'Star Trek Beyond': Film Review

Welcome relief from a summer of stale popcorn.

Director Justin Lin assumes command from J.J. Abrams on this third installment of the sci-fi series reboot, which pits the Enterprise crew against a brutal Idris Elba.

J.J. Abrams reanimated a dormant sci-fi franchise for the big screen with his propulsive 2009 origin story, Star Trek, but then shifted into neutral for the humdrum 2013 follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, a regimented blockbuster that felt hollow and heavy beneath all its noise and brawn. With Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin stepping in as director, the third reboot installment, Star Trek Beyond, regains momentum, and not just in the obvious area of its muscular action set-pieces. The script injects a welcome strain of humor that's true to the original Gene Roddenberry creation, delivering nostalgia without stiff veneration.

The previous two installments grossed a collective $853 million worldwide for Paramount, and this latest entry — opening July 22 in the 50th anniversary year of the TV series debut on NBC — should significantly sweeten that haul.

Whether it will satisfy rabid Trekkers remains to be seen, though even for casual followers (like me), the film's double dedication packs an emotional punch. An end credits title card reading, "In loving memory of Leonard Nimoy," is followed by a separate card that states simply, "For Anton."

Both those tributes are echoed in the movie itself, in a brief but eloquent farewell salute to Nimoy's Ambassador Spock (and later, to the entire original crew of the Starship Enterprise), and in the boyish enthusiasm and optimistic spirit of Russian shipmate Pavel Chekov, played by Anton Yelchin in one of his final screen appearances before his untimely death last month at age 27. Scenes that show the young Chekov looking up to Chris Pine's Captain Kirk when they are stranded together on a hostile planet acquire added poignancy.

The script by Simon Pegg (expanding his duties beyond his onscreen role as engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung also provides a stirring reaffirmation of the original 1960s vision of a utopian fantasy, ruled by traditional Federation ideals of peace and intergalactic unity.

That makes the much-debated revelation of a gay Sulu (John Cho) entirely germane to the spirit of a liberal-leaning series that presented one of the first interracial kisses on American network TV. While Sulu's partner (played by co-writer Jung) has no dialogue, he's seen three times with the couple's daughter in the populous Federation starbase Yorktown, upping the stakes for Sulu when that idyllic, multicultural future-world comes under threat. Home and family have always been important motifs in the Star Trek mythology, and the pleasingly unemphatic presentation here of a gay family unit is a natural, progressive extension of the inclusive universe that Roddenberry conceived. Hysterical homophobes and traditionalists need to shut the hell up.

The menace that threatens all that harmony surfaces three years into the Enterprise's five-year deep-space mission in the form of Krall (Idris Elba), a fearsome alien eager to get his hands on an ancient "death machine" artifact of which Kirk and crew are custodians. Krall believes the Federation's reign of unity has brought weakness, whereas war and struggle breed strength.

Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) both are in the midst of introspective crises and contemplating big changes. Kirk is approaching a birthday that will make him older than his father lived to be; Spock is compelled, despite his feelings for Uhura (Zoe Saldana), to return to his people and help repopulate New Vulcan. But those concerns get pushed aside when a vicious attack by Krall leaves the Enterprise crew stranded without a vessel and dispersed on the rocky desert terrain of Altamid, an inhospitable planet surrounded by an unstable nebula.

This allows for some amusing interplay among the core characters, outside of their familiar group dynamic. Kirk and Chekov land with the suspicious alien who got them into the mess (Lydia Wilson); Bones (Karl Urban) and a seriously injured Spock are flung down elsewhere to banter in their respective personae as voluble joker and emotionless literalist; Sulu and Uhura are taken prisoner by Krall, along with the bulk of the Enterprise crew; and Scotty teams up with Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a zebra-faced alien also stranded on the planet and living in an abandoned Federation ship.

A technical whizz and a take-charge fighter with impressive kickboxing moves, Jaylah's look has a touch of Iggy Azalea but her taste in music runs more toward the vintage hip-hop of Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" being her anthem of choice. She's a terrific new addition to the ensemble, played with a sexy sneer by the lithe Boutella. She also seems a promising potential love interest for Scotty in future installments, if only he'd stop calling her "lassie."

Lin directs with his foot often jammed on the accelerator, careening from one physical or aerial clash to the next, where the densely packed movie could sometimes stand to take a breath. But even if a team of four editors would normally spell trouble, the pacing, structure and crescendos of suspense are assured, with Michael Giacchino's forceful score pumping up the action. However, there's also no shortage of intimate, character-driven moments. And while the story isn't without confusing elements, as warmongering intergalactic blitzes go, it's coherent enough.

Shot by Lin's regular Fast & Furious collaborator Stephen F. Windon, the visuals take robust advantage of the big Imax canvas, and the special-effects work is first-rate, even if the trippy, bee-like swarms of Krall's destroyer pods become somewhat unrelenting as an image of enveloping darkness. However, that yields a strategy to disorient the swarm by blasting them with some Beastie Boys at max volume — "Is that classical music?" asks a perplexed Bones — which feeds into the film's affectionate embrace of throwback relics, from a dusty motorcycle to an antiquated Federation spaceship from the distant 2160s.

One of the chief strengths of the reboot series remains its appealing young cast, who approach their iconic characters with respect while keeping their performances loose, enlivening their camaraderie with reciprocal warmth and understated humor. Elba's fierce charisma at first seems obscured beneath layers of prosthetic armor and a Darth Vader-esque heavy-breather voicebox (there are nods to both the Star Wars and Alien universes). But the actor's powerful physicality is evident throughout, and he gets to explore a fuller range in the climactic scenes, as Krall's true identity is revealed.

While Beyond won't unseat 1982's thrilling The Wrath of Khan as the gold standard for Star Trek movies, it's a highly entertaining entry guaranteed to give the franchise continuing life.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Bad Robot Productions, Perfect Storm Entertainment, Sneaky Shark
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Lydia Wilson, Joe Taslim, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriters: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, based on
Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Bryan Burk
Executive producers: Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Tommy Harper
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Thomas E. Sanders
Costume designer: Sanja Hays
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto, Steven Sprung
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Chiang
Special makeup effects: Joel Harlow
Casting: April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg

Rated PG-13, 122 minutes