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Review: 'Star Trek Beyond' surprises with humor and action

Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin, left), Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Sulu (John Cho) take the USS Enterprise off on a rescue mission when a spaceship is stranded.
Published Jul. 22, 2016

After losing its captain to that other space jockey franchise, odds were stacked against Star Trek living and prospering much longer.

Turns out that J.J. Abrams left the franchise in fast, furious and sure hands, and there's still life in Star Trek Beyond.

Director Justin Lin supercharged the Fast & Furious franchise in the same 2009 summer when Abrams relaunched the USS Enterprise. Different high-speed action, same thrilling-to-the-brink-of-exhaustion results.

Lin siphons elements of his previous gig into this one. More precisely, he accentuates the existing "family" dynamic of Star Trek, leading to genuinely earned lumps in Trekker throats. Lin also brings a street cred edge; Beastie Boys and Public Enemy aren't the usual soundtrack for outer space battles. This is also a highly amusing adventure, thanks to co-star and fanboy Simon Pegg co-writing the screenplay, adding some cheeky Cornetto trilogy flavor.

That's obvious in the opening sequence, when Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) plays go-between for warring space tribes. He brings a peace offering that's rejected by tiny, trollish warriors who swarm, an absurd terror of which Edgar Wright would approve. Kirk is beamed to safety aboard the Enterprise, where everyone needs some R&R.

A brief leave at a metropolitan space station allows catch-up time. Kirk still grieves his father, and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are taking a break from each other. In a nicely understated touch, Sulu (John Cho) reunites with his husband and their daughter. Dr. Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) and engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Pegg) are their usual testy selves. The late Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets short shrift here, playing more importantly later. Yelchin, 27, died this year when his car rolled and pinned him in a freak accident.

An emergency mission arises, a spaceship stranded on the uncharted other side of a nebula. Kirk can't resist. The Enterprise sets off on a rescue mission turning into a surprisingly emotional action sequence. Not for any lives lost but a pop culture icon. As shown in trailers, the Enterprise is mortally wounded in a swarm of space locusts, and it's faintly like watching a friend die.

Escapees in solo escape pods are scattered on the surface of a jagged planet, smartly arranged by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung to explore these characters. An injured Spock is paired with Bones, allowing their verbal parry-and-thrusts. Kirk and Chekov search for missing crew members, and Scotty meets Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a fudge ripple-faced survivor of this movie's villain.

Uhura gets stuck with a reptilian despot named Krall (Idris Elba), whose motivation to destroy contains a hint of present day, as good sci-fi does. Krall needs one last piece of an ancient weapon for his scheme, and nobody's safe until he gets it. Then they'll be dead.

Nothing ingenious about that plot, but Star Trek is always more about characters than the hoops they're jumping through. Pegg co-writing the screenplay also has its downside: Too many crises ignite Scotty's rapid-fire ideas of how to solve them, and counterpoints by others he'll quickly shoot down.

It's also obvious that Lin and his SFX teams came up with two great visuals — the space station and Krall's "bees" — and thought combining them would make a killer third. Not really. Star Trek Beyond sags in climactic action, yet recovers with a finale saluting the past and, yes, promising a future. Live a little longer. Prosper.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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