Star Trek: Beyond
Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Simon Pegg & Doug Jung based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry.
Starring: Chris Pine (Captain James T. Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Commander Spock), Karl Urban (Doctor 'Bones' McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Lieutenant Uhura), Simon Pegg (Montgomery 'Scotty' Scott), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Idris Elba (Krall), Sofia Boutella (Jaylah), Joe Taslim (Manas), Lydia Wilson (Kalara), Deep Roy (Keenser), Melissa Roxburgh (Ensign Syl), Anita Brown (Tyvanna), Doug Jung (Ben), Danny Pudi (Fi'Ja), Kim Kold (Zavanko), Fraser Aitcheson (Hider), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Commodore Paris), Greg Grunberg (Commander Finnegan).
The third installment of the re-booted Star Trek franchise is a necessary and welcome course correction after Into Darkness, which spent way too much time on fan service, which robbed the movie of its powerful moments because they were so reliant on what came before the movie itself, that if you didn’t already know a lot about the franchise the big reveals became meaningless. I liked Into Darkness more than a lot of people – it is generally an entertaining and pleasing action movie, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The same can be said of the third installment – I liked it a great deal, had a lot of fun watching it, but it isn’t quite as good as it could have been. Its failures are less pronounced than Into Darkness’ however – and the filmmakers seem to realize that whatever fan service the series does has to be secondary to the main thrust of the plot of the current movie. One could walk into Star Trek: Beyond not knowing a lot about Star Trek, and end up having a good time with it. It’s failures are more generic – action sequences that rely too much on shaky camera work and rapid fire editing (and one that is so dark that I found it almost incomprehensible – and wearing the 3-D glasses didn’t help), a villain whose motivations are kept vague far too long, and then instead of giving him depth, instead decides on a third act twist, an action finale that, while fun, is derivative. None of this sinks Star Trek: Beyond – for the most part it is a satisfying movie, with a hell of a cast that helps to paper over the thinness of the screenplay – and flaws that bug me are more of the type that do so upon reflection, not really in the moment. I’m sure there will be a fourth entry in this re-booted franchise, and it would be wise to follow this film’s lead, rather than Into Darkness’ – but I want it to delve deeper than it has so far. The characters are fascinating, and have hidden depth, that the filmmakers seem to abandon far too often to have another action sequence.
The story here is about a rescue mission the crew of the Enterprise is sent on – they’ll be heading into deep space, where they will not be able to communicate with the rest of the federation, to retrieve a lost crew who crash landed on a seemingly empty planet. They don’t even get to that planet however, when they are attacked by a swarm of small ships, that move that a horde of insects which are able to evade the weapons on the enterprise. The ship crashes, and the crew is scattered on the planet below. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho) and most of the crew are being held by a madman, Krall (Idris Elba), who want a weapon the enterprise was carrying. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scottie (Simon Pegg) – are the only ones not captured, and hence have to find a way to rescue the crew, retrieve the weapon and save the day – which they attempt to do with the help of a survivor of a previous crew, Jayla (Sofia Boutella).
This is much more a stand-alone story than Into Darkness was – perhaps like a special two part episode of the TV series, although one far heavier on action than the series ever was (not that I much of a Trekkie, so I’m hardly an expert on this stuff). The stakes of the movie – at least until the finale – are refreshingly low – there’s no talk about the world ending, or cities being destroyed, etc. for the majority of its runtimes, which is at least one cliché the movie avoids (the climax, unfortunately, does devolve into some of this – but there’s at least very little talk of it, and the final action climax is just two people engaged in hand-to-hand combat, so at least it’s not just a bunch of crap crashing into each other, which I’ve seen far too much of this summer already). The film is directed by Justin Lin – JJ Abrams, who directed the first two in this franchise decamped for Star Wars – and Lin is as good a choice as any. He directed 4 of the Fast and Furious movies, so he knows how to do action sequences, and do them well – although disappointingly, none of them in this film rival the best moments in the Fast & Furious franchise he is responsible for. The highlight is undeniably the initial attack on the enterprise, which comes unexpectedly (you could say, it comes on Fast and Furious) – and doesn’t overstay its welcome. A secondary highlight is the finale, gravity defying, hand-to-hand combat finale – although that’s somewhat marred by Scottie’s constant yelling about a ticking clock timeline. The other action sequences – including a reprise of those small fighters late in the film, are mostly forgettable – too reliant as they are on shaky camera work and rapid fire editing (and in one case, far too much darkness) rendering much of it incomprehensible. I’m still old-school in my action sequence likes – preferring the smooth camera work of a John Woo or Michael Mann – both of whom understand how to use space, to make it clear to the audience what the hell is happening.
The reason to see the movie remains the cast – who even when they are not given characters deep enough to fully explore, do a good job making you care about them anyway. This is a movie that reveals, early, that both Kirk and Spock are planning on leaving the Enterprise – for different reasons, although neither reveal their plans to the other. Both are valid reasons – and are set up in interesting ways. Kirk is growing tired of constantly being on the move, of exploring new worlds to try and bring them into federation – and if the Universe is infinite, there will never be an endpoint. He’s also still trying to live up to his father’s legacy. He wants out. Spock feels guilt about surviving the destruction of his home planet of Vulcan, and thinks he needs to help out his own people – something brought on stronger by the death of his alternate universe self, who was an ambassador. The movie sets both of these things up – and then abandons them for the bulk of the movie, before disposing of them too quickly at the end. Still, Pine and Quinto, do good work as Kirk and Spock – their dynamic together works. Karl Urban is given slightly more to do as Bones, and he makes the most of it. Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay, certainly gives his Scottie more to do, and more laugh lines, than normal – but he’s so much fun every time he’s on screen you really don’t care. The two new comers to the cast – Idris Elba as Krell and Sofia Boutella as Jayla, are also in fine form. Krell is an underwritten villain – in part because the film wants to keep his motivations under wraps for too long, yet even under all that makeup (and, likely, CGI) Elba is a commanding screen presence, making him a terrifying and insane leader. Boutella is amusing as Jayla – and also a kickass heroine, which I suppose at least partly makes up for the film shunting Uhura aside for much of the action. (By the way, they don’t give the late, great Anton Yelchin all that much to do as Chekov – but he was always one of my favorites in this cast anyway – and remains so here).
Star Trek: Beyond is certainly a flawed (there’s that dreaded “critics” word, as overused as “problematic” – but sometimes fitting). This is a franchise that seems to be stuck trying to do two things at once – trying to be more of the hard(ish) sci-fi and character based narrative of the original series, while at the same time delivering the huge, special effects driven action set pieces all studios assume every audience wants in every summer movie. They still haven’t quite gotten that balance right – but they’re getting closer at least.