This film just came out, so fair warning: Spoilers ahead.
WHY WE LIKE IT: A return to classic themes.
WHY WE DON'T: Dingy and hard to follow special effects.
REVIEW: Co-written by Simon Pegg, I believe this is HIS triumph more than anyone else's. From his work with Edgar Wright, we know he has a strong handle on themes and how to bring them out in clever ways (and we'll get to those in short order), but I'm also surprised and impressed at how restrained the comedy was. Despite the opening joke with the small aliens, there's a real melancholy feel to the first act that keeps laughs at a minimum. Halfway through his 5-year mission, Kirk wonders if there's a point to it all, Spock thinks of leaving Starfleet, and he and Uhura have split. The movie builds to comedy and insane action over time, until completely ridiculous things happen and you're happy for them to. It's a strange high-wire act, but Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung somehow pull it off. The week link, for me, was director Justin Lin and his effects crew. There's plenty of spectacle, but the scenes, especially in the first act, are rather gloomy, and the effects sequences so chaotic and dark, the screen just looked filthy with dirt. I don't know how this all looked in 3D, but I can't imagine it was any better.
The first theme I was to explore is that of strength through unity, or IDIC, if you will. This is one of Trek's core themes, right from the beginning, and seeing it used so prominently here acts as a response to fans who have criticized NuTrek for lacking the Roddenberry ethos and replacing moral dilemmas and humanism with action sequences. Consequently, unity isn't just something the characters consistently celebrate, it's the reason the villain Krall wants to destroy the Federation. He doesn't see that unity as a value, but rather as a weakness, because TWIST, he's really a human being from Captain Archer's era, a soldier gone insane who believes conflict is the only path to evolution for humanity. Ironically, to accomplish his goals, he's been forced to become more and more alien using technology that makes him absorb the characteristics of his victims. He is, in fact, a corruption of the idea, right down to the swarm of ships he uses as a devastating attack wave. His forces are "united", but not "diverse". The "hive mind" of his fleet is, like the Borg, anti-IDIC, and his lethal theft of others' individuality does AWAY with the individual. This is probably the most diverse crew we've yet seen on an Enterprise (outside of the novels, certainly). Not only is it filled with aliens we've never seen before, but there are little touches like showing Sulu to have a husband. Station Yorktown, an absurd Christmas ornament of a city in space - it just looks like architects and engineers showing off - is equally filled with varied species. The planet the Enterprise crew must escape, likewise. Diversity is everywhere, and a multiplicity of skills, biologies and perspectives are used to achieve the heroes' ends.
And all of that wouldn't work quite so well if the main characters didn't exemplify it. One of the things NuTrek has done pretty decently is give each crew member something cool and heroic to do in each film. That's continued in Beyond, and I even if the Big Three still have the bigger share, their parts don't feel quite as disproportionate to the rest. So Scotty befriends a badass alien girl called Jaylah who will be key in rescuing the crew. Sulu has to drive an old starship down a cliff and bounce it up into orbit. Uhura heroically sacrifices her freedom to get the saucer separated. Chekov is still the whiz kid without whom nothing gets done. Interestingly, Spock and McCoy are more bonded at the hip than ever before, two polar opposites and the best manifestation of IDIC's power, each thriving only because of the other, but also giving each other a hard time and making us laugh. Kirk is the action man, sliding down the hulls of exploding ships, doing motorcycle stunts, and fighting mano a mano in unstable gravity. At the very end, we get a combined "Space, the final frontier..." where EACH cast member gets to say a part of the classic speech, and this is subtle, but the actors' names are credited alphabetically, not in some order of importance. Small details that bring the theme home in a way that really pushed all the right buttons for me.
The other theme is, of course, a look at the past. It IS the 50th Anniversary of the franchise, of course. While there are some references to the past - the villain is a former MACO who fought the Xindi, the giant green hand, the cast photo from Star Trek V, etc. - and call backs/franchise clichés - the destruction of the Enterprise in a 3rd film, a vertiginous final fight, a blobby superweapon - Beyond doesn't call attention to them the way, say, the new Ghostbusters or even The Force Awakens did them. It feels like a new story, the references a mostly background, and the stolen elements feel fresher for being in a new story. But again, because they are part of such a strong THEME, they become an essential part of the story, not a distraction. The past is EVERYWHERE in this film. Kirk and Spock are both haunted by the deaths of their father figures. Krall is a man from the past, confronting his discarded philosophy with the Federation's proposed utopia. He's a political construct - a dangerous branch of conservatism that sees social change as a threat - which means he's not as well fleshed-out as you'd like (especially since Idris Elba has to snarl like an alien for most of the film to hide what's really going on). Having lost the Enterprise, the crew commandeers the USS Franklin, 100 years out of date (so fans who don't like the bright virtual screens, rejoice!). "Old" music - and this is my favorite bit even if it is insane - is used to disrupt the swarm and destroy in a wonderfully well-timed sequence. And it's not just that Sabotage is 1. a contemporary song, or 2. the perfect title for what's happening, but that it's 3. from Kirk's own past. It was the tune he was listening to on his stepfather car radio when he drove it off a cliff in the first film. So perfect!
And with the notion of the past comes that of mortality. Ambassador Spock has died, and the film means to pay tribute to Leonard Nimoy's passing, but barely a month ago, Anton Yelchin (Chekov) was tragically killed in a car accident, age 27. Every time you see him on screen, a lump threatens to form in your throat. And at the end, when Kirk toasts "absent friends", yes, it was written to mean the crew that didn't make it out of the nebula, and Ambassador Spock, but it becomes Yelchin as well, even if he's standing right there. Kirk having to watch the Enterprise go down from his escape pod is another moment that fits this theme, and the overall melancholy of the film stems from it. But like the (somewhat unearned) ending of The Wrath of Khan, the heroes' travails are life-affirming. A depressed Kirk comes out of the experience energized, he refuses a promotion that would keep him off the bridge of a ship, friendships seem stronger, and a new Enterprise is built on fast-forward so we leave the theater on that forward momentum. The two previous films (and many action/sf movies besides) floundered in the third act, but it's where Beyond soars. I'll freely admit it took me a while to get into it due to the tone of the opening scenes, but by the end, I was excited, laughing and/or teary-eyed.
LESSON: The Beastie Boys will survive. As well they should.
REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High - A great return to Trek's original themes, rather more complex than it would first appear, with lots of fun, but also touching moments. The cinematography and the effects are a bit grimy at times, but that doesn't detract too much from one's enjoyment.