Star Trek Beyond (2016) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Idris Elba, John Cho, Sofia Boutella, Anton Yelchin
Small role: Shea Whigham, Jeff Bezos
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Review published July 24, 2016
The Star Trek reboot franchise takes a step back toward the formula that made it a rabid fan favorite for millions of self-described Trekkers around the world over the last several decades. Although film critics and many casual fans of the series were on board for the prior entry, Star Trek Into Darkness, it was rejected by many of the franchise's most ardent of fans, claiming that the makers of the new series had changed the nature of the characters too much from their original conception, and that they were playing too much with the established mythos of the story, rehashing the hallowed Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and doing it in a way that made little sense, even when taking the alternate timeline premise into consideration. In other words, fans want old-school Star Trek adventures that aren't rehashes, and they don't like many of the alterations to the traditional characters to try to tantalize new viewers. In short, it got too cute with things that many Trekkers hold sacred.
Star Trek Beyond sees J.J. Abrams vacate the director's chair to spearhead the Star Wars continuation, and filling in is Justin Lin, the director who popularized the Fast & Furious flicks. While the look and feel of the new film has that sheen on the new franchise, Beyond gravitates more toward the basics of the series, which is to explore new worlds and civilizations, and encounter alien beings both beautiful and bizarre. This one showcases the third year of their five-year mission, with Captain James T. Kirk (Pine, The Finest Hours) pondering a career move for the better, thanks to the heroic deeds chronicled in previous entries. Decisions can wait when they end up picking up an escape-pod survivor, leading the Enterprise to a strange part of the galaxy on a mission to rescue the rest of her ship's crew in uncharted territory. However, they've shuttled right into a trap, masterminded by a fierce adversary named Krall (Elba, Finding Dory), who is hell-bent on obtaining an artifact on board the Enterprise. Krall sets about all but completely destroying the Kirk and company using a swarming fleet of insect-oid ships, severely damaging the Enterprise, and leaving the crew members to shuttle to the nearby planet.
Supporting player Simon Pegg (The World's End) gets a screenplay credit, along with Doug Jung (Confidence), offering much more emphasis on character touches and interactions this time out. Kirk, who has now reached the age of his Starfleet commander father at the time of his death, has his current ennui in his position weighing heavy on his mind. Spock (Quinto, Hitman: Agent 47), with his home world of Vulcan destroyed, has to consider whether his relationship with the human Uhura (Saldana, The Book of Life) is viable, given the newfound need to keep the Vulcan race alive. Supporting characters like Sulu (Cho, Grandma) and Chekhov (Yelchin, Green Room) get a bit more nuance than they had in the past, though they are clearly side players.
The main theme is one of relevance in this day and age, regarding whether there is more strength through peace and unity than through conflict and forcing survival-of-the-fittest scenarios to draw out the best in one's nature. Unfortunately, these themes are presented but never quite explored with the richness they deserve, settling into more run-of-the-mill good vs. evil conflicts, only occasionally spelled by the ongoing soap opera of the character decisions. Those character moments, especially those involving the frenemy nature of the relationship between logical Spock and hot-blooded McCoy (Urban, The Loft), are perhaps the saving grace for the film, as they allow us to root on the heroes even when the villains aren't much worth making a hiss over.
The scene-stealing supporting character is a new one to the series, an alien scavenger named Jaylah, played by Algerian-born, French actress and dancer Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service). Jaylah is on the planet with the swarming horde, using her tremendous fighting skills and technical ingenuity to protect herself, all the while listening to "classical music" (aka, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys). She is light-years more engaging to watch than the main villain, Krall, who is never interesting or particularly engaging as far as "Star Trek" baddies go, who merely poses and postures like cartoon villain, complete with a vampiric power to suck away the life essence from those around him to feed his own power. The look of the film deserves the highest praise with lots of attention given to the "alien" species, particularly in that of larger players like alabaster-skinned (with stark black accents) Jaylah and scale-faced Krall, though even smaller roles get plenty of attention, leaving well-known actors unrecognizable in their make-up.
Although Justin Lin is primarily known for directing the Fast & Furious films from the third installment, Tokyo Drift, to Fast & Furious 6, this change doesn't necessarily make Star Trek Beyond heavier on action than the prior entries in the reboot series (there is a sequence involving a motorcycle that speaks to Lin's skills with high-speed automotive mayhem). But the action is quite good, tapping into Lin's experience as a director used to handling tight edits and lots of effects-enhanced stunt work, crediting no less than four people as film editors and effects and design artists that seem to scroll on to oblivion during the end credits. Lin's handling of the our attraction to space is a true strong suit, drawing out the allure of the scenes of Federation bases and the majesty of the starship interiors in a way that captures the significance of human exploration of the galaxy for the first time since some of the early films in the original Star Trek series, with shots that linger on the inventiveness of the advanced technology (the Starbase Yorktown concept of a spherical space station in which gravity is relative is a fantastic concept in every sense of the word -- Trivia: Yorktown was the original name of the Enterprise in his first draft of the original "Star Trek" series), or camera work that sweeps through rooms and corridors so that we can appreciate all of the details that have gone into the clean and articulate set design. Outer space shots are as gorgeous as they've ever been, whether in transport, or in the midst of battle sequences that truly feel cataclysmic in scope.
However, Lin struggles a bit more in between the set pieces, particularly in the way he clumsily handles the obvious comedic beats, and he's even less assured for the emotional core of the film, including the awkward off-again romance between Spock and Uhura. Also, in contrast to the brightly-lit and colorful set-up to the film in Starfleet mode, much of the movie's middle hour is dimly shot and murky, while space battles seem to lack a core perspective for us to follow them with a semblance of spatial logistics, making it difficult to follow what's going on during entire sequences meant to be thrilling. These scenes also exemplify the lack of resonance at the core of the film, as Krall is set up to be an adversary to Kirk on a level that should rival that of Khan from Into Darkness, but feels rushed and forced in a manner that doesn't make for a compelling match-up the way the best "Star Trek" stories tend to do. Generic in his cookie-cutter alien way, Krall is not the villain you want to see pop up now and again to take Kirk on. Meanwhile, even action-pieces that should feel exhilarating and weighed down by the kind of predictable last-second saves you generally get from bad actioners like most of the F&F films, including Scotty jumping off of his space pod that is teetering off the edge of a cliff, or in an improbable pull-out from a spaceship's nose dive, again off a cliff, that brings back the term 'cliffhanger' without reinventing things in a way that won't bore modern audiences wholly accustomed to such things.
Despite enjoyable character moments and some of the wonderful exploration of the gorgeousness of space exploration, Star Trek Beyond is one of the middling big-screen efforts, possibly more of appeal to devout Trekkers than those with a casual interest, and likely of little to no appeal to those who happen to be jumping on to this series at this point. An at-odds combination of thrilling and thudding, spectacular and sputtering, magnificent and muddled, Star Trek Beyond captures for moments some of the best high-concept elements the Roddenberry-inspired reboot has to offer, followed by rudimentary moments that show just how tone-deaf it is as far as what today's audiences really want to see in a big-screen Star Trek adventure. Like the futuristic outer-space locale of Yorktown at the heart of the movie's story, it contains a plethora of fantastical concepts that seem more mundane on closer inspection, with more emphasis on design than on the basics of storytelling, leading us to continue to ask ourselves which way in the narrative is "up".
©2016 Vince Leo