STAR TREK BEYOND | ★★★½

J.J. Abrams is out of the director's chair, but that popcorn-y flavor he so enthusiastically injects into all his films remains intact for this sci-fi sequel, leaving it to franchise newcomer Justin Lin to pepper the film with a fresh sense of fun. With four "Fast & Furious" films under his belt, Lin brings his A-game when it comes to rip-roaring action and speedy pacing, crafting some of the most impressive sequences in the rebooted series. The helmer is also tasked with fulfilling the promise made by the end of "Star Trek Into Darkness," in which the crew of the Enterprise begins its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. "Star Trek Beyond" does indeed deliver on that promise, reaching the optimistic spirit of the original TV series more closely than its predecessors. What's missing here, however, is the urgency and emotional wallop of Abrams' first two entries, resulting in a follow-up that's content to give audiences what they expect without really throwing them for a loop.

Captaining the USS Enterprise, now three years into its five-year voyage, has grown a bit monotonous for James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). Just when he begins to reconsider his duties aboard the vessel, Kirk and his crew are attacked by a swarm of alien ships, which severely cripples the Enterprise. The alien commander, Krall (Idris Elba), is after an ancient artifact hidden in the ship for unknown purposes. Left with no other option, Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) all become separated as they abandon ship, while Krall takes Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and the rest of the crew hostage. Stranded on an uncharted planet where Krall keeps his prisoners, including scavenger Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the crew struggles to find a way out of this new predicament.

Though it was a bit heavy on fan service, "Into Darkness" proved to be a rock-solid sequel that built upon the arcs of Kirk and Spock, challenging their duties to Starfleet, their relationships with various crew members and with each other. Nevertheless, Pegg, doubling as actor and screenwriter, is determined to reassure hardcore Trekkies that their complaints about the last film have not fallen on deaf ears. His script, which he co-wrote with Doug Jung, dishes out an even balance between new material and intertextual references to series past. Yet at the same time, Pegg and Jung seem to ignore nearly everything the characters went through in the previous film. Kirk and Spock, who were put through an emotional wringer last time, aren't given a lot of down time to develop, nor does the new adventure in "Beyond" pose any personal challenge to either of them.

Pine and Quinto are still secure in their respective roles, making the most out of how little they were given for their third round of star trekking. Quinto also has some great scenes with Urban, as Spock and Bones exchange enough sarcasm to fill an episode of the TV series. Elba, who has to project a whole lot from underneath many layers of makeup, does an admirable job as the underdeveloped Krall, whose villainous influence pales in comparison to Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan from "Into Darkness." Pegg beefs up his role as Scotty, even though his role here is more or less our entryway into meeting Jaylah, whom Boutella imbues with enough dramatic heft to match her swift physicality.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, since "Star Trek Beyond" offers little beyond what we've already seen and felt in the other films. It's less of a sequel and more of a celebration of its characters; an exciting exploration of how their distinct intellects and personalities come together to form one of the greatest teams in sci-fi history. One can only hope that the crew's next adventure will actually be worthy of its legendary prowess. Until then, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that Lin's film does well enough to satisfy all walks of life and works far better than most blockbusters tend to nowadays.

(7/10)