The Star Trek reboot series, shepherded by J.J. Abrams, so far posits a universe in continual existential crisis with itself. Characters hem and haw over their place in the universe and their destiny. They seek answers from an older source. Star Trek had a Kirk and Spock so thoroughly upended by the time-travel machinations of Eric Bana’s Nero, their mutual, retconned neuroses made them bitter, almost homicidal rivals; it took the intervention of Leonard Nimoy to put them on the path to uneasy pals. Into Darkness mired things further, events causing Wrath of Khan-level calamity at a time when the Enterprise crew weren’t matured enough to handle it, prompting Spock to phone up his older self for spoilers. Similarly, Star Trek Beyond begins in a place of navel-gazing uncertainty: Kirk (Chris Pine) celebrates the birthday marking him outliving his father by drinking alone with contraband liquor, pondering his Federation career (another invocation of Wrath of Khan); Spock (Zachary Quinto) reacts to the news of Spock-Prime’s (Nimoy) death by maneuvering to cut all ties with his crew mates and serve his fellow Vulcans. Neither has the heart to tell the other of their abandonment. Explicitly, they are lost without some manner of role model to latch onto or strive for, and need to find advancement, in career and life, without that guidance.
Cue a rescue mission on the wrong side of frontier space, which turns out to be an ambush. The Enterprise crew crash, get separated and hunted down by the warlord Krall (Idris Elba), on an outlaw planet littered with other marooned ships and abandoned remnants of earlier civilizations. Justin Lin, co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung cherish this opportunity to split up the crew: Kirk and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) get mired in treachery and pew-pew shootouts; Scottie (Pegg) finds kinship with Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), another victim of Krall’s bushwacking who has repurposed a derelict Federation ship as her house (and taken a liking to 80s/early 90s hip-hop); Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) crash the hardest, shrapnel lodging in the former’s abdomen with enemy forces closing in fast (their banter, the other half of a subplot where Bones becomes confidante and unlikely go-between for the inexpressive Kirk and Spock, is the film’s biggest joy). In between whiz-bang setpieces, frequently involving the crew navigating zero-gravity or broken, tumbling architecture (Lin and his effects crew visualizing the turmoil of his leads), even Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) get some hero moments, where previously they were background filler. This inclusive approach is also a humorous reminder the Fast and Furious films (which Lin shaped across four movies into its own Avengers-style franchise) have more in common with that fuzzy ideal of “classic Trek” than nerds will ever care to admit.
Lost in all this shuffle, however, is what could/should have been Beyond‘s most intriguing character: the villain. Krall–armed with a whirring, clicking Giger suit (which allows him to vampirize other lifeforms, making him impossibly old) and commanding Guyver drones which pilot attack pods that swarm over their targets like bees–is all coiled, purposeful menace, hunched over and ready to pounce. A suggestive animosity towards the Federation and its soft imperialism aligns him closely with Isaac Hayes’ Duke in Escape From New York. Like the Duke, Krall has taken life outside the edge of civilization as an opportunity to carve out an anti-empire built on pure force. Pegg and Jung position him as exactly the opposite the aimless, emotionally wounded Kirk and Spock need. Unfortunately, he and the planet he lords over are given little room, hints at a hierarchy between his loyal followers and feral remnants of other crews he’s shipwrecked appear and are never mentioned again. Krall’s then subsumed in a twist designed to make him a more direct foil to Kirk, but cheapens the character, contorting him into yet another demagogue like Peter Weller’s second baddie from Into Darkness. This third act maneuver, in spite of Krall’s marginalized position in the film, unbalances Beyond, leaving Kirk and Spock’s uncertainty hanging as they fall back on status quo.