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Josh Reviews Star Trek Beyond!

July 25th, 2016

For the 25th anniversary of Star Trek back in 1991, we were blessed with the minor miracle that was Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  That film remains one of my very favorite Trek anythings, from all the many TV shows and movies.  It’s a gorgeous film, surprising dark yet rich with character, and one that does what Star Trek does so well: telling an exciting sci-fi story that has profound relevance to the modern day.  As befits a film released during the franchise’s 25th anniversary year, the film pays homage to the entire history of Star Trek to that point, deftly connecting the dots between the classic Trek crew and that of The Next Generation, set more than seventy years later.  Most impressively of all, as I have written about before, Star Trek VI is that rarest of things in pop culture: a satisfying, definitive conclusion to a long-running, popular series.

STAR TREK BEYOND

Star Trek Beyond, released twenty-five years later during the franchise’s (hard-to-be-believed) fiftieth anniversary, is not Star Trek VI.  It lacks that film’s sophistication and intelligence, nor does it feel like any sort of encompassing statement about the franchise as a whole.

But that being said, Star Trek Beyond is a heck of a lot of fun, and a worthy sequel to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot.  Thankfully, Beyond allows one to entirely forget about the horrendous, indefensible Star Trek Into Darkness.  Just imagine that the Enterprise started its 5 year mission at the end of 2009’s Star Trek, and you can skip Into Darkness and cut right to Beyond’s opening, set more than two years into the deep-space mission.

As the film begins, we see that Captain Kirk is beset by ennui as the monotony of the ship’s years-long mission into unexplored space has begun to set in.  Just as Kirk is beginning to doubt himself and his chosen path of captaining a starship, the Enterprise runs afoul of a vicious swarm of alien ships that decimates the ship and leaves her crew scattered on a hostile alien planet.  The separated Enterprise crewmembers must find a way to survive and reunite, while attempting to stop the devious plans of the alien leader, Krall (Idris Elba).

There is a lot to like about Star Trek Beyond.  The film looks absolutely gorgeous, and as I have written in my reviews of both of the two previous nuTrek films, it is an absolute joy to see a Star Trek adventure realized on such a big, blockbuster-sized budget.  This film is filled with one incredible sequence after another.  The enormous starbase Yorktown is extraordinary.  The extended sequence in which the Enterprise is taken out by Krall’s bee-like ships is incredible.  All of the vistas and locations across the alien planet are brought to gorgeous life.  The night-time firefight in and across the crashed Enterprise primary hull is phenomenal.  I can go on and on.  It’s so fun to see a Trek adventure brought to life on such a wide-screen canvas.

Justin Lin proves himself to be a terrific director.  I was somewhat dubious about an action-oriented director from the Fast and Furious franchise coming in to helm Trek, which I have always seen as more cerebral than action-oriented, but Mr. Lin’s visual and story-telling skills prove to be an enormous asset to this film.  The action in this film is amazing, probably the best action I have ever seen in a Trek film.  Mr. Lin has a wonderful eye for shots, and in particular there are some visual effects shots that give us wonderfully unique views of the Big E herself.  (Mr. Lin has also proven to be a true-blue Star Trek fan, and in helming Star Trek Beyond he has shown a praise-worthy affinity for and understanding of Trek.)

As with the two J.J. Abrams-directed Trek films, Star Trek Beyond is ferociously paced, sending the viewers and the characters careening off on a viscerally thrilling, exciting adventure.  The film whips by at a rapid speed.  This is a fun, tightly-paced story that zips along and that doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The control of pacing is masterful.

The film does a nice job at spotlighting all of the Trek characters.  Screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were very smart in how they paired off the Enterprise characters for maximum effect.  Everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine, though the Spock-McCoy pairing is the true highlight of the film.  I am so happy that, after two films focusing heavily on the Kirk-Spock relationship, this film chose to lean more on the Spock-McCoy twosome that was such an iconic, central aspect of the success of the Original Series.  Karl Urban’s McCoy has become my very favorite member of this nuTrek ensemble.  Mr. Urban is so perfectly, 100% McCoy that I still find it near-impossible to believe.  I love that this film allows him the chance to be in the spotlight.

After McCoy, my favorite character in Beyond is the new character Jaylah.  Sofia Boutella was memorable in Kingsman: The Secret Service, but I had no idea she was capable of this.  Assisted by a gorgeous make-up design and look to the character, and a smartly-written script, Ms. Boutella has created a wonderfully complex, empathetic character.  Jaylah is honest and heroic, tough-as-nails but also innocent and playful.  I love this character, and she has a wonderful chemistry with Simon Pegg’s Montgomery Scott.  Their scenes together are dynamite.  I didn’t care much about the suggestion at the end of Into Darkness that Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus would be joining the Enterprise crew, but here at the end of Beyond I found myself very much hoping that we’ll see Jaylah on-board the Enterprise in the next film.  (The film suggests that she will go to Starfleet Academy, which story-wise makes a lot more sense, but screw that, I’d love to see her on the Enterprise in the next movie!)  (By the way, speaking of Carol Marcus, the film doesn’t mention her at all.  That fact was the strongest statement from the filmmakers that they want us to completely forget about Into Darkness.  She was terribly portrayed in that film, but I like Carol Marcus as a character and I like Alice Eve as an actress, so I would like to see the character reprised in a future film.)

The villain Krall, played by Idris Elba, is something of a mixed bag.  First of all, while I like very much the very alien look of Krall, the incredible Idris Elba is completely buried under the prosthetics and make-up.  I wish they’d found a way to allow Mr. Elba himself to shine through the make-up and costume to a greater degree.  More problematic, the villain didn’t really come to life as a character until the very end, in which we discover his secret history.  I wish we’d learned that revelation far earlier in the film, so that we’d have more of a chance to understand and empathize with this character while watching the story unfold.  Instead, he just feels like a brute up to the final fifteen minutes.  Star Trek Beyond flirts around some interesting ideas, suggesting that Krall sees a dark side to the Federation’s values of inclusivity and unity.  But the film never really allows Krall to give voice to what those objections are!  We never really understand what his problem is with the Federation.  This totally undercuts him as a character, and hurts the film.  Krall is pretty much just a mean heavy for the entire movie, whereas I would have preferred — and based on the pre-release hype, I had expected — that he’d be more fully developed as someone with a defensible and reasonable point of view.  It would have been interesting to see Kirk and co. really confronted with the realities of the imperfections of their society, and forced to truly defend their point of view as representatives of the Federation.  But that doesn’t really happen at all in this film.  Unfortunately, for the third Trek movie in a row, they have cast an incredible actor as the villain, only to strand that actor near-completely.  It’s a let-down.

The other main problem I have with Star Trek Beyond, and this has been a problem with the two previous nuTrek films as well, is that I don’t really care for this new version of Kirk.  Back in 2009’s Star Trek, OK, I could accept that this Kirk was a brash youngster, not the seasoned Starfleet officer that we’d known from the Original Series and the previous Trek movies.  But in Into Darkness and now in Beyond, this Kirk is a Starfleet Captain responsible for hundreds of lives.  And yet, he is sort of terrible at his job!  In Into Darkness, Kirk bumbled and mis-stepped at every turn, and when he was finally confronted with the evil admiral Marcus’ super-starship, Kirk had no ideas and no strategy, he just let the Enterprise get pummelled into oblivion, at what must have been the cost of scores, if not hundreds, of lives.  He’s not much better here in Beyond.  OK, I can sort of go with the idea that Kirk has gotten bored several years into the five-year mission, even though this feels totally contradictory to the character of Kirk as we know him (and even to the character of nuKirk from the last two films, who was hungry for adventure and excited about the idea of a five-year mission).  But the way we see Kirk behave in the film’s prologue is indefensible.  He’s supposed to be brokering a peace treaty between two alien races, but he’s totally disinterested and of course it goes south.  Does Kirk try to salvage the situation?  Nope, they just pack away the object used as the failed peace-offering in their archives and move on.  Wow, how callow!  Let’s just leave these aliens to continue trying to kill one another, who cares.  Whaaat?  It’d be one thing if Kirk was so GOOD at his job that he found it boring — if we’d seen him able to broker the peace treaty with his eyes closed, not needing to expend much effort to get the job done — and so he found that boring after two years.  But that’s not at all what the movie shows us.  This Kirk is borderline incompetent and, worse, he doesn’t even seem to care.  Moving on, when Kirk takes the Enterprise into the nebula and they realize it’s a trap, does Kirk have any sort of strategy to employ to get the ship out of the jam?  Nope, just fire all weapons!  Gee whiz, big surprise that doesn’t work.  Then, when things start going bad, Kirk abandons his post on the bridge to go fight some aliens in a corridor below decks.  The ship is in a near-impossible situation, Kirk, don’t you think you should, you know, stay on the bridge and try to get your crew out of the mess you’d stumbled into?  This just doesn’t work at all.

I will say, though, that the entire attack on the Enterprise is thrilling, and I loved how what I had expected from the trailers to be a quick destruction of the Enterprise was drawn out by Mr. Lin & co. into a truly thrilling, extended action sequence.  It’s really great stuff, tense and exciting and thrilling.

And once the Enterprise crashes, I felt the film really jumped to life.  I loved the character development as we followed the separate Enterprise crew-members, and I loved the sci-fi mystery as we got to slowly learn about Jaylah and Krall as the Enterprise crew gradually discovered what they’d stumbled into.

I wish the film took the time to tell us a little more about how Krall developed his life-force-sucking, life-extending super-powers.  And I wish the film had totally abandoned the macguffin of the artifact that was a life-destroying super-weapon.  First of all, it was silly that the Enterprise crew just happened to have been given the very artifact for which Krall had apparently been searching for so long, and right when the Enterprise happened to be in the area of space right next to the nebula in which Krall was hidden.  (If the artifact was so close, guess Krall hadn’t looked for it that hard, huh?)  As was an issue in the last two Trek films, and also in the JJ Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the geography of space was unclear.  The end of this movie makes it seem like the Yorktown, an enormous but apparently not-that-well-defended advanced Federation starbase, has been placed right next to Krall’s vast, evil-looking nebula.  (Hey, maybe we want to investigate that evil-looking nebula before we build our huge starbase here?)  Also, if the Enterprise has been traveling out into unexplored space for two-plus years now, how is it that there is an advanced starbase there waiting for them, along with relatives of the Enterprise crew (including Sulu’s family)??  That doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Second of all, the whole idea of the macguffin super-weapon was problematic because there’s no reason that Krall needed it!!  His bee-like swarm of space-ships took out the Enterprise with no problem, and in the film’s climax seemed able to destroy the Yorktown without too much trouble until Kirk turned the tables.  Krall didn’t need that superweapon to destroy the Yorktown, he could have done so with his swarm of ships without much trouble!  The movie wastes a lot of time on the macguffin and different characters’ pursuit of it, but in the end none of that really goes anywhere and it all feels superfluous to me.

I did love getting to see an NX-class starship in the film (albeit a slightly JJ Abrams-ized looking one — look at those large nacelles), and I loved hearing references to the MACOS and the Xindi war (from the third season of Star Trek Enterprise) and the Romulan War (a key piece of Trek backstory mentioned in The Original Series and that would likely have taken place in later seasons of Enterprise had that show not been cancelled).  Those events would not have been altered by the time-travel shenanigans that created this nuTrek timeline in 2009’s Star Trek (since they took place decades beforehand) and it was cool to have this film’s story so nicely rooted in Trek backstory.

(Though — SPOILER ALERT — my friend Aaron pointed out that you-know-who shouldn’t have been revealed to have been a made-up-for-this-movie MACO, but instead he should have been Travis Mayweather!!  How cool would that have been?  It would have been thrilling for any Trek fans in the audience, while not distracting for any non-Trek fans because the name wouldn’t have meant anything more than the made-up-for-this-movie captain’s name meant to anyone in Beyond.)

Other thoughts:

On the one hand I liked that the starbase was named the Yorktown, as that is a name with a lot of Trek history.  (It was the original name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s earliest drafts of the Star Trek pilot, and it was a Constitution Class starship referenced in the Original Series, as well as the crippled starship seen in the opening of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.)  On the other hand, to me the Yorktown is the name of a starship, not a huge starbase.  It seems like a weird name for a starbase.

Boy the design of the Yorktown was cool, though.

I enjoyed seeing Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commodore Paris, and her name was also a nice bit of Trek continuity (connecting her lineage with Tom Paris from Voyager).  She brought great gravitas to the role of the starbase’s commander.

Greg Grunberg, on the other hand…???  Didn’t seem quite as capable…

I enjoyed what little we got to see in this film of the Spock-Uhura relationship (which was one of the most interesting character twists from this rebooted series), though I wish the two characters had progressed more in the past two-plus years.  This film could have taken place two weeks after 2009’s Star Trek, based on where their relationship was.

I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly they wove into the story the real-life reality of Leonard Nimoy’s death.  I must admit I got a little misty eyed as soon as we saw Spock intercepted by those two elderly Vulcans, since I knew immediately what was coming.  This was a gentle, touching tribute to the character of Spock and to the actor who brought him to such rich life.  I loved this aspect of the film.

And that shot of original Star Trek cast at the end was a warm and very unexpected surprise.  What a touching moment, and I loved that they used a shot of the original cast, as that packed an emotional wallop well-worth any continuity issues arising from the question of whether we’re supposed to think that these somewhat different looking nuTrek actors are supposed to age, in the timeline of these movies, into looking like the classic Trek actors.  (I also have to comment that the nerd in me wishes they hadn’t chosen a promo shot from Star Trek V, one of the worst Trek films!!)

The film is dedicated, rightfully so, to Leonard Nimoy and also to Anton Yelchin, and it’s hard to watch the film without the shadow of Mr. Yelchin’s tragic early demise hanging over it.  Mr. Yelchin is terrific here as Chekov and I loved the pairing of his character with Kirk in the film.  This was a fine farewell to Mr. Yelchin’s work as Chekov, much as I wish we’d have many more years of his work as this character — and many other characters in many other films — ahead of us.

Michael Giacchino returned to score the film, and he’s turned in a fun though not that memorable score, as I feel he did for the previous two nuTrek films.  I do love his nuTrek main theme, though as with the first two films I will again wish he’d woven more classic Trek themes into his score, rather than making us wait until the closing credits to hear a nice, full-throated version of the classic Trek theme music.

I quite liked the revamped look of the Starfleet uniforms in this film.  I wish they didn’t keep tweaking the costumes between every film — I’d love for this film series to find a good groove and stick with it, much as the original film series did with the beautiful maroon Starfleet uniforms sen in Trek II-VI.  But that being said, I like the slightly more formal, more regal-looking regular uniforms, and I also like the more rugged look to the away gear that most of the crew sport once they get stranded on the planet.

I don’t love the title Star Trek Beyond and wish this nuTrek series would adopt a better naming convention.  I just don’t like at all the idea of trying to make the title be a part of the phrase Star Trek.  Go with the Mission: Impossible formula of a title after the colon (a great alternative to numbering the sequels) and please work harder to come up with a cool title.  OK?  OK.

The early rumors about this third nuTrek film had me so worried.  I was quite horrified by the idea of Bob Orci being given the helm of this film.  Thankfully, we dodged that bullet and wound up in the far more capable, better-suited hands of writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and director Justin Lin.  Star Trek Beyond is a terrific course correction after Into Darkness.  Is it too late, though?  Did the terrible Into Darkness cut this franchise off at the knees?  The not-terrible but lower than Star Trek or Into Darkness box office of Beyond so far seems to suggest that this might be the case.  Perhaps the future of Trek lies back on TV, where it originated.  The new, in-the-works Trek show Star Trek: Discovery certainly looks interesting.  But boy, would I really love to see a truly, unabashedly GREAT Star Trek movie on the big screen in my lifetime.  I want to feel again like I felt when I first walked out of the theatre after having seen Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, back in 1991.

I will continue to chase that feeling.  For now, I am quite satisfied by Star Trek Beyond, and I’d love to see where this film franchise goes from here.

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