I’ve never particularly felt the need to take a stand on the undeclared battle for geekdom passion supremacy between Star Trek and Star Wars. Maybe that’s because, barring a couple exceptions, neither cosmos-spanning saga has enthralled me the way they have the hardiest devotees. Maybe it’s simply because Star Wars is so clearly the victor in the prevailing culture that weighing in feels like picking sides in a boxing match that’s already rung the final bell. And yet, as I watched Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth feature to bear a version of the name and third since J.J. Abrams delivered a hard reboot to the film series, I started to come around to a notion: Star Trek suits me better.
Now, there are a swarm of caveats that go along with that, led by the fundamental concept that the theory only holds when the material is good. (By no means am I prepared to celebrate the completely unwatchable Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) In noting embedded researcher biases, I should also concede that Abrams’s colossal hit revival of the Star Wars franchise only grows more fetidly uninspiring as it lingers in my memory. BB-8 is nudging me toward the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Even so, Star Trek Beyond makes an argument — probably inadvertently, but clearly and compellingly — that the basic storytelling building blocks of Gene Roddenberry’s enduring creation are simultaneously sturdier and more pliable. Both franchises are reliant upon archetypes and well-worn narrative paths, but Trek is politically astute where Wars is bogged down by pious myth-making. The allegorical treatise laid out by Star Trek Beyond is so of the moment it could have screened at the recently completed Democratic National Convention.
Beyond is about unity, the value of humanity bonded together in a singular cause. It follows a familiar Trek template in its plotting: a distress signal, a rescue mission, a surprise attack, a snarling villain with a heavily ridged forehead, and crewman walking among the craggy rocks of a distant planet. As opposed to the misguided Star Trek Into Darkness, which tried to impress with pushily clever twists of known material, Beyond seems content to be a strong, oversize episode, an extension of a sly acknowledgment of the “episodic” nature of exploring the final frontier deployed early in the screenplay, co-credited to Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (the latter, of course, also handles the role of Montgomery Scott). If the story sometimes comes across as stretched too thin to handle the longer running time, the extra square footage also allows for welcome time to focus on the characters, led by the perfectly constructed and well acted triumvirate of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban, who presses comic diamonds out of the dark coal of McCoy’s perpetual agitation).
Despite his fast and furious reputation, I think director Justin Lin leaves many of the more action-driven sequences in a muddled state. He adapts to the challenge of balancing story planks and giving time to each character in the bustling cast, including fine new addition Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a self-taught, headstrong alien enlisted in the cause. Much as he might want to dazzle with kinetic set pieces, Lin is strongest when he’s most workmanlike, carrying the film forward with solid determination. There lies another reason Trek endures, even, yes, prospers after all this time. No matter how far it soars into the stars, it has a winning ability to remain resolutely down to earth.