Star Trek Beyond
Now with 100% less underwear shots. For women anyway.
JJ Abrams’ successful rebooting of the Star Trek franchise, left so adrift on the big screen after the lackadaisical Nemesis, and on the small screen after the middling Enterprise, was a serious achievement, even if his 2009 movie wasn’t really all that Star Trek, having little in common with the original vision of Gene Roddenberry or the subsequent evolution in other TV shows. It was an action sci-fi movie, a very enjoyable one, but something that came with some reservations. That ballooned into focus with the disappointing follow-up Into Darkness, which ruined a serviceable plot with a ghastly third act, an unnecessary aping of The Wrath Of Khan and a limp performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
Then Abrams left to take the reins on Star Wars, and Justin Lin, having conquered the box office in furious fashion, has been brought in to keep the Trek train going. The trailers for Beyond have been the focus of much mockery for their inclusion of the Beastie Boys and motorbikes, but what about the finished product? Was Star Trek Beyond a redemption for a new franchise that so tripped up last time out, or a firmer sign that this new Star Trek is rapidly becoming unsavable?
Three years into a five year deep space mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise stop at the gargantuan Yorktown Station for some R&R, where James Kirk (Chris Pine) wistfully ponders retirement from the captains chair, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) considers leaving Starfleet to aid in the recovery of his species. But such things must be put to the side when the Enterprise is targeted by brutal alien warlord Kraal (Idris Elba) and his advanced fleet of drone ships: left stranded on a hostile world, Kirk and his crew must both try to survive and save the Federation from a threat centuries in the making.
Beyond manages to salvage something from the dross of Into Darkness, and breathes new life into the franchise. And it does it by going backwards a bit, and attempting to embody some of the things that make the larger Star Trek canon great, while leaving plenty of room for the kind of sci-fi action that a summer blockbuster of this type is required to have. The end product still isn’t quite Star Trek enough to leave the purists satisfied, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
I mean, somewhere, in among all the references, both obvious and subtle, to past TV shows and movies, you begin to get the feeling that the people handling the franchise now – Lin, and perhaps more importantly, screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung – get it a bit better. When we see Kirk sharing a morose birthday drink with Bones, it’s from The Wrath Of Khan, but far more appropriate and endearing than the facsimile that took place in Into Darkness. When we see the crew forced to survive without advanced technology on a desolate alien world, it’s like Voyager’s “Basics”, just with a higher budget. When we see the USS Franklin rise from the ashes of four centuries past, it’s the designs of Star Trek: Enterprise in our minds. And these are references, homages and nods that I can live with.
More importantly, Beyond actually gets these characters a lot better than Abrams, Kurtzmann and Orci did. Gone is the brash, arrogant, womanising James T. Kirk and back is the more level-headed, intelligent and altogether likeable Captain, who values his crew and the ideals for which they stand for, aided by Pine’s best turn in the role. Here is a Spock caught once again between the logical and illogical sides of his very being, but framed in a way more interesting that the romantic relationship with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) that has long since served its purpose. Here is a Doctor McCoy more than just the occasional insult and witty rejoinder to Spock, but a man capable of having an actual relationship with the Vulcan. Lin, in a way that I did not expect, was able to craft decent character arcs for what is otherwise a classic Boys Own-esque sci-fi action romp: I cared about Kirk’s self-doubt and haunting memories of a father he never knew, I cared about Spock’s conflicted desire for both a Starfleet career and the propagation of his species, I cared about new character Jaylah’s efforts to get off the horrible planet she was stranded on, far more than I ever cared about these people before. Lin has priors in this – the Furious franchise has never been the brainless blockbuster series it is easily painted as – and he uses that ability to balance action with basic, but effective, characterisation.
And it’s all backed up by a decent story, that feels a little bit like a two-parter from one of the TV shows, just with the financial acumen to make it all look amazing. But you know what, that’s fine: for the majority of Beyond it’s just the Enterprise crew trying to survive, and while it turns into yet another “Let’s save the universe” exercise before the end, it still felt natural: Pegg, Jung and Lin all did a stellar job in crafting a narrative space for their characters to have both fun and growth in.
Much praise must also be given to the female characters that do make an appearance. We run the gambit here: we have stern military types in Shohreh Aghdashloo’s brief cameo as a Starfleet admiral, Saldano’s workmanlike and essential Uhuru, treacherous villains, timid crewmembers and Jaylah, a cool looking alien who gives the film some much needed omph and variety when it really needs it, in a character both tough and vulnerable, that reminded me much of Charlize Thereon’s Furiosa. And not a bra or panty shot in sight: the disgraceful way that Abrams ogled Alice Eve last time out (that screenwriter Damien Lindeloff apologised for), and Saldano the first time, are distant memories.
But of course, it can’t be all good. Much like, say, The Avengers and Civil War, Beyond is so overloaded with cast members that plenty of nominally important people get shafted: focusing primarily on Kirk, Spock and Jaylah for the deep stuff, Lin is left with just individual moments of badassery for the rest in lieu of actual arcs, an inevitability in a film of this cast length and running time. John Cho’s Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov (suitably memorialised) even Simon Pegg’s Scotty don’t have all that much to do: Lin’s solution of trying to pair up the non-essentials with the essentials in a series of meandering sub-plots only partially succeeds, an exercise in occasionally witty dialogue, best exemplified by the wonderful back and forth between Quinto and Urban, Bones having the best run of this trilogy here.
But then there is the villain. Poor Idris Elba is way too good for this kind of role, and I chalk this up as the second big sci-fi offering that has failed to make the best use of him, after his utterly pedestrian stroll through Pacific Rim. Here, buried under what must be several hours worth of make-up and with a guttural accent that seemed rather unnecessary, it is impossible for Elba to actually give an example of the kind of actor he truly is.
In combination with that, Krall himself is all kinds of weak: a vaguely defined bad guy out for revenge, whose entire backstory and motivation is info-dumped on the audience, roughly five minutes before the final resolution of the plot. It is often the case, I have found recently, that films with an overload of characters struggle with their villain especially – Age Of Ultron, Batman V Superman, Civil War, Guardians Of The Galaxy, the first two Trek movies of this new trilogy – and Beyond is no exception, not even a rather interesting swerve late-on enough to save the character.
Visually, it’s a real treat, and for the first time in this new franchise I actually was wowed by what the future is depicted as, largely because of Yorktown Station, a critical set-piece that incorporates non-linear gravity ideas to produce an inwardly curving space station metropolis. It’s look went beyond pretty, it was interesting: the exact kind of future glimpse that Star Trek films should have. And beyond that, the film works well visually on nearly every level and in nearly every scene: Krall’s “Bees” that prove themselves such a capable and terrifying enemy (even if a Voyager episode did the idea first); the quiet and appropriately solemn shot of a very small Quinto standing next to the blackness of space, having been informed of the death of “Spock Prime”; a sliding shoot-out down the outside of a wrecked Enterprise; even the much mocked motorbike stunt sequence is frenetic and enjoyable, incorporating sci-fi elements to offset the inherent ridiculousness.
If there’s a flaw in the production side of things, it can only be with the music. Michael Giacchino’s score is fine, if rather familiar at this point: rather, it’s the songs, namely “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. It’s use in the trailer rubbed a lot up the wrong way, but it’s use in the film, as a pivotal plot device late on, was beyond the pale for me. It was something I could only wince at when it emerged on screen, easily one of the stupidest moments in Star Trek history.
Beyond moves the franchise forward, even as it appears to keep things rigidly in place. Suffice to say that those expecting or hoping for some kind of major status quo change will be left disappointed, as disappointed as I was with the lack of balls when it came to killing off Kirk in Into Darkness. But it doesn’t matter. Beyond is a Trek film that re-emphasises character over spectacle, while retaining more than enough space for spectacle; that gives women important things to do in roles big and small; and that manages to imbue once more the classic Trek themes into a franchise that seemed to be rejecting them whole sale before. The wonder, value and morality of exploration, the Federation’s strength in unity, the loyalty and common bond between members of a crew facing into the last great unknown, all of these things are present in Beyond.
And long may they continue to be found in Star Trek, be it in an inevitable sequel or in the upcoming TV continuation, two things I now look forward to with more hope than I had before seeing Beyond. A film with a good plot, great characters, enjoyable action and spectacular visuals, it comes highly recommended from me.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).