Moving at Warp 10: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ Review

Posted in The Screening Room by - July 24, 2016
Moving at Warp 10: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ Review

On September 8, 1966, NBC aired “The Man Trap,” an episode from a new science fiction series about humanity’s exploration of the galaxy described as a “wagon train to the stars.” The initial response to the first episode of Gene Roddenberry’s pet project, according to its writer, George Clayton Johnson, was “complete bewilderment.” Daily Variety columnist Jack Hellman lambasted it for a “lack of meaningful cast leads” in the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForrest Kelley. Others found this drama set on a space ship called Enterprise, this Star Trek, violent, distasteful, and later in its run, controversial.

And the rest – if you’ll excuse the platitude – as they say, is history.

Six TV series, a dozen films, several video games and many novelizations later, Star Trek Beyond, the 13th movie, marks the prolific franchise’s 50th anniversary. Adding to the magnitude of the occasion are the recent deaths of the legendary Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, who played the new Chekov. So, with emotions high, Beyond doesn’t boldly go where no one has gone before, but it goes where it’s needed, delivering as one of the summer’s most exciting films as well as one of the most nostalgic blockbusters in current memory.

The script, co-written by Simon Pegg, who also portrays the Enterprise’s engineer, Scotty, is relatively straightforward. During what’s supposed to be a routine mission in the midst of their 5-year survey of the galaxy’s fringe, the crew is ambushed, the Enterprise destroyed, and everyone is stranded and scattered on a nearby planet dominated by their mysterious attacker, Krall (Idris Elba). So our heroes are left both to gather their wits, each other and find a way to prevent Krall from hatching his “final solution” upon the unsuspecting denizens of an adjacent Federation colony.

Although narrower in scope than the two previous films, Pegg and Doug Jung’s script harkens back to the franchise’s televised roots. By limiting us to a little pocket of the galaxy, Beyond feels more like episodic Star Trek. We get callbacks to the shows through a narrated captain’s log or when first encountering Krall’s forces, how Kirk (Chris Pine) goes from telling Uhura (Zoe Saldana) to “hail them,” to ordering “shields up” and then sounding “red alert!” just like we’ve seen countless times throughout the franchise’s many series.

There’s also more of a sense of Roddenberry’s optimistic humanism, his wonder about the unknown and the theme of philia between friends that’s been substantially bereft from the previous two entries, especially the brooding Into Darkness. Director Justin Lin, who claims the mantle of life-long Trekkie, deserves praise for capturing these motifs — for instance, the futuristic grandeur of human ingenuity in his sweeping shots of Yorktown, the spaceport at which the crew gets some much-needed R&R. Beyond mostly succeeds thanks to his keen visual focus on the Enterprise as a unified family who fight, die, mourn and celebrate together. Another example of Lin’s spot-on direction is when he shares Kirk’s view of the bridge before he ejects from the crumbling Enterprise, resting the camera just long enough before wrenching both Kirk and the viewer away from the beloved ship bound for destruction. For the first time since 2009, the Enterprise is treated as a character; J.J. Abrams, who admitted to preferring Star Wars to Star Trek, similarly preferred treating the Enterprise only as a toy to be crashed with voyeuristic CGI mayhem instead of an icon worthy of a measure of reverence.

The other advantage to Pegg’s co-penned script is it allows the ensemble cast relatively equal screen time. By being separated and marooned, we get unlikely pairings, the best of which are Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) and Scotty and feisty scavenger Jaylah (Sophia Boutella). Urban and Quinto have good chemistry in the banter that is “McPock”: rigid logicality fencing against emotional pessimism. Likewise, Boutella’s blunt, no-nonsense mentality contrasted with Pegg’s diminutive and jovial Scotty is enjoyable as well.

What’s less so is Elba’s Krall. There probably are the ingredients for a strong Trek villain with him, but he just comes off as half-baked. He cracked staring into the same sort of abyss that Kirk struggles with and could have been an interesting foil for our captain, yet his motivations aren’t well-conveyed. Nor are his life-sucking abilities well-explained. Growling aside, Krall at his core is not very menacing. His scheme is genocidal but nevertheless ridiculous. He is a missed opportunity and another forgettable villain in Trek’s pantheon of nemeses.

Moreover, Kirk’s and Spock’s existential problems, which the film takes a bit of time in establishing, are drowned out by the preponderance of CGI action, with each set piece existing to lead to the next one. Kirk’s restless lack of identity and Spock’s relationship problems strained by the duty he feels to his people, interesting quandaries that they are, are just posed but never actually answered.

Overall, though, Beyond is well above average for popcorn flick fare. After watching, it’s easy to see Paramount knows what it’s doing with these precious characters. Perhaps only Marvel is better at producing today’s blockbusters. There’s a solid mixture of hope, friendship, humor, adventure, as well as touching nods for Nimoy, Yelchin and the Trekkies who loved those two and the whole of Roddenberry’s creation. Beyond’s still not the old Trek of most of the last 50 years, but it’s got more than enough heart and excitement to warp itself and its fans into the beyond of the next half-century.

 

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