It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why director Justin Lin was handed the reins of the “Star Trek” series from the outgoing J.J. Abrams. Lin, the director of four “Fast and Furious” films, is a virtuoso at making vehicles fly through space, and his “Star Trek Beyond” has a few of the most spectacular set pieces ever seen in the series. What’s more, if you had to find a theme in the “Fast and Furious” films — apart from their real theme, which is that speed and destruction rock — it would be this: A motley crew of multiculti ego-driven auto pilots works best when they make themselves into a team. Yet it’s not until the halfway point of “Star Trek Beyond” when Lin stages a sequence that truly seems to get his juices flowing.
We’re in the jagged wilderness of a foreign planet, where the Enterprise has crash-landed after being cut in two by a swarm of metallic space “bees.” The swirling bees are controlled by Krall (Idris Elba), a dictator with the face of a lizard and the voice of a warlord and an attitude to match. He gets energy by literally sucking the life out of people, and he’s out to capture an artifact that was on board the Enterprise, an ancient clicking doohickey he wants for terrible (but unspecified) reasons. The crew of the Enterprise, dispersed on the planet, is trying to regroup, and now, at last, they have it together enough to launch a plan of attack. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) provides the diversionary activity, riding a chopper around Krall’s woodland headquarters, his biker image literally multiplied a dozen times. Meanwhile, a leonine alien named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), whose black-etched-on-white face makes her look like Darth Maul by MAC Cosmetics, engages in hand-to-hand combat with Krall, whomping him with kung fu kicks.
The sequence has that Lin spin, that overdose of activity that gets you pumped. And that’s a good thing — or, at least, it’s good up to a point — because “Star Trek Beyond,” for all the addictive intensity of its visual flourishes, is the most prosaic and, in many ways, the least adventurous of the Abrams-era “Star Trek” outings. It’s a sturdily built movie that gets the job done, and it’s got a likable retro vibe: The fact that Kirk and his crew spend a good part of the film stranded, without recourse, gives “Star Trek Beyond” a wide-eyed, slightly clunky analog stasis that takes us right back to the spirit of the TV series. Like the show, it lets us share quality time with cast members who now seem like old friends. Yet to say that the movie fails to break new ground would be putting it mildly. It truly feels like an extended episode, without a single “Oh, wow!” trick up its sleeve, which may be why, until the eye-popping climax, it’s more earnest than exciting.
To be fair, a “Star Trek” movie — this is the 13th — can’t be expected to reinvent the wheel each time. Abrams already did that once, and he did it brilliantly, casting the series with such an acute eye for the inner qualities of every “Trek” crew member that you almost feel as if each character should come with a little book entitled “The Zen of Scotty,” “The Zen of Bones,” etc. Yet the dimension of the original series that turned fans into lifelong cultists is that it pushed and poked boundaries; it kept spinning your head. That’s what Abrams tried to do in his two films, and the underrated “Star Trek Into Darkness,” though it played a bit of a shell game with “Trek” mythology, casting Benedict Cumberbatch as a young Khan who didn’t completely parse as the Khan of legend, was still a movie that took you on a sinister cosmic joyride.
“Star Trek Beyond” might have been more accurately entitled “Star Trek Contained.” It’s got a very familiar, old-fangled, no-mystery structure, and that’s because it’s basically the “Star Trek” version of an interplanetary action film, with a plot that doesn’t take you to many new frontiers. But there’s plenty of chance to hang out with a cast that audiences have — rightly — come to love. On the planet, the crew members land in different places because they’ve escaped the crashing Enterprise in separate pods. It’s fun to watch Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) bond through their antipathy. Or Scotty (Simon Pegg) try to weave his nerd weaselness around the forceful Jaylah, the alien dominatrix in white who refers to him as “Montgomery Scotty.” Or Anton Yelchin’s Chekov simply be, in every scene, his ardently antic Chekov self, which allows us to revel in what an inspired job the late young actor did of making Chekov’s face match his heavily accented words, his eyes popping in comic communion with his vowels. Yelchin, a superb actor (he is honored in the closing credits with a simple “For Anton”), slyly disappeared inside this role, and in that very act of disappearance he was never more himself.
Conveniently, the planet houses the carcass of an old Federation ship, the U.S.S. Franklin, which our mighty crew can resuscitate. From there, the battle heads to Yorktown, a Federation outpost that’s like a gyroscopic steel-and-glass city that resembles an amalgam of the aristocratic satellite in “Elysium,” the city of the future in “WALL-E,” and an Apple store. It’s a lurching, multi-planed vertiginous place, and Lin stages the protracted final battle there like a gladiatorial contest suspended in the air. It’s a sequence you won’t soon forget.
What is forgettable, perhaps, is everything else about the movie, which doesn’t so much advance the “Trek” cosmology as keep it running in place. “Star Trek Beyond” opens with Kirk, and Spock, each having a private existential meltdown: Kirk from the every-day-is-like-the-last-day routine of piloting through space, and Spock from the knowledge that he might want to ditch the Enterprise to become a Vulcan patriarch, now that Commander Spock has died — a nod to the late Leonard Nimoy, whom Quinto inspiringly echoes in the hint of warmth masked by his impish ultra-deadpan. You can rest assured that this team will become a team again, because that’s the message of the movie: that in space (or maybe anywhere), a crew of quirky oddballs beats a scaly megalomaniac every time. But that’s kind of a lesson that we already knew. “Star Trek Beyond” is a somewhat diverting place holder, but one hopes that the next “Star Trek” movie will have what it takes to boldly go where no “Star Trek” movie has gone before.