I finally got around to watching it again and this time I think I can put my finger on why this passable installment that had quite favorable reviews (in a summer movie schedule otherwise rife with disappointing duds) still somehow managed to be... only okay?
It let spectacle and plot overwhelm the themes and characters. And this can kill your story too and leave it merely okay when it otherwise had the potential to be resonant.
Anyway. Star Trek Beyond lacks both.
There are hints of it, sure, possibly left over from a more balanced script from before action director Justin Lin took over the project and reduced the meaningful character moments to save running time for his violent special-effects-ridden set-pieces. For example, there is the conversation on Kirk's birthday with Bones about feeling adrift after several years in deep space. Then Spock experiences a similar existential moment when he realizes his future/alternate reality self (Leonard Nimoy) has passed away. Both question whether they are cut out for Starfleet and consider other options. The theme is meant to be reflected in Krall, the villain, who turns out to be a human Starfleet (pre-Federation) officer who went too far out into deep space for too long and literally lost his humanity. He represents what Kirk and Spock fear. In Kirk's case, it is metaphorical, as he must chose to stop living in his father's shadow and become his own man and define his own purpose. In Spock's case, it is questioning his relevance when something like rebuilding the Vulcan race seems more pressing. In Krall's case, it is both. He failed to find a clear purpose in the new, peaceful Starfleet, and he became a monster after literally losing his identity in deep space. By the end of the film, he honestly seems to struggle to recall his original life. As far as themes go, this is actually well tied into the crux of the plot, at least in theory. The theme is then concluded when Kirk and Spock defeat Krall and metaphorically defeat the detached uselessness they felt. They have fulfilled their purpose as only they could, and saved the day. They are in fact living the right life for them, and should continue. Despite a few emotional ups and downs, they may actually enjoy it a little, too. "Where's the fun in that?" Kirk now scoffs at his previous idea to leave the Enterprise. Spock likewise rekindles his relationship with Uhura.
All this sounds pretty good, actually, when I sum it up.
The problem is that only a few minutes out of the entire two hours are devoted to any of this. Most of the film is actually about plot points: Only the Enterprise can navigate the nebula. The Enterprise is attacked and destroyed. A MacGuffin must be hidden. The crew must abandon ship. The main characters must reconnect and rescue the crew. Now they need to fly the old ship off the planet. Now they need to stop Krall from taking his war to the Federation. Now they need to defeat his swarm. Now they need to punch Krall in zero gravity.
It's all quite visceral and visually stimulating and the plot rattles off at a rather quick clip. Stunts both on the ground and in space are well orchestrated and when that Beastie Boys song blasts at full volume at the end, you can't not smile just as Kirk does and agree, "That's a good choice."
But none of it matters. Where the movie fails is in connecting it's well envisioned theme with literally any of the choices the crew actually make throughout the plot. At no point is Krall on the verge of victory because Kirk and Spock were about to hang up the towel. At no point was someone's life in jeopardy because of Uhura's temporary break-up with Spock. At no point did Kirk have to choose to be his own man and escape the shadow of his father and embrace the wild unknown of deep space in order to defeat the villain's scheme. At no point did we see him do the opposite and immediately regret it. At no point did he stop in the middle of all the chaos and say to himself, "I forgot how fun this can be, what was I thinking?" (if anything, he seems exasperated; after a last-second save by Scotty's teleporter, he says, "Let's never do that again.").
For a theme to be strong, it must be reflected in the character's choices throughout the story, right up until at least one ultimate Dramatic Choice near the end, which resolves the plot. In Fight Club, for example, the narrator (often called Jack) played by Edward Norton is the passive product of society that has mass-produced him for vapid consumerism. Tyler Durden is the dark-side consequence of turning off his identity, his unrestrained "id"if you will. When he shoots himself at the end of the film, he finally asserts control over his id, actively asserting his identity over society. Every choice he makes along the way represents either his passivity, his id taking control, or his vain, half-hearted attempts to get it back. And the plot rises and falls according to these various degrees of assertion, until he finally succeeds. Every scene, every plot point, hangs on the character driven choices that reflect that theme, even if you don't realize it until after the fact. (For the record, I understand there are many more themes than this in a film as complicated and layered as Fight Club). In Pulp Fiction (another example with too many layers to cover briefly) the key theme is actually grace. The characters not only bicker about how forgiveness is supposed to work and openly discuss what it means to give or withhold mercy, they constantly make decisions based on how they think it should work. Check out the name on Bruce Willis' motorcycle, near the middle of the film; he goes out of his way to park it in front of the camera so we can read it, and the camera refuses to cut away even when the actors have moved out of view.
All this to say: Star Trek Beyond lets it's spectacle outshine its themes so that as fun as it might all be, it's meaningless. It fails to resonate. Which is too bad, because the theme they attempt to include is actually a pretty good one. It would've made for the kind of Star Trek I grew up on. Maybe they added it in reshoots when they realized the film wasn't about anything and test-audiences were apathetic (it's confined to so few scenes, so it would've been an easy add-in). Or, as I surmised earlier, perhaps it was the director sticking to what he was more comfortable with, action and spectacle, and downplaying the "boring" character stuff. Either way, it smothered the fire of an otherwise fun film, and it can do the same to your story too.
Ya know, if you're a writer. And if you are a writer, you need to ask yourself what your theme might actually be. At least what do you want it to be (if you don't have an answer, that's a problem for a different post). But if you do have an answer (or two or more), then ask yourself, how is that reflected in the choices the characters make? Do you know what choices the characters are making? If they don't make any, well, that's also another problem. But if they do, those dramatic choices should echo the theme. Is your theme undying love? Then someone should either make (or fail to make) a sacrifice for someone else out of love. Is it revenge? Then someone should have to make a tough choice to hurt someone innocent or not in order to catch their prey. Is it greed? Is it pride? Is it fear? Then they not only need to exemplify these qualities, they need to make a difficult dramatic choice to engage in or avoid this behavior, and in so doing, the plot responds accordingly. Their greed leaves their family destitute and that's why they get in with a dangerous loan shark. Their pride puts them in vulnerable situations where they get hurt and aren't able to make it to the important meeting, costing them their job and social status. Their fear causes them to hide when intruders break in and a loved one gets mortally wounded. If this leaves no room for a car chase, well, too bad, maybe one wasn't warranted. If that fails to result in a shootout, well, maybe the absence of a shootout will read more authentically. On the other hand, if you play your cards right, it may not only give you the action you were hoping for, it will be naturally rife with tension and drama along the way. Check out Breaking Bad, for example, where the show is not about the action, violence or car chases, but when one occurs, holy cow! You can feel it. There are limitless ways to play this game and infinite solutions and you should let genre conventions decide for you. Don't insert a laser gun because you're writing sci-fi, let your characters decide for you, and write those characters so that their choices speak to something. Anything. Any theme that you care about, because if you care, the audience will care, and whatever laser or phaser or blaster fire we get as a result, is just details.
Just don't do what Star Trek Beyond did (and really, many cheap action films and flat novels) and get so enamored with action and spectacle and plot that you forget what any of it was about.