From the moment you hear the quiet introductory bars of Michael Giacchino’s theme song, a feeling of fond familiarity settles in. It’s the same theme heard at the beginning of both 2009’s reboot and 2013’s Into Darkness, except this time – whether it’s the seven years we’ve spent with this particular version of the franchise or the recent loss of talents Leonard Nemoy and Anton Yelchin – it feels a little like returning home. Except in the case of Captain James T. Kirk, it’s not exactly good times.
Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk is tired around the eyes, going through the motions (in one of his first scenes of the film, he presents himself during a peacekeeping mission with all of the unenthusiasm of a Federation handbook). Unlike his previous two outings in the franchise, Kirk is uninspired, itching with cabin fever and his approaching birthday has his focus turning once again to the selfless legacy of his father, which leads him to question his own reasons and intentions for being a part of Starfleet. He’s looking for something to give him a sign, but he’s ready to throw in the towel and resign from his post.
He doesn’t get the chance, however, when he and his crew are sent to answer a distress call from a stranded ship that is ultimately an ambush lying in wait. It’s a testament to the franchise, its story and its characters when the destruction of the ship they all call home is not only terrifying but heartwrenching to watch. Director Justin Lin’s trademark frenetic action style from his Fast and Furious work keeps the energy tense and panicked until you almost can’t handle it anymore, which only adds to the stomach-dropping devastation of seeing our beloved USS Enterprise be relentlessly torn to pieces by a hive of alien jets and hearing Jim order what’s left of his crew to abandon her. The gravity of that request after their exhaustive defense of the ship weighs heavy, and watching the remains of the Enterprise crash and burn is not without difficulty.
In synopsis, it’s a simple chain of events – rescue mission goes foul, crew are stranded on an alien planet and have to find their way back to save themselves and save the day. What actually results on film is a deeper character study than we’ve seen in recent installments and a reiteration of why this reboot works as well as it does. Scriptwriters Doug Jung and star Simon Pegg don’t do anything we haven’t already seen, but they have a gift for tending to everyone’s strengths and there’s a nostalgic beauty in how this particular entry into the ‘verse plays out. The entire film feels like a love letter to its television roots, playing out like a two-hour version of one of its best episodes, and it’s carefully injected with pang-inducing throwbacks, most notably in the cameo appearance of an old photo featuring the franchise’s original Enterprise crew: Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley and Nichelle Nichols.
The random pairings of the separated crew add new dimension to each character as they are made to work with each other in new ways. Jim navigates the new terrain with Chekov and Scotty builds a mutually beneficial working partnership with stranded foreigner Jaylah. Spock and Bones exchanging barbs and quips in the face of imminent danger is about as wildly entertaining as you might expect, while Uhura and Sulu work to keep their fellow prisoners together while learning what they can of their abductors and their motives. Each crewmate is dreadfully unequipped, but they prove why they are the best of the best in how they quickly dive into survival mode, answering what questions they can for themselves and making plans on what to do next. Even separated, they work towards the same goal as a singular cohesive unit, which further backs the idea that the Enterprise crew is unique. They’re not just a bunch of lovable characters thrown together for a job, they’re not just a ragtag ensemble of experts in their chosen fields – they’re a family, unwavering in their trust and willing to lay down their lives for each other. Jim and Spock especially are reminded of this before the credits roll, and it shapes their decisions going forward.
Idris Elba turns in a vengeful performance as villain Krall. He’s nasty, pissed off, and he’s hurting deep down as all decent villains are. But he’s also disillusioned, trying to punish in a way that doesn’t entirely fit the crime waged against him and it doesn’t endear. Still, him being him teaches Jim what it means to be Jim, so he serves his purpose. Chris Pine as our Captain brings both his perfect sense of comedic timing to the film’s lighter moments and a subtle poignancy to the heavier ones, and while Kirk’s realization of where he truly wants to be isn’t a huge surprise, there’s a quiet sense of the world slotting back into its rightful place when he understands where his heart belongs. Zachary Quinto’s riveting performance as Spock is softer and surprisingly vulnerable this time around, internalizing his responsibility to rebuild the Vulcan race, the death of Spock Prime (the late Leonard Nimoy) and his reluctant break-up with Uhura. Karl Urban as Bones gets more screen time as best friend and confidant, offering his ears and advice to Jim – and even Spock – in times of need. The job Urban does is so understated, and yet it’s his performance that brings some of the best moments out of Pine and Quinto – in particular, Spock’s laughter, of which Bones immediately and hilariously misconstrues as a sign of mental deterioration.
Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, sadly, doesn’t get to be much more than the role of Spock’s ex-girlfriend for the majority of the film, but what little besides that is certainly no damsel in distress as she puts her smarts to work in the position of negotiator with the man who means to terrorize them. Newcomer Sofia Boutella is curiously endearing as Jaylah and has all the makings of another hero, armed with uneducated sarcasm, tech brains, combat finesse, enough vulnerability to flesh her out and a possible future storyline in the works that is happily fitting, while Simon Pegg returns with the same comedic charm as Scotty, doing the impossible in impossible situations. As one of the film’s writers, the script is also ladened with Pegg’s recognizable wit, and it works in the smallest ways to give this film its big beating heart.
John Cho’s underrated rendition of Sulu is played with warmth and an edge of desperation, especially after we learn he has a husband and daughter waiting for him who will be affected should things go wrong. There has been a large focus on the writing of Sulu being gay and mention of a kiss that was ultimately cut in the final edits, but the film isn’t missing anything by leaving it out. In fact, the choice to do so is a smart one – instead of the scene being relegated to a gay kiss (and without a doubt, it would have been), it focussed on the normalcy of a married couple and child reuniting happily after an extended separation. And after learning that Cho had just met his on-screen daughter for the first time and his husband was played by Doug Jung, the man responsible for writing the film with Pegg, the familial history, and lovely intimacy Cho weaves between the three in the mere seconds afforded to him is nothing short of incredible. As helmsman, Sulu shows us again how much of a natural, instinctual expert he is, and seeing him purposely nosedive a ship in order to jump-start it, then seeing his hilarious ‘Yay? We didn’t die?’ expression afterwards makes him another enjoyable piece of the Enterprise puzzle.
Anton Yelchin’s final outing as Pavel Chekov didn’t overshadow the film like one might have expected, but his presence is made keenly aware in every scene. His sweet nature shines through Chekov’s unwavering loyalty and wide-eyed willingness to do whatever his Captain asks, and also through his uncertainty of his crew’s fate. A charming tidbit regarding Chekov’s love of scotch runs throughout the film and rounds out the picture of his character a little more while giving the impression of a future to come, which is perhaps the saddest part of it all. Chekov was intended to remain a part of the family for much, much longer, and it was the scotch, his easy excitability, the cheeky moments of camaraderie between him and his crewmates and his quiet, puzzle-piece presence in every scene that made him feel like such a solid, sure thing, but it’s not until the credits roll and Anton’s name appears in dedication that the reminder slugs you in the chest. Yelchin was much adored and will be sorely missed both in spirit and talent, as will his wonderful portrayal of Pavel Chekov.
All in all, it’s another episode in the Star Trek universe. The nostalgia, that sense of coming home is still there and it will draw you in and make you feel like a part of something special. And I’m pretty sure that’s what the Star Trek franchise is all about.
I, for one, cannot wait to return again.