Toward the end of Star Trek Beyond’s first act, the crew of the Enterprise docks at the colony Yorktown. It’s a spectacular place, straight out of M.C. Escher’s wildest imagination. Bridges of skyways and skylines twist and spin around each other in stationary orbit while ships pass through watery tunnels suspended in midair. As the crew approaches, one crank derisively refers to it as a “snow globe in space,” and he’s not far off. But by the time everyone disembarks for a brief and well-earned shore leave, they’re all smiles. Especially Sulu.
At this point, the Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission to explore the deepest edges of outer space. Under the command of Captain James Kirk, the crew is exhausted by the cramped monotony and longing for a respite. (In an example of the winking self-reflexivity that fuels these movies, Kirk complains in voiceover that the whole thing is beginning to feel “episodic.”) Helmsman Sulu keeps a wrinkled photograph of his daughter on his flight console; when they reconnect at Yorktown along with Sulu’s same-sex partner, Kirk nods in approval as this future-modern family embraces.
It’s a brief moment and over almost before it begins; the movie quickly cuts to check in with the rest of the disembarking crew. In the 23rd century, Sulu’s family is business as usual, but back here in the 21st, it’s cause for uproar. The Internet lost its collective shit when Sulu’s reconfigured sexuality was revealed last week, but I got to witness the madness in the flesh; at the theater, a few of the uninformed went nuts. A gaggle of teenage boys erupted. “What?” one of them gasped. “He’s gay?” They murmured heatedly among themselves as the movie proceeded without them, burping a few giggles when the reveal sunk in long enough for them to toss a few jokes at each other. (Thankfully, the movie’s blaring soundtrack muffled their punchlines.)
The rest of the crowd was packed with devotees—whole families, senior citizens, the entire spectrum—who noted the moment without protest. Since the series debuted in 1966, it’s been a haven for softly progressive gestures. And while recalibrating Sulu’s sexuality to mirror its original actor’s struck me as apolitical and, more directly, a deepening of this series’ self-reflexive, hall-of-mirrors construction, its function here is a marvel.
On the surface, it’s beside the point: it simply provides the character with someone to protect. But when the struggle for gay rights is still raw, denying its potency and making it a non-issue is problematic. And while Star Trek is and always has been a utopian fantasy—a projection of a post-issue future from an issue-filled present—the movie effortlessly forces the point. It subverts the traditional by building a conventional tent-pole out of non-traditional parts.
Either way, Star Trek Beyond is so propulsive, it leaves any objections in its dust. Beyond is more than the best movie this very-good reboot series has produced, it’s an urgent and breathtaking piece of blockbuster exhilaration: warp-speed entertainment.
Director Justin Lin, famous for his Fast and Furious movies, brings his muscle-car rev and crawls under the franchise’s hood. Beyond is the first movie in the reboot series to display genuine affection for the Enterprise and its peculiar design. Lin has a blast tinkering with framing the ship, splitting it into cross sections, and hitching his camera to it at odd angles. (That ingenuity comes through best in the 3D version, where the set seems to move through space and spaces as if it’s shooting out of a pop-up book.) Beyond’s trailers spoil the ship’s demise—it’s what sets the plot in motion—but even here, Lin does more deconstruction than destruction; he takes it apart and examines each piece like a kid monkeying with his Erector Set.
And once the movie gets up to speed, it doesn’t let off the gas. If J.J. Abrams set the blueprint with his assured, retro-pastiche aesthetic, Lin’s gearhead fixation gets the whole thing moving. (Abrams suggested a hot-rod Trek; Lin supercharges it.) The original series was widely mocked for implying action by shaking the cameras while the cast hurled themselves off balance. Here, entire sets tumble and roll like the rotating hotel room in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Corridors and hallways revolve like funhouse barrel rides, and Lin’s camera repeatedly finds itself in unexpected places. It’s infectious fun—the brittle octogenarian sitting next to me threw up her arms and cheered when the Beastie Boys kicked in on the soundtrack—and as a piece of blockbuster entertainment, Beyond fires on all cylinders.
But that momentum works against Simon Pegg’s characteristically savvy screenplay, a deeply Trek-ian look at the politics of nation-building. Beyond’s villain—whose identity and motivation are a fun if easily-solved mystery—is a war hawk who rebukes nation-building coalitions. He rails against space-globalism and rallies for a kind of hive-mind autonomy. It’s a movie that goes out of its way to work NWA’s “Fight the Power” into the 23rd century. And even though Beyond was written a few years ago, its politics are keenly prescient—the parallels to Brexit and Trump-ian authoritarianism are striking. But at Lin’s breakneck pace, there’s little time to focus and whole plot points pass in a blur.
It all careens to the most self-reflexive moment of this very self-reflexive series yet. Leonard Nimoy died last year, and Spock Prime (the time-traveler who knocked the past off course and set this series in motion) is dead too. (Beyond is dedicated to Nimoy’s and Anton Yelchin’s memories.) When Bones tries to comfort Zachary Quinto’s grieving Spock, he puts his hand on Quinto’s back and says, “I can’t imagine how you feel.” I can’t either: we’re through the scientific and metaphysical looking glasses here, where the line between actor and character, reality and fiction, is as murky as the Mutara Nebula.
But Beyond is such a breathless thrill that thinking about it too much might obscure the pyrotechnics straight ahead. And any movie that can move old ladies to headbang along to “Sabotage” is a ride worth taking. It’s a trip.
Star Trek Beyond. Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban. Opens in Kansas City July 22, 2016.