review – STAR TREK B e y o n d

28 11 2016


STAR TREK BEYOND, directed by Justin Lin, is the third, and lesser, of filmmaker J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot’s revitalization of the vast science-fiction drama that began as a television series in 1966 and ran for three seasons, going on, of course, to set the bar for what later became called, first, cult-appeal, and later, “franchise” entertainment. Abrams directed the first two entries in a new vision of the twenty-third century, occurring in an alternate reality from the original series, another quantum dimension, that involves the same original cast of characters even before the beginning of their careers in the Federation’s Star Fleet.
The first, 2009’s STAR TREK, was a fun, rip-roaring quasi origin story about how our familiar Enterprise crew becomes a team in this alternate universe, with Abrams’ unique ability to juggle ideas and action and characters with a kind of fleet efficient story-telling; and, on a deeper level, it’s about two men, Kirk and Spock, with definitively different backgrounds and how they become adversarial shipmates who discover they’re own unique relationship as brotherly adventurers with similar natures. The follow up film, also directed by Abrams, INTO DARKNESS (2013), while strangely and deeply divisive, is a rare pop masterpiece in which Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk transforms from self-involved, self-satisfied immaturity, even as a commander, into manhood and leadership through the acceptance of responsibility for his crew and the Federation and, ultimately, self-sacrifice.
BEYOND introduces a strong theme, one “meta” enough to be appropriate for STAR TREK’s fiftieth anniversary, and one the filmmakers were quick to mention in pre-release interviews; it sets up the questioning of the value of Starfleet’s (and, by extension, “Star Trek”’s) mission, the point of it all. But it barely pays lip service to this idea, much less exploring it and finding a definitively positive conclusion, and it also finds the expression of this concept through an entirely wrongheaded narrative choice that undercuts the direction of the main character’s development. (That said, Chris Pine is, for a third time, exceptional as Captain James Kirk, the strongest and most engaging draw in a thoroughly remarkable cast that proves to be responsible for the new movie’s genuine appeal.)

The story begins about half way through their unprecedented five year mission, an assignment that Kirk, in INTO DARKNESS, highly desired. The problem isn’t starting well into that assignment (the opening of the original series, without saying it explicitly, suggested the Enterprise was well into its travels), but rather the decision to have Kirk grappling with a kind of youthful version of a middle-aged crisis. It’s the Captain’s birthday (as in THE WRATH OF KHAN) only in this reality, Jim is painfully aware its a birthday, in terms of age, that his father, the heroic George Kirk, who died so that his wife and new-born son, and the survivors of the attack on their ship, the USS Kelvin, could escape with their lives, never reached. This is played out in a melancholy Captain’s log voice-over and a good scene that genuinely smacks of the original series at its most adult-sophisticated, between Kirk and Bones over a drink.
Kirk’s deep space ennui, his boredom with mission after mission feeling (in a clever choice of word) “episodic”, would play more effectively, however, if this were the fourth (or better still, the 5th) film in the series.. We left INTO DARKNESS, in a way reflecting the characters, excited about the adventures ahead — which we (and, in a way, they– the characters) miss out on completely with BEYOND’s emotional tenor and set-up. The adventure within the film itself, I suppose, stands for their shared past in daring-do together (one of my favorite sequences involves the crew figuring their way out of a tough situation by essentially finishing one another’s sentences), and reawakens Kirk to the life he was meant for and lucky to have and serves, round-aboutly, to stating why their mission, and STAR TREK, is still meaningful (in service to the 50th anniversary mentioned). But having Pine play Kirk as at rope’s end in terms of his future, is just the wrong pay off to the preceding films that introduce the characters, and Kirk in particular, and goes on to explore Kirk and his crew through complications made manifest in the character of Khan and, ultimately, deserves a better clearer resolution of their heroic mission in the form of a real adventure, not a sense of barely avoiding throwing in the towel.

The movie introduces, right off the top, a number of enticing new visuals, including a depiction of the U.S.S. Enterprise at warp speed that has both a enveloping abstract art quality along with a hint of space-physics verisimilitude. The starship arrives at the Federation starbase Yorktown , at the most distant edge of explored space. The Yorktown, enclosed and shielded in an invisible bubble, with a unique (and fascinating docking facility) is like a port city in space that suggests a cross between Lando’s STAR WARS Cloud City and a brighter, friendlier Deep Space Nine.


No sooner does the crew settles in for some necessary R and R, with a few intriguing hints at their lives away from the ship and one another, they are assigned an emergency search for a missing alien space vessel. With the one member of that alien crew who made it to the Yorktown base, Kirk leads the Enterprise through some beautifully designed nebulae and a dangerous asteroid belt, accompanied by his hopeful orders broadcast to his crew that harken back to several episodes of the Original Series, dealing lightly with human nature and the true nature of mysteries. But its the spin from Act I to Act II (the screenplay by Doug Jung and cast member Simon Pegg is unimaginitive and stolid in its structure and execution, coming alive most engagingly in moments rather than long narrative arcs), in which the U.S.S. Enterprise is attacked and ultimately brought down, parts of it raining down on a nearby planet, that provides the film with some genuine power, finding and exploiting character moments as affecting as the extremely well made effects shots of the Enterprise swarmed and pummeled and torn into its separate sections by a dense fleet of small, missile-like spacecraft.

We’ve seen starships called Enterprise destroyed twice before on the big screen. William Shatner’s Admiral Kirk in STAR TREK III The Search for Spock, used the original ship’s self-destruct during a messy, bloody confrontation with a notably strange Klingon Warlord and director Leonard Nimoy gave the sequence an appropriate operatic, elegiac quality. In STAR TREK Generations, Picard’s Enterprise-D, under his exec’ Will Riker’s command, undergoes a crash landing of the ship’s command saucer section in an action sequence of mammoth proportions that suggested THE FUGITIVE’s train crash only a billion times larger.
In BEYOND, director Lin rather artfully and efficiently breaks the attack on the starship and combative boarding by masked, armored soldiers and their seemingly alien leader, Krall (Idris Elba; why’d you cast an actor as deft and charismatic as the man who brought “The Wire”’s Stringer Bell to life and then bury him under a convincing make-up that, nevertheless, replaces the performance, is beyond me), and delivers the spectacle of the massive ship’s destruction with the characters’ sense of military training and psychological preparedness for just such an emergency. Though telegraphed that it will all end badly, the movie’s depiction of the crew and its primary officers (the main cast who communicate a “they are really there” believability) each undertaking specific tasks and fighting to maintain control of the ship and the situation, adrenalizes in a way that far outdoes the Generations crash sequence as it synthesizes with the sense of tragedy in III. For all the high tech action, the movie doesn’t shy from the characters’ emotions, without wallowing in them, as they escape in life pods, many of which are hijacked by their attackers, and, in tight-isn close-ups, react to what is, essentially, the loss of their home, and their mission in the broadest sense. Lin smartly lingers longest on Pine’s Kirk who has lost his command, and clearly feels he’s failed his crew, as he witnesses his ship’s saucer, with it command bridge, falling to the planet below.

The second Act takes place on that planet below, the unexplored Altamid, which actually suggests a mysterious new world due to some to some good location shooting that’s enhanced by some inventive production design and subtle but clever visual effects that pays attention to small details, like the digitally created flora and fauna, in a way that recalls, even though it doesn’t quite match, the planet where the action begins in INTO DARKNESS, Nibiru. On Altamid, the Enterprise survivors find themselves teaming in various combinations and each in various dilemmas.
The most entertaining of these pairings are Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is painfully wounded during the evacuation from Enterprise and ship’s medical officer, “Bones” (Karl Urban). Both are at their best in BEYOND, with Urban playing up the character’s comic view of galactic events that ultimately finds a punchline in the mutual respect shared by Captain Kirk’s two antagonistic best friends, and Quinto seemingly more confident in his role, as a maturing Spock, and one can’t help but wonder if the passing of the originator of the role with whom Quinto apparently became a legitimate friend, Leonard Nimoy, freed him in a way complementary to the Spock sub-plot in the script. Nimoy’s death is acknowledged in the credits that pay both the old master and the trio of film’s young Ensign Chekov, Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident before the film’s release; and “Prime” timeline Spock’s passing finds a place in the story that provides the movie’s most genuine emotional pull).

Simon Pegg’s Scotty comes across and joins forces with a young alien woman, abandoned on the planet since childhood, through circumstances largely the same as the Enterprise crew. Her name’s Jaylah (Sophia Boutella) and she’s a kind of “fanboy”’s dream: quite fetching, in an exotic way, and single (if that’s only because she’s a castaway), with an engineer’s straight-to-the-point brain, the fighting prowess of an Amazon, and a dancer’s body; thankfully, Ms. Boutella and director Lin underplay the character’s part in the story’s events just enough so she doesn’t become cloyingly cute, as her forthrightness and upside-down pigin english plays to its limit before becoming an affected irritation. The revelation of a secret she unwittingly holds is both narratively multi-purpose and, conceptually, is an ideal visualization of the story’s themes.

Elsewhere, Sulu and Uhura take charge of the other Enterprise survivors who have been imprisoned by their attacker, Krall. Zoe Saldana brings across Uhura’s strength nicely, standing her ground against their monstrous enemy, but the scenes between them, moving a plot ahead regarding an ancient alien artifact that fails to ignite interest, are largely indistinguishable and seem to hit the same note over and over again (not unlike Eric Bana’s Romulan, Nero, in the first film; but in that case, the rest of the film was so inventive and our interest was entirely taken by the recreation and casting of the original characters that all Nero had to be was a powerful enemy, a madman bent on revenge). In the case of BEYOND, though, this weakness is part of the film’s second significant problem.


The filmmakers had a terrific idea in Krall (and in the character’s casting; Elba still finds layers of motivation beneath all the make-up), especially in terms of the film’s 50th anniversary status and its rediscovery of what STAR TREK is, by intending him as a deconstruction and opposition to Starfleet’s mandate of exploring the unknowns of outer space as a means of learning more and the desire for peace and dialogue over combat, about our own nature’s. “This is where the frontier ends,” he memorably and effectively announces to his human enemies, yet it took three viewings for me ( I’m someone who gets a passing references to “the Xindi” and recognizes the class of the vessel, the U.S.S. Franklin, that Kirk and his reunited crew restore to pursue and prevent Krall and his swarm of attack ships when they set out to destroy Yorktown) to really feel the meaning and emotions that’re at stake rather than as plot points. ( Without revealing a talent critical part of the story, I think Krall would have worked more as Colonel Kurtz. ) Essentially, BEYOND has a reliable, decent “Star Trek” story and a basic, solid “Star Trek” structure, with a relevant theme, action sequences and character moments and interchanges, and it is satisfying in this regard, even a fun (if somewhat forgettable) adventure. But with its ancient Agornath relic, some vampiric fountain of youth business and, frankly, a twist you can see coming three parsecs away, BEYOND fails to find that “magic,” something unique certainly at work wonderfully in INTO DARKNESS, of selecting and layering imaginative, disparate ideas into a whole that’s as good or even better than its part and makes a clear thematic statement at conclusion. To be fair, the new film does hit several strong and satisfying character and narrative beats at its final, memorable, ending.


STAR TREK BEYOND is meat and potatoes, as basic a take on on the 23d century mythos as seems proper for the series’ half-centennial, and I’ve found different things to appreciate and enjoy in each of those three screenings. But for me, and I’m in the minority amongst the purists, what’s great about BEYOND’s two Abrams-diected predecessors are their sense of inventiveness, the pleasures they take and give back in bold and unexpected and different broad strokes and offbeat details, than what we’ve seen before. I had, admittedly, hoped for a third film to pick up the canon-expanding rip-roar, thematic webs and character-based storylines of the first two entries in this new vision (particularly Pine’s Jim Kirk, who in the first two pictures transforms from boyhood selfishness and ego-driven bravado into owning a sense of responsibility to things larger than himself and the selflessness that makes for a commander of men and women; while a third film could have seen him come to full manhood in a relationship with a woman more than his match, as opposed to the playthings we’ve previously seen him with, which INTO DARKNESS’ Alice Eve’s Lt. Carol Marcus was ideal for, he, instead has a mid-life crisis when turns 30).
Of course the yet to be titled, likely to be produced, STAR TREK 4 can reignite those more outrageously creative impulses while remaining true to the series’ original optimism and the belief in the betterment of humankind, which BEYOND epitomizes in a great Jim Kirk moment, facing down the adversarial Krall. With terse and genuine nobility, Kirk informs his adversary about how human beings’ most essential capacity is the ability to change for the better at no loss to its courage in taking on challenges. Without a hint of imitation, Chris Pine nails what’s possibly the film’s best moment with Shatner-ian aplomb.





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