Monday, January 16, 2017

Beyond The Hype: Star Trek Beyond Actually Sucks. (2017 Review This Again Review!)

The Good: Most of the performances are good, Amazing sets and make-up
The Bad: Very basic, formulaic plot, Visual aspects that make little rational sense, Character arcs that are frequently nonsense, Huge continuity and scientific problems
The Basics: Despite my first impression, it does not take long before the viewer recognizes that Star Trek Beyond is mostly just a mess.

[There is a big meme in the art community going around now called "Draw This Again." In the meme, artists illustrate how they have grown in their chosen medium by putting side-by-side pictures of art they created in the past and now. My wife had the great idea that I should do something similar with my reviewing. So, for 2017, I will be posting occasional "Review This Again" reviews, where I revisit subjects I had previously reviewed and review them again, through a lens of increased age, more experience, and - for some - greater familiarity with the subject. In the case of Star Trek Beyond, I ended up seeing the film only once, on the big screen, and reviewed it based upon that. Rewatching the film, my perceptions changed fairly drastically and because I do not alter old reviews, I figured this was an excellent subject for a Review This Again review. The film was originally reviewed here and I opted to not revisit that review before reviewing it again.]

2016 was a very busy year for me and I spent quite a bit of the year, sadly, neglecting Star Trek. The significance of that was that 2016 was the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek and I became a fan of the show and franchise right around the time of the 25th Anniversary. My love of Star Trek has been a lifelong love and during the 50th Anniversary, the only real things I did to celebrate or acknowledge the anniversary was rewatch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!) and watch Star Trek Beyond once in the theater. So, when my mother bought me the Blu-Ray of Star Trek Beyond for my birthday, I was actually super-excited to watch the film again.

Last week when I watched Star Trek Beyond for the second time, on the small screen, divorced from the hype, I felt physically sick.

When I watched Star Trek Beyond the first time and reviewed it, I wrote a review arguing that - despite its faults - Star Trek Beyond was not the worst piece of science fiction crap ever. Now on my third viewing, having watched all of the bonus features to try to get a different perspective on it, I am not so sure.

Star Trek Beyond is a mess. Watching it one the small screen, without any thought about what the film was supposed to be, uninfluenced by hype or preview trailers, the faults and issues within the film become surprisingly glaring. From pretty severe editing problems within the film to philosophical problems with Star Trek Beyond that come out when one watches the bonus features, Star Trek Beyond is unfortunately sloppy . . . even if it is often visually incredible.

It is tough to discuss Star Trek Beyond as an abstract and without some potential spoilers for those who have not seen the film. Ironically, for a tribute to Star Trek, the idea of Star Trek Beyond is most explicitly based upon events of Star Trek Enterprise (reviewed here!), which was the least-Trek spin-off in the franchise - executive producer Brannon Braga explicitly stated that he wanted to get a new audience for the show and was not worrying about things like continuity in his creation. Rather hilariously, one of the issues a lot of people had with Sulu being revealed as gay in Star Trek Beyond is far less of an issue when one looks at the franchise objectively - when Sulu is revealed to have a daughter in Star Trek: Generations, there is no reference to the family Sulu had that generated that daughter; there is no real conflict!

But, there are huge issues in Star Trek Beyond, both in basic story-telling and in the presentation of the film.

Opening with Captain Kirk trying to deliver a gift to an alien race, from the Fibonan culture, he is met with resistance from the leaders of the planet he is on. Attacked by the Teenaxi, Kirk returns to the Enterprise with the artifact (which was an ancient weapon), where he feels disillusioned with the exploratory mission the Enterprise is on. The Enterprise arrives at the Yorktown base where Spock, now broken up with Uhura, learns of the death of Spock Prime. Shortly thereafter, an alien escape pod carrying Kalara arrives and tells the StarFleet officers that she needs help; that her ship crashed on a planet within a nearby nebula. The Enterprise journeys to Altamid, where Kalara's ship supposedly has crashed. As the Enterprise approaches Altamid, the Enterprise is destroyed and its crew separated (most captured) by alien forces as they try to escape the ship.

On Altamid, Uhura finds herself in the custody of Krall, the alien who attacked the Enterprise, searching for the artifact Kirk tried to give to the Teenaxi. McCoy and Spock crash together and Spock is seriously wounded, impaled by a piece of metal from the escape pod. Scotty finds himself in the company of Jaylah, a young woman whose crew and family suffered the same fate as the Enterprise, but has survived in the wreckage of an old Federation ship. While Scotty and Jaylah repair the ship and try to find a way to rescue others from the Enterprise, Kirk and Chekov hike with Kalara to the ruins of the Enterprise's saucer section. There, Kalara reveals herself to be working for Krall and betrays Kirk while she tries to get the artifact for Krall. As the main bridge crew finds one another - or is rescued by Scotty - they find a way off Altamid, but Krall also finds the artifact he is searching for. Armed with a powerful weapon, Krall sets his sights on the Yorktown, which leads Kirk into a fight with him.

Star Trek Beyond is riddled with problematic contradictions, not the least of which is in the visual scope of the film. It is, admittedly, tough to do new things within the Star Trek franchise. Newbies might be thrilled by the visual aspect of Star Trek Beyond in the swarm drones that erupt onto the screen early in the film; fans of the Star Trek franchise will recognize it as a minor permutation of the adversaries from the Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Swarm" (reviewed here!). But beyond that, there is the huge question of should a film like Star Trek Beyond try to do something that is so visually spectacular as it does.

The films in the rebooted Star Trek universe happen at an earlier time than the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew in the prime Star Trek universe. So, while the argument can be made that just because viewers did not see something like the Yorktown Base in Star Trek does not mean it did not exist (i.e. the Enterprise just went in a different direction in the original?), it is harder to make that argument about the alien races. There is a fairly small sphere of influence the Federation has in the 23rd Century of Star Trek, so the idea that Star Trek Beyond purposely features 50 new, different, background aliens is somewhat ridiculous. In the rebooted universe, there would be no practical reason why the Federation would have encountered so many vastly different alien races, as opposed to have places like Yorktown Base populated by Andorians, Tellarites, and even perhaps Caitians. Star Trek Beyond opts for scale over sensibility.

Even Yorktown has some oddly un-Trek issues with its generation. McCoy asks why the Federation did not make a planet-based facility and the given answer is that it could lead to political tensions. Wouldn't a vastly more-Trek response to political tensions be working through those tensions and illustrate that they did not break the alliance (i.e. that the Federation is not so fragile as to be unable to survive any single philosophical debate) than to use the massive amount of resources needed to make a moon-sized space base? Star Trek Beyond is packed with details like that that fall apart with even the most minimal tugging of the thread. And how the hell would StarFleet build such a massive base near such a large unexplored area?! Seriously, in the time it took to build the Yorktown, there weren't ships that bothered to explore the "nebula" nearby.

And really, guys, do you know what the hell the difference is between a nebula and an asteroid field?! Nebulas are made primarily of gas; asteroid fields are giant rocks. like what is shown in Star Trek Beyond. That's not nitpicking, that is basic science.

Films in the Star Trek movie series have, unfortunately, developed into a painfully repetitive series of "kill the villain" type plots and rather than buck that trend and return to something more philosophical, Star Trek Beyond tries to repackage the same, stale plot with bigger explosions, louder music and more movement. But, at the core of every "kill the villain" flick, there has to be a compelling adversary. Every Star Trek film that has used the "kill the villain" plot conceit has desperately tried to make an adversary who matches the villainy of Khan. So, what happens when you used Khan in the last film? You come up with villains like Kruge (who actually kills people as an example instead of just talking about it, as Khan does!) and Krall.

Krall is a mess who embodies many of the problems of Star Trek Beyond. Star Trek Beyond, at its core, uses style over substance - hoping the viewer will not think too much about what they are seeing. Krall is an adversary who has one of the most forced hatreds for the Federation of any villain to appear in the Star Trek canon. Krall (why did he change his name?!) is essentially a space vampire (how did he become that?!) whose physique morphs as he absorbs the DNA of alien races he encounters. So, as he absorbs more of the Enterprise crew, he becomes more and more human in appearance. That's a fine-enough idea, though it is technically ill-defined within Star Trek Beyond (visually it is clearly and cleverly rendered through make-up effects).

But conceptually, Krall is a huge problem. Krall was originally human and he found himself well outside Federation space. Regardless of the whole military backstory conceit inserted into Star Trek Beyond, the person Krall was would have known that he was well outside of Federation space and resue was unlikely . . . especially if his ship came through the same "nebula" as the Enterprise. Krall does not behave like a military officer in that he rails against the Federation for not rescuing him and his crew - even though he would have known the Federation and StarFleet did not have the resources to do so. But here's the thing, if Krall becoming less human made him forget the technical knowledge he had about the Federation, why would he bear it such ill-will? In other words, the only reason for Krall to be so angry is that he is trapped upon an alien world; if he becomes more alien and stops feeling human or attached to the Federation, why wouldn't he simply accept that he is king of his new world and rule it as such? If the physical changes for Krall did not result in mental changes, he should know that rescue was not coming from the Federation and work to survive on the planet with his crew, knowing there was no future off-planet for him . . . in short, the most reasonable character-based evolutions for Krall all have him accepting his life on Altamid instead of wanting to get revenge upon the Federation.

Then there is the swarm Krall controls, which is one of the most problematic character-based problems in Star Trek Beyond. Krall explicitly states that the Federation's weakness is its interdependence; he advocates a philosophy of growth through conflict. Okay, some people believe such things. People who believe that interdependence is a liability do not, traditionally (or rationally) use a drone army that operates on a hive mind. The swarm in Star Trek Beyond operates using a network that is entirely interconnected, which results in Spock and McCoy having to deactivate the alien fleet by disabling the drones. Krall decries working together . . . with a fleet that entirely works together. Krall implicitly proves his point that there is only growth through conflict by utilizing tools that operate entirely symbiotically (without conflict) and he stagnates in his anger for a hundred years?!

Come to think of it, Krall has a massive swarm of ships that he is easily able to use to leave the nebula and get (at least) as far as Yorktown base. Why the hell did Krall wait for the base to be done to mount an attack on it? Krall has spent lifetimes searching for the artifact that Kirk was given . . . he searched . . . where, exactly? If he hated the Federation so very much, he could have inflicted plenty of damage upon it with his swarm drone army without the specific weapon he was searching for . . .

So, Krall, despite his ultimately well-defined backstory, is a villain who succumbs to the generic conceits of being an adversary as opposed to being a sensibly-defined individual. Manas is an incredibly generic lackey character who acts as Krall's right hand without any real character of his own.

Star Trek Beyond descends into a big motorcycle sequence and highlighting playing the Beastie Boys loudly which is much more the genre for The Fast And The Furious than a tribute to the cerebral nature of Star Trek.

As for the essential characters, Star Trek Beyond has weird issues that are amplified by the bonus features. In talking about the destruction of the Enterprise, Chris Pine mentions in one of the featurettes how being a starship Captain is the most important aspect of Captain Kirk's life at this point. Hearing him say that, my first reaction was "did you actually read the script?!" My reaction comes from the fact that Captain Kirk is looking for a new job at the outset of Star Trek Beyond. Bored with space exploration, Kirk has applied to be the Vice Admiral of the Yorktown Base - if being a Captain was so important to him, why is he looking to be promoted out of the position?! But herein lays the problem; the big emotional moment viewers are supposed to see is in Kirk's reaction shot to seeing the crashing saucer section. Chris Pine's reaction is surprisingly flat, which actually plays to the idea that Kirk does not care about the Enterprise the way the viewer does (or that he is in shock). While many things are complicated, either Kirk is bored with being the Captain and is ready to move on from his position or he is emotionally invested in being captain and his ship is so important to him that losing him is enough to traumatize him. Neither aspect is fleshed out sufficiently in Star Trek Beyond to be compelling.

There are a number of editing issues in Star Trek Beyond; shots where cuts are made at odd places. As well, one of the most awkward moments in Star Trek Beyond comes when Uhura puts together the identity of Krall by looking at an old ship's log. As the footage is played backward (with Uhura rewinding it), the audio goes forward - Uhura hears the word "frontier" repeatedly as she keeps rewinding the tape!

So, what works in Star Trek Beyond?

Jaylah is an interesting addition to the mix of characters (smart money is that she could replace Chekov in the next Star Trek film following the death of Anton Yelchin) and she offers the opportunity for Scotty to talk about Federation values. Jaylah is a strong female character who has a good backstory and plays off the established characters well. Jaylah becomes a conduit for which Star Trek and Federation values can be explored and promoted. Jaylah comes to see that a crew working together can overcome immense odds; she watches as the whole bridge crew contributes to reasoning how the swarm ships work together and how their interdependence may be exploited. That is cool. Unfortunately, Star Trek Beyond turns from something philosophical to utterly generic action-adventure in that such high-minded reasoning and teamwork is not used to stop Krall in a compelling "Star Trek" way. Star Trek values would have been served by having the Enterprise crew use reason and high-minded values to convince Krall not to deploy his super-weapon, as opposed to launching the armed villain out into space. So, Jaylah learns a bit of Federation philosophy and an equal measure that some enemies need to be put down. Even in Star Trek, Kirk tried to save Nero; in Star Trek Beyond, Kirk tries to confirm that Krall is dead instead.

Most of the acting in Star Trek Beyond is fine. Idris Elba is wasted as Krall as the villain makes little rational sense ultimately and Elba is not given the chance to exhibit much emotional range in the part. In fact, the greatest moment Elba has in Star Trek Beyond is gutted when the film continues in the same vein as it has been instead of making a right turn back into Star Trek territory. Each time I have watched Star Trek Beyond now, I am shocked because there is an exceptional moment at the climax of the film where Krall sees himself in a reflection. Elba's performance in that moment screams that Krall sees himself and is upset by the reflection he sees. Each time I see that moment, I expect that this will be a moment of epiphany for Krall and that Elba will deliver a line about how he was wrong and then sacrifice himself to stop his own weapon. No, Elba is not granted a moment where his performance is rewarded with something so high-minded and character-based.

Chris Pine plays Kirk as an action hero with little in the way of an emotional journey after the initial bar scene. Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Simon Pegg are each predictably wonderful in their roles of Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. Star Trek Beyond minimizes the roles of Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov (Anton Yelchin's final appearance in Trek is essentially as a sidekick for Kirk), but the performers involved do fine in the supporting parts.

It is easy to read a critique of Star Trek Beyond and think "that is a whole lot of nitpicking," but the problems exist within the film and they truly do gut the movie on almost every front except spectacle. Once one pulls at the question of "If the survivors of the Franklin had access to a drone ship fleet that could get them off the planet and back into Federation space, why did they spend a hundred years on the planet (or returning to it) to scheme against their home instead of getting back to the people who had no reasonable knowledge of where they had ended up?" Star Trek Beyond becomes difficult to watch; so much in the movie is forced and inorganic. Beloved characters like Spock make disturbingly uncharacteristic decisions - Spock and Uhura's relationship is on the skids arguably because Spock considers having children . . . but why would a mixed-race person like Spock be obsessed with the "genetic purity" of propagating full-blooded Vulcans?! Kirk is bored and wants to take a more stable, more boring job? And it takes one mission where his crew is put in mortal peril for him to want to go back to the same type of exploration he found mundane?!

In tribute to fifty years of a series that challenged social stereotypes and perceptions of what humanity's future could look like, Star Trek Beyond presents a surprisingly dull action-adventure film where the plot conceits and characters are so facile that they do not withstand any serious scrutiny. That is hardly a fitting tribute to Leonard Nimoy or Anton Yelchin, to whom the film is dedicated.

For other Star Trek films, please visit my reviews of:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek: Generations
Star Trek
Star Trek Into Darkness


For other Star Trek reviews, please check out my Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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