of Algerian superstar Sofia Boutella as a warrior fighting for a way off her planet. When she gets to see space for the first time, the look in her eyes matches the curiosity that made Gene Roddenberry's series an iconic classic. When Beyond remembers that, it occasionally sparks as well.

Star Trek Beyond is now playing everywhere.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.