Monday, August 1, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

– An Imperfect Film Whose Sheer Power of Will Made Me Love It

First let me get the basics out. I am a Star Trek fan from as far back as I can remember. My initial passion was The Original Series, but I eventually warmed up to and fell in love with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and have seen all of the Star Trek movies more times than I can count – with the exception of the The Motion Picture, which falls into once is great and enough territory.  So, when the reboot of Star Trek came along, I was as excited to see the franchise back as I was cautious as to what direction they would take these classic pop figures. However, despite a bit too much lens flare and not enough Trek banter for my taste, this old school Trekkie was not as disappointed with the final product as some other hard core fans - Star Trek was a well executed enough little adventure to get me pumped for what would be coming next.

Into Darkness, the sequel, was also not a bad film, but the “retreading of old ground from The Wrath of Khan” effect left a bad taste in my mouth. Contrary to the first film, this one had me a bit more worried as to what would come next.  And here is what comes next: Star Trek Beyond – celebrating 50 years of one of pop culture's most enduring science fiction cornerstones. So what is this old Trekkie's verdict? Two very pleased thumbs up despite some very obvious warts – and here is why. Star Trek Beyond is the first of the series that decides to go on its own path. There was no Leonard Nimoy to carry the old fans into the new era, nor a needless re-imagined Khan (among other things) to remind us of how great Star Trek II was. No, Star Trek Beyond decides to stand on its own feet and chart its new space - this is what Star Trek is for this generation and you can either love it or hate it.

I am glad they took this chance because history proved that when TNG stopped trying to rehash original series stories and DS9 stopped trying to rehash TNG fluff, both series evolved into the best of the spin offs. This new crew has just opened up the doors to be able to do just that - 3 years into their 5 year mission. I can only hope this means two more movies to come, but I would be happy with them finishing on six like the original cast did. Star Trek Beyond carries itself mightily in a story line that doesn't always equal all the sums of its parts. It involves a captain who doesn't want to captain anymore, and a first officer who is thinking in the same vein. As fate would have it they get sucked into going on a rescue mission that turns out to be much more than that. Left stranded on an alien world, they need to figure out how to rescue one another and stop a crazed villain, Krall, played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba, from laying humanity waste.

If the above passage reads more like the plot line for the latest comic book adaption movie, it's because it feels like it at times. Fortunately, the new director Jastin Lin and fellow Trekkies Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, and Doug Jung have enough sensibility (and Trek in their blood) to humanize the whole ordeal and give each of the crew members important parts to play in this convoluted scheme. This approach works on a visceral level, making for an entertaining movie experience, while allowing us a few minutes to sit and get to know these characters a bit better. It was especially sad to see how much the late Anton Yelchin had to do as Chekov. His character grew a lot since we last saw him as the bubbly youngster in the last two films.

This movie also makes sure to give us more subtle call backs to the original cast – YEAH SUBTLE, I am talking to you JJ. There are those regurgitated lines from Bones and Spock that never get old, a great old school shot of the Enterprise going into warp from under the saucer section looking back onto the warp engines, and a respectfully brief moment to remember the cast that started it all. And since the trailer gives away the destruction of the Enterprise, I must say this was a very impressive devastation scene which does manage to give a nod to Star Trek Generations while upping the ante.

Although all this adds up to a really enjoyable film experience, I did mention that there were some warts. They aren't as pesky as the ones in Into Darkness (and to a lesser extent Star Trek) but they are still nagging challenges that should be overcome if the next feature wants to contend for a stop in the top tier of the Star Trek cinematic pantheon.

For one, the villains are still not up to par with the best of either The Original Series of The Next Generation crew era films. Understandably, it's hard to have to come up with a motivation for every evil villain and make it feel original or pressing. The original cast films seemed to get away with this by making Kirk the principal target for the ire of the likes of Khan or General Chang in what most fans consider to be the strongest of the six movies. The Next Generation crew went in the other direction in their best outing, First Contact, and gave us a Borg Queen with no motivation needed other than resistance being futile. The problem with Star Trek Beyond is that rebooted cast doesn't have enough history to have personal enemies (the first film had to go as far as to include the original Spock to fill that role for its villain) and the Federation is still too young and hasn't explored enough space to be facing civilization swallowing threats – although I think those pesky Klingons are prime for an outing next go around.
This film's antagonist, Krall, has little motivation for us to ponder over – and it's actually a bit confusing to grasp. We eventually conclude that it's the average revenge story, but with no real punch to it, as it is revenge solely based on his twisted vision of humanity. This sort of motivation works better in fantasy comic book universes, although the recent Marvel films featuring similarly motivated antagonists, Ultron and Apocalypse, fell flat mainly due to those villains' lack of personal investment in their devilish plots - their actions were purely driven by their one dimensional obsession with destroying mankind. In the “logical” universe of Star Trek, which tries to portray some sort of possible future reality, this type of characterization weakens one of the pillars of good storytelling – a good believable villain we can almost even relate to is essential for making us all grip our movie theater arm rests a bit tighter.

Second, the banter was not completely gelled between all the characters. There is a lone scene between Kirk and Bones where I couldn't help but make little mental comparisons to Shatner and Kelly – to their credit Pine and Urban do a decent job for only having been wearing those uniforms for such a short period of time, but it was nevertheless distracting during what was meant to be a profound moment. In other scenes the acting felt lazy. It's as if the actors were trying too hard to be throwbacks to their original incarnations. This had a caricature effect, removing a lot of the depth from personalities we have grown to love for that very depth.

Oddly, I thought that in the first two films there was better chemistry between everyone, but perhaps it's because they were still at a point in the character's time lines that hadn't reached the same point in the original cast's. In this movie they are already well into their mission, and so comparing this Kirk to a three-year-into-space original Kirk became difficult to not do – even if it was solely a knee jerk reaction.

Last, whether successful or not, this film did attempt to give the crew more breathing space to build on the comradery which makes watching even those original six films and television episodes (cheap and cheesy special effects and all) still watchable to this day. This is commendable, as slowing down set a better tone for this movie – allowing it to escape the criticism of the first two outings, which are constantly described as JJ Abrams' attempt to make Star Wars before he got his hand on the real deal.

Nonetheless, there was still the missing ingredient of the full Roddenberry vision. Sure, there are small bits of dialogue exchanged between the crew and the numerous villains to reassure us that humanity has evolved past its dark ages – but the message of striving for something greater than what we are today is still not the fulcrum of these new films.

Although Lt. Uhura has a nice little speech about unity when speaking to Krall, unity is subjective – plenty of Trek's greatest villains also operate in unison. Roddenberry's message through Star Trek is that only together can we achieve peace, and only through peace can we achieve greatness. We do this by focusing on what binds us, not what divides us, and by judging each individual (in inspired Martin Luther King Jr. fashion) by the content of their character. In a modern world so seemingly full of division and hate, and with America poised to vote for two potentially divisive culture shifting candidates for president, I think that Roddenberry's message could not have been more essential than right now in this film.

These are lost opportunities that I hope are looked at and bettered for future installations.

Those quibbles aside, though, I was still riveted. This movie's self assured spirit is what saves it. It has no desire to tread old ground and adds a host of new characters who feel right at home in this universe. On the technical end, the action sequences were crisp.,the fights were well choreographed, and the pacing was perfect - the movie didn't feel rushed but didn't lag anywhere.

This fresh Star Trek adventure does indeed look to go “beyond” to hopefully another 50 years of franchise glory. It also seems to be reversing the curse of the odd numbered Star Trek films being the lackluster of the bunch, although, let's hope number four doesn't mean that now the even numbered ones are going to take up the lackluster mantle alongside the previous outing. This bring me to my last and most important point, this new chapter made me forget the sting of Into Darkness and look very much forward to what comes next and beyond.

Post by P. Ray

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