Sunday, July 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Not The Worst Piece Of Crap In Science Fiction Action Flicks . . .

The Good: Decent special effects/direction, Moments of character and acting
The Bad: Thoroughly banal action sequences, Dull plot, Overused Star Trek conceits without a powerful ethical dilemma.
The Basics: For the 50th Anniversary of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond continues the trend of transforming the franchise into one dominated by action adventure as opposed to cerebral science fiction.

I cannot recall being less excited for a Star Trek film than I was in advance of Star Trek Beyond. In 2009, when Star Trek (reviewed here!) was released, I swept away the months of trepidation I had about the film when I landed tickets months in advance of its release to a preview screening and was suddenly reassured that J.J. Abrams was not utterly destroying all I loved about the Star Trek franchise. Then came Star Trek Into Darkness (reviewed here!) and lightning not only did not strike twice, but the film dashed the hopes that the rebooted Star Trek universe might be intelligently and cleverly redirected, as opposed to playing to the cheap action adventure aspects that every special effects-driven blockbuster goes for. From the very first preview trailer of Star Trek Beyond, my hopes were dashed that for the 50th anniversary of my beloved science fiction franchise the writers and producers would create something worthy of the franchise name. Truth be told, my expectations were lowered the moment Simon Pegg was brought in to rewrite the script for Star Trek Beyond to make the film less "Trek-y." Paramount's goal for Star Trek Beyond was to make the film into a billion dollar-grossing movie . . . which, from a creative perspective, is a pretty lousy goal.

So, when I sat down to Star Trek Beyond, my expectations were appropriately low and I was prepared for a dumb action adventure film prioritizing flash over substance . . . and there were only a couple moments in the film that confounded those lower expectations. Star Trek Beyond is dominated by its action-adventure elements, minimizing the more cerebral elements. The result is a film that pays lip service to Star Trek and has many moments where it looks good, but it lacks depth and most of its most (potentially) emotional moments are moved beyond so fast that they lack impact.

The Enterprise has an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to an alien planet in the third year of its five-year mission. When the lifeforms Kirk is negotiating with reject the artifact he brought as a gift, the Enterprise leaves their planet and heads to a new Federation starbase on the edge of explored space. While at the Starbase, Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died and Kirk is offered a very different career direction by the ranking StarFleet officer in the sector. Shortly after the Enterprise arrives, an alien escape pod arrives, carrying Kalara. Kalara tells the Federation that her ship was destroyed and its crew is stranded on a planet inside a nearby nebula. Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned to find the planet and rescue Kalara's crew, but when they arrive at the planet, they are attacked by a swarm of ships which destroy the Enterprise.

The attack on the Enterprise was perpetrated by Krall, who invaded the Enterprise to recover the artifact that Kirk attempted to give to the Teenaxi. Kirk, however, manages to stop Krall from getting the artifact, though he is unable to prevent his crew from being captured by Krall and his drones. With the Enterprise crew stranded on different parts of Krall's world, most of them captured and at his mercy, Kirk must figure out how to save his crew. Kirk quickly realizes that Kalara set the Enterprise up for capture and he and Chekov work to stop her, while Uhura tries to learn what Krall wants and witnesses his murderous power. Elsewhere on the planet, Dr. McCoy works to save Spock's life, as he was injured in the evacuation of the Enterprise. But Scotty lucks out more than the rest of the Enterprise crew, as he stumbles upon a woman who managed to escape from Krall and needs the engineer's help in restoring the ship she found. Together, Scott and Jaylah work to reunite the Enterprise's senior officers and rescue the rest of the crew from Krall. Krall, by tormenting Uhura and Sulu, manages to find the artifact he is looking for and he turns his attention to destroying the starbase outside the nebula.

What Star Trek Beyond does well is use its ensemble. For all the great things about the original Star Trek, it was not an ensemble piece. It was very much Captain Kirk and Spock's story, with an occasional subplot for McCoy and a peppering of episodes that gave Scotty a more significant role than normal. Star Trek Beyond gives all seven of the characters generally considered "key" Trek characters something to do. Sadly for the late Anton Yelchin, Chekov is given the least to do and he spends most of Star Trek Beyond acting as Kirk's sidekick and then Scotty's assistant.

Similarly, on the thematic front, Star Trek Beyond provides a single monologue from Jaylah that is almost Star Trek deep. Jaylah tells Scotty about Manas and Krall and it is a thinly-veiled Holocaust allegory, much the way "A Private Little War" (reviewed here!) provided an allegory for Star Trek viewers of the Vietnam War and the problems of Cold War escalation in a hot war theater.

Sadly, Star Trek Beyond glosses over its complex elements and most of its big character moments. Jaylah's monologue is brief and is a pretext to get her and Kirk into a big action sequence. Star Trek Beyond is at its worst when it prioritizes special effects (which are, admittedly, good) and action sequences over the allegory, cerebral elements and moments of genuine character development.

Star Trek Beyond has minimal character moments that are interesting or well-developed. Captain Kirk celebrates a quiet birthday with Bones and his sense of disillusionment reflects a poor redirection of Kirk for the reboot universe. Kirk was excited about the idea of a five year mission at the climax of Star Trek Into Darkness, but at the outset of Star Trek Beyond, he is bored and listless. And, given that he begins with a fairly exciting mission of his own, his discontent in the subsequent scene feels terribly forced.

In a similar fashion, Spock's character seems like a mess. In the Prime Star Trek Universe, it took Spock until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (reviewed here!) for him to become well-rounded and believe that logic was only the beginning and that emotion could be useful to him. While the destruction of Vulcan and the death of Amanda obviously redirected Spock's life, that he would cry out in pain and cry openly are horribly out of character, as opposed to feeling like actual character development.

As for the villain, Star Trek Beyond has one of the least-inspired adversaries in the form of Krall. Krall is given a backstory, long after viewers have stopped caring and an explanation for his actions that is not entirely sensible in the way it is constructed and presented. More than that, Krall becomes a terrible excuse for Star Trek Beyond to devolve into the familiar format of a "kill the villain" story that viewers have seen far, far, too many times before. In fact, at a key moment at the climax of the film, it appears like Star Trek Beyond might defy that paradigm and offer the villain a chance at redemption, but it fails to pay that off in a satisfying way.

Director Justin Lin prioritizes action and flash over any real substance in Star Trek Beyond and the extended scene of the destruction of the Enterprise is a perfect example of that. For someone who claims to love the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond falls short on some essential concepts, not the least of which is that it is hard to see how the story would have occurred in the Prime Star Trek Universe. The events of Star Trek (the reboot film) essentially made the reboot universe smaller; starships were decimated, the Klingon Empire was virtually obliterated (losing 47 ships to Nero's vessel is a profound blow!) and Kirk's five-year mission seems like it would be beginning far earlier than it did in the Prime Universe (which makes sense given that in the Prime Universe, Spock had more than a decade serving under Pike on the Enterprise). So, the nebula in Star Trek Beyond seems like it would have been well within the sphere of potential exploration of the Federation in the original Star Trek . . . and the backstory for Krall would have existed within the Prime Universe. My point in this is that the "wholly original" story set in the Star Trek multiverse creates troubling questions for sensibility of how it could fit. In the Prime Universe, did the Federation just never stumble upon Krall in the nebula? Krall never destroyed the Enterprise in the Prime Universe, so are we to believe that within the core of the Federation planets, there exists this massive, baited, time bomb that never went off? That is a bit hard to swallow for die-hard Trekkers.

Ultimately, Star Trek Beyond is not all that fans might have feared when it was announced that the director was best known for his work in the Fast & Furious franchise. Justin Lin directs an action film, but assuming that Lin directed the script that was handed to him, he is hard to lay all the blame upon. Pegg might have beefed up his own part in the film, but one suspects there will come a time when the other writers reveal what they had created and it is hard to believe that it would not have had a more authentic Trek feel than the product that was delivered.

For other works with Idris Elba, please visit my reviews of:
The Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Thor: The Dark World
Pacific Rim
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
28 Weeks Later


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

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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