The Starship Enterprise is now three years into its five-year mission, and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is getting cabin fever. "Things are feeling a little episodic," he laments to Dr. "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) over a glass of purloined alien sherry as he reflects on how he's now one year older than the age at which his father, an esteemed Starfleet officer, was killed in action. It's all too heavy for this restless maverick, and so Kirk privately decides it's time to step away from the Enterprise and leave Spock (Zachary Quinto) to command the crew: Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and all of the other ensigns of Starfleet. He wants to have a talk with Spock right after the ship refreshes its provisions at the space station of Yorktown, but a distress call from an alien ship marooned on a hostile planet interrupts his plans.
The Enterprise must travel through a signal-jamming nebula to rescue that lost crew, and it's there that the vulnerable ship is attacked by a swarm of kamikaze drones that punch holes in its hull and send it plummeting to the planet below. The assault is the work of Krall (Idris Elba), a swollen-headed reptile in search of a weapon stashed onboard the Enterprise. Now, the crew must escape from his clutches with the help of native Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a white-haired alien whose facial markings suggest Darth Maul working a second career at Sephora.
Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin also helmed four of the seven (thus far) Fast and the Furious films, and this equally, needlessly frenetic picture could be retitled "Fast and Furious and Loud and Expensive." Siphoning out the fistfights and exploding spaceships from its two-hour running time would leave about 30 minutes of plot, a sign that this story is essentially an overcomplicated TV episode rather than a movie. The clumsy alien makeup looks more suited for the small screen anyway, and the CGI creatures seem strangely puffy, as if they were inflated like a water balloon. The performances are acceptable, with Zachary Quinto's subtle take on Spock well at the head of the pack, but all of the charismatic menace that Idris Elba demonstrated as the heavy in Beasts of No Nation has disappeared underneath makeup that makes his head look like a budding cactus. Why hire such a compelling actor for this role if all he's going to do is glower and sulk under latex?
When the original Star Trek TV series premiered in 1966, Hollywood was on the verge of collapsing under the weight of bloated, overbudgeted spectacles like Doctor Dolittle and Hello, Dolly! It took a younger generation of directors to cut through the grease and create American New Wave masterpieces like Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, because the studios couldn't imagine moviemaking being done any other way. Nowadays, U.S. cinema is in the second decade of an absurd glut of superhero flicks, space operas, and recycled -- excuse me, "rebooted" -- franchises, cranked out due to the fact that they consistently make money. Star Trek Beyond's exorbitant budget is being bankrolled in part by Chinese investors Alibaba Pictures and Huahua Film & Media Culture, and one can't help but wonder if the character development, social commentary, and philosophical discussions that made this series the subject of intense fandom were intentionally sacrificed so Kirk & co. would be more palatable to foreign audiences. Star Trek has typically been about the excitement of what's to come, but if this is the future of American movies, who needs it?