Wouldja look at that, hire some filmmakers who actually give a shit about Star Trek, and poof! you have yourself a perfectly solid Star Trek movie. It only took three tries - and getting J.J. Abrams hired away to direct a film in that other space franchise - but the neo-Trek prequel/reboot series that started in 2009 with the simply-titled Star Trek has finally turned out a movie that resembles the original TV series and its six theatrical sequels in more than just character names and costume design concepts. The film to get there is a certain Star Trek Beyond, which is notable as well for having the most godawful title in thirteen Star Trek features, and I really didn't think that after Star Trek Into Darkness there was even the abstract possibly of going any lower on that count.

Beyond kicks off in grand Star Trek movie fashion, by assuming we're all big ol' nerds who've seen the other films and have them pretty much memorised and require absolutely no spooling up. So Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in year three of his five-year mission leading the USS Enterprise, is bored out of his wits. The frontier of space exploration in the United Federation of Planets turns out to be mindlessly schlepping diplomats and negotiating treaties with flyspeck civilisations out in the deep reaches of the galaxy: the opening sequence dramatises this workaday existence in a goofy comic sequence that would run damn close to being obnoxious and trivially silly if it wasn't so utterly sweet at heart (being utterly sweet saves Beyond from a lot of sins that have felled a good many Star Trek pictures over the years). And may I salute screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung for opening their new movie with this gambit: by directly marching up to the fifty-year-old Star Trek formula of exploring new worlds and having the swashbuckling main character complain that it's boring. The remainder of the film, of course, finds Kirk being rejuvenated, and if it's too much to hope that Star Trek itself can ever feel like something truly fresh and new in this year of our Lord 2016, Beyond does its very damnedest to at least be fun enough that it manages to be exciting itself.

Fun. Yes, that's the word. Beyond is fun - it is, in fact, maybe the most fun that any of the 13 Star Trek movies have ever been. The emerging critical consensus is very much that this feels like an oversize episode of a television show, which isn't entirely fair on the details - it is very consequential and involves life-altering decisions and events - but gets at least one thing exactly right: the appeal of the movie is exactly the appeal of hanging out with the main characters and watching them do their thing. I'm not sure the film gets to this point entirely honestly: these specific incarnations of the characters, played by these specific actors, haven't been around for long enough to earn that kind of "you know us and love us! Enjoy romping through a summertime adventure with us!" goodwill, particularly since the previous films have generally done as Star Trek movies do, and focus on Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) to the general exclusion of the rest of the characters.

This, then, is what makes Penn & Jung's script so important: they have put real effort into giving most of the cast some chance to stand out. Is it cheating that they're drawing so much on the personalities from a canonised TV classic to flesh out these characters? Yes, probably, and not everybody in the cast thrives on it: after two films of being generally terrific and maybe my favorite ensemble member both times around, I found Karl Urban to have weirdly lost his grip on Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, who now feels like an embarrassed attempt to poorly ape DeForest Kelley's prickly Southern asshole with a lot of mugging and playing to the cheap seats. Though when the plot starts carving out smaller chunks from the main narrative, and puts Urban and Quinto alone together, Urban does manage to find something of his own version of the character once more, at least temporarily.

Anyway, that's what really marks out Beyond as a tiny little genius bit of writing: not the plot, which is such boilerplate that I'd fall into a boredom coma if I had to reacap it (latex-headed despot wants to destroy the Federation using an unimaginable superweapon, and the only reason it's not as lifeless as the conflict in the 2009 Star Trek is that Idris Elba plays the bad guy, and even under thick makeup and with nothing to do until the last ten minutes, Elba is the absolute tops). It's the way the plot breaks the cast into neatly-defined parcels that allow most of the characters to shine: Spock & McCoy, Kirk and nervous young Pavel Chekhov (Anton Yelchin, to whose memory the film is dedicated), Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Pegg himself) and mysterious white-faced alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, a great old-school Trek addition, with her erratic behavior always managing to feel convincingly alien without getting in the way of enjoying her presence), and Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho). Not since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has any Star Trek movie of any generation put in such an earnest effort to give each member of the cast a meaningful contribution to the plot, and it doesn't actually work: the Uhura/Sulu leg of the story is absolutely given short shrift, with Sulu barely even registering for the first three-quarters of the movie (the ballyhooed "he's gay now" scene barely even causes a flicker, and would practically count as subtext if one doesn't go looking for it), and Uhura coming across as a generic "strong female character = can punch things" figure, though at least it's better than "Spock's nagging girlfriend", like she was in the last two movies.

But anyway, the movie is positively rotten with its love and affection for these characters, giving them plenty of characteristic moments even if half of them don't actually have characteristics, and throwing a great many good-natured quips and corny jokes at the audience. It's unbelievably pleasant, and it's handled with a great deal of energy by director Justin Lin, taking a break from Fast & Furious movies to bring just enough contemporary flash and dazzle (not to mention over-editing, the one acute flaw in the movie; when you have sci-fi action choreography as natty as the second-act climax of Beyond, you should really let it take places in long enough, continuous enough chunks that we can appreciate it) to let the film work as a 2016 tentpole filled to the brim with the series' now-familiar top-notch CGI, but not to go overboard, as Abrams did, in making it feel like he secretly wants it to be something else. This is altogether Star Trek: most of the action takes place surrounded by coastal forest and rocks that look moderately artificial, the aliens are all obvious masks on normal human bodies, and any technical problem can be solved by throwing five-syllable words at it. And the people making it adore it for that: it is an astonishingly sincere movie, with not one detectable spot of cynicism even in the most theoretically-dire moments, like when the Beastie Boys are used to blow up alien spaceships. This in a movie released in 2016 and set in 2263, no less.

Not everything plays well: the film is addicted to shots where the camera rotates from side to side like we're on a boat in a storm, and the finale includes yet another aerial battle through a sterile urban environment where windows blow out of CGI buildings. And by God, it's trivial: if it captures the original series' love for its characters, born from a deeply optimistic belief in humankind's ability to figure it out and do right even in the face of overwhelming odds, its appeals to the original's sometimes ludicrous, always heartfelt humanist philosophy are so vaguely "be nice to each other" as to feel like they were taken without alteration from a kindergarten teacher. But the Star Trek movies were never really great cinema, and most of them were nowhere near this confidently entertaining and convinced that a good attitude and non-stop swashbuckling was enough to put over a fluffy summertime diversion. It's not a popcorn movie for the ages, but it's certainly facing in that direction.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)