A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"There's no relative direction in the vastness of space," a Starfleet high mucky-muck tells Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in "Star Trek Beyond." "There's only you." She's asking him whether he wants to give up his captain's seat for a chance at a powerful desk job on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, a year younger than his father was when he died. Her language is meant to spur Kirk to look inward, and for a moment we might hope that he will, and that the film will look inward with him.
There's a precedent for this sort of thing. Where all of the TV incarnations of "Star Trek" were mainly about morality and philosophy, with characterization serving as a means of examining those dramatic values, most of the big-screen film versions, including the '80s and '90s versions of the flagship TV show, were mainly concerned with the heroes' personalities. The screenplays gave us detailed examinations of, say, the relationship between Kirk and his half-Vulcan first officer Mr. Spock, between Kirk and the United Federation of Planets, between Kirk and the Klingons who tormented his civilization and killed his only son, and between all the characters (Kirk especially) and the prospect of aging and death. It was more soap opera than space opera at times, but always fun to watch, sometimes moving.
What undermines "Star Trek Beyond" is that it's ultimately not interested in taking a long look at the "you" of Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), ship's doctor "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the rest of the NCC-1701 crew. Sure, it nods in that direction. Even the worst "Star Trek" stories do. But in the end it's mostly a good big-budget sci-fi action movie that's been marinated in "Star Trek" flavor packets—and thus not terribly different from the 2009 "Star Trek" reboot or its sequel, "Star Trek Into Darkness."
"Star Trek Beyond" pits the crew of the Enterprise against another bellowing megalomaniac (Idris Elba) who wants to punish the United Federation of Planets for its perceived sins. It's the best of the new "Trek" films, but it's still an unsatisfying effort if you want "Star Trek" to be something more than a military-minded outer space action flick, with familiar, beloved characters shoehorned into a standard mix of martial arts slugfests, close-quarters firefights, and scenes of starships and cities being shredded and burned. Advance publicity hyped "Star Trek Beyond" as a return to the original series' roots as a showcase for a bunch of eccentric personalities traveling the galaxy, ingeniously solving problems, and indulging in populist philosophizing about civilization and the frontier as they went along. But that's not what we get here—not really.