I watched Star Trek: Beyond this weekend, and I can say it is a pleasant, even entertaining diversion. It smartly ignores the two previous films (especially the dreadful Into Darkness), and is a solid film from top to bottom.
It is, however, almost completely unnecessary.
There’s not much new or different or challenging about the Star Trek universe. It’s a nice warm bath to sink into, a familiar setting that the audience expects little from, and that gives little in return. It’s comfort food, and perhaps that’s inevitable. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad (though Beyond is good). It just matters that it exists in a palatable form, a soothing cultural balm.
This doesn’t mean it’s bad. It simply means I question why it exists beyond that. Beyond is clearly made by people who have affection for the material. Co-writers Simon Pegg & Doug Jung aimed for everything that made the series charming with characters interacting in exciting, engaging ways. The whole thing is a checklist executed with grace and skill. There’s nothing to really pick apart here. Even the use of modern day music in the film works well enough. It’s a well-oiled machine, chugging along with perfect functionality. Yet I found myself disconnected with it for that very reason. I might have walked out with a pleasant, if slight, feeling of satisfaction without realizing why I wasn’t invested, too, if it wasn’t for one reason.
Her name is Jaylah, and she is the only thing in Beyond that grabbed my attention.
Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella) is a survivor. From the moment she steps onto the screen, she’s captivating. First, by virtue of being an unfamiliar element in something so utterly familiar. Second, by being a solid character played with a stoic joy. Walking out of Beyond, I realized the only thing that really stuck with me about the whole affair was Jaylah because Jaylah was the only thing in the whole film that I discovered.
She wasn’t a Vulcan or a Klingon or a human, so I couldn’t shorthand her character by relying on her species. Her backstory is simple. Her motivations are direct. But her intelligence, her spirit, her abilities, were all there to be revealed as the film went on. Every moment Jaylah is on screen was a joy. I realized how much I liked the Star Trek characters when they interacted with Jaylah because she brought a fresh dynamic to otherwise predictable conversations. I found myself far more invested in her fight with her father’s killer than with Kirk’s final showdown with the generic bad guy played by Idris Elba. It’s completely superfluous, a cheat. But when she screams with primal rage at her opponent and launches herself at him, damned if I didn’t feel her fury in a way that was missing from nearly every other scene. Even in the end, when all the characters are gathered around, it’s really only Jaylah who interested me.
Part of this is that Jaylah is just a lot of fun. Boutella instills her with a sharp, temperamental pragmatism. Part of this is simply that she’s the only original hero in the whole thing that accomplishes anything, the only non-standard issue character who participates meaningfully in the story. And part of this is that while the movie is competent, it is also very, very safe.
With the unfortunate and tragic death of Anton Yelchin and the necessary exit of Chekov as a result, I’d be pleased to see Jaylah become a new member of the crew. After my rather “meh” experience with Beyond, I find myself uninterested in any further Trek outings. But if Jaylah should show up again, I might just come back.
Star Trek: Beyond is a serviceable film. It’s enjoyable, functional. It gets the job done, but the idea that science fiction should become an exercise in comfort rather than exploration (especially this particular science fiction) does bother me. I can’t recommend it. I can’t not recommend it. I can say it does its job and not much more.
But, damn, I do hope to see more Jaylah in the future.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,