STAR TREK BEYOND (Lin, 2016); or, How to Write the First Act of a Blockbuster

Star Trek Beyond is first-rate. If the first installment laid a solid foundation, and Into Darkness made the foundation look a little wobbly, Beyond builds atop it a pretty sturdy form. An instance of the structure above ground stabilizing much of what’s below.

You know from the opening act that you’re in for a far better movie than the last. The first 30 minutes offer some of the tightest screenwriting I’ve seen this summer. The mercifully short opening sequence is what we’ve come to expect from the reboot—adolescent tomfoolery. Still, there’s an important plant: a mysterious ancient artifact stored aboard the Enterprise.

Happily, the silliness subsides when a reflective Kirk confesses in a voice-over that the first three-and-a-half of their five year mission has left him worn out by the routine, feeling aimless. There are echoes of Captain Pike from “The Cage” (1965/1988) here—a captain in need of a reprieve.

Fig. 1. Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) in “The Cage” (1965/1988).

We’re swept to the Yorktown, a starbase like nothing you’ve ever seen. One of the elements lacking in the first two movies was world-building, and in a few minutes of screen time, with a delightful roaming camera, Beyond begins to make up for it. This is a whole new vision of the federation, of its sheer size and reach. As the camera flies through the open expanses of the starbase, like a virtual rollercoaster ride, the child in me came alive—this is one of things that drew to Star Trek in the first place: exotic worlds in space.

Character building, now. Kirk, rudderless in his current position, has applied to leave the Enterprise for a vice admiralcy aboard the Yorktown. He wants Spock to replace him. Spock, for his part, hears of Ambassador Spock’s death. The news rattles him. He’s come to a decision, and wants to tell Kirk. What is it?

Fig.2. The Enterprise under attack by Krall’s swarm.

The Enterprise and her crew—there are hints that this may be their last mission together—are called to a nebula and an isolated planet beyond it to help an alien captain rescue her crew. Near the end of the first act, something unforeseen occurs (Kirk had been doing his job by-the-numbers, neglecting the details): an alien force whose ships swarm like bees attack the Entreprise. A cracking action-set piece ensues. The Enterprise nacelles are chewed off. The villain, Krall, a Jem’hadar-like brute, boards. He wants that little artifact. Why?

The Enterprise crash-lands on the planet, all of its crew scattered to the winds.

All of this, as I say, takes place in the first half-hour: themes, questions, anticipation, a scintillating action sequence, and characterization.

The rest has much to recommend it, too. The villain turns out to be rather compelling—there’s something smart to the actor’s performance (at that point, I couldn’t quite place who it was). By the end of the movie, we learn that a Kirk foil—another Federation captain, of the long-lost USS Franklin–had lost his way when stranded on the planet over a hundred years ago. (Fan service: events surrounding the disappearance of the ship predate the events on the TV series Enterprise (2001-2005). The Franklin was the first ship to reach warp 4). Somehow, he had found a way to cheat death. But the trade-off is that he, Krall, was no longer human.

(Don’t look up who plays Krall, incidentally. The revelation—if you never sort it out—enriches the experience.)

Fig. 3. Jaylah (Sofia Boutella).

Equally compelling is the female character Jaylah, played by the Algerian actress Sofia Boutella. Also stranded on the planet, she has depth, warmth, and charm. Scarred by her life under Krall’s thumb, her father having been murdered by one of Krall’s goons, she’s reluctant to help Kirk and crew. Once she does, she sets out to even the score and is source of some of the best fight scenes in the movie. She also has a passion for Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys—tunes (“beats and shouting,” as she calls them, in her broken English) she’d downloaded from the Franklin database.

The best comes at the end of the third and on into the superb final act. The first act had set things in motion. Krall leads his swarm of ships on an attack of the Yorktown. The artifact turned out to be the final piece in an ancient biological weapon of mass destruction. The crew of the Franklin, now—Kirk, Scottie, Bones and the rest rescued the rusty old ship—take out Krall’s swirling fleet. The Beastie Boys are deadly, you know. And here’s when some of the films best visual effects come out. In a gorgeous extreme long shot, the Franklin is shown on the far left of the frame dwarfed by a massing cloud of oncoming bee-like ships on the right. Later, the cloud forms into a coiling wave and the Franklin surfs the inside of it, leaving a trail of exploding little ships in its wake.

The film comes to a close with a touching moment when Spock opens a box with the remaining effects of Ambassador Spock. He finds a photo of old Spock aboard the Enterprise—in his timeline. With Shatner’s Kirk, Kelley as Bones, Nichols as Uhura, and so on. This Spock, who had been contemplating leaving Star Fleet to continue Ambassador Spock’s work on New Vulcan, decides to remain aboard the Entreprise.

So does Kirk. Turning down the position of admiral as Shatner’s Kirk had not—admirals don’t fly places, to which this Kirk replies, “What fun is that?”—the new Kirk sets off on his own path.

Beyond—with its taut script and effective balance of theme, character, world-building, and adventure—shows that this somewhat shaky franchise still has something to give.