Star Trek Beyond ★★★★½

As a lifelong disciple of Gene Roddenberry's creative vision of the future, Star Trek: The Original Series, I always judge these recent films heavily on their ability to capture that fundamental spirit of optimism Roddenberry had so essentially cultivated. A vision of a hopeful and beautiful future, where diplomacy, wonder and exploration are the priorities of a united humanity, peacefully coexisting in order to conquer the final frontier. His creation was so absurdly progressive, confidently casting a strong black woman as a member of the primary crew, openly advocating for inter-species cooperation, a plainly preached message of unity, of equality. In a time of racial chaos, gender oppression, and international tension, TOS served a purpose only truly special pieces of art can fulfill; to provoke a consideration among it's audience. A consideration of their times contrasted against this future, boldly offering up a portrait of a future few failed to envision. Optimistic, idealistic, unrealistic; it didn't matter. Star Trek saw the future and the rest of the art world merely tried to catch up.

I don't expect these recent films to embody this same message, because it simply isn't the 60's. Abrams' 2009 effort, Star Trek, served it's purpose in establishing these characters and their dynamics, creating a formula that works for modern audiences. Fleeting glimpses of TOS could be seen, but they were understandably secondary. Into Darkness disappointed, painting an anarchic and vengeful look into the future, failing to capture the complexities of the Khan character and functioning only as a brainless yet entertaining action film. Their narratives revolved around an extinction threat to humanity, always with apocalyptic interests and a grandiose ultimatum. This simply isn't Star Trek. Episodes within Roddenberry’s canon literally revolved around minute threats, like Journey to Babble, which is basically a Star Trek whodunnit. It's modesty was a huge asset.

Justin Lin's effort in the franchise successfully tips the scales back to that humble storytelling. While threats are still imposing and ambitions grand, this film largely centers on Kirk's concern for his crew. All of the strengths we have come to know are there, namely pitch-perfect casting, exhilarating set pieces and gorgeous visuals, but Lin seems to have an inkling of understanding of where this franchise needs to go. His vision is flashier, more tongue in cheek than Abrams', with an obvious talent for staging action and maintaining a comprehensible breakneck pace. But this story is smaller, more calculated and meditative. The villain is actually a character, with a sympathetic story and understandable motivations. His story even parallels Kirk's own existential crisis in a seriously compelling way, something TOS brilliantly did time and time again. For casual fans though, the pure and exuberant distillation of action cinema into it's basic form is unmissable. This is a treat.

Aside from being a genuinely great blockbuster in a summer of duds, this has personal relevance to me as well. First off, the acknowledgement of Anton and Leonard was beautifully and delicately done. I was completely satisfied and deservedly emotional. But recall my opening paragraph, regarding the social utility TOS served back in the 60's. I think we all can agree 2016 has been a tough year, with police brutality, growing racial tension, terrorist massacres and absolute political absurdity in both America and Britain, it feels as though we are regressing back to the state Roddenberry so deliberately tried to coax us out of. I found solace while watching this, a detachment from the overbearing real world and an essential feeling of brief optimism for a potential future. You may say my rating is inflated by the context of my viewing, but I don't care. For a brief, beautiful moment Lin captured some of the paramount importance of TOS, and reminded myself and hopefully millions across the world what the true function of Star Trek ought to be.

RIP Anton and Leonard

2016 Films Ranked
Franchises: Star Trek Ranked