Where Everyone Has Gone Before: “Star Trek Beyond”

Star Trek Beyond (2016, Dir. Justin Lin): 

You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there — Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is ‘Does the Federation mean anything?’ And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?

— Chris Pine

Like the rebooted Star Trek movie universe in general,  Star Trek Beyond is one strange duck, if you can imagine a creature that resembles a duck, kitted out with spinning hubcaps, rear spoilers and an exhaust that belches turbo-charged flame. (Given director Justin Lin’s pedigree with the Fast and Furious franchise, the car metaphor is completely intentional.) The movie wants to remind us that it’s a Star Trek film, so we receive some homilies about teamwork and a better future, as well as enough references to the original television series to feed a space station full of tribbles (extra points to diehard fans who spot the giant green hand in the end credits). On the other hand, it also wants to establish itself as the hip, happening thing of the moment, which means that Lin, fresh off of pumping steroids into the already engorged biceps of the Fast and Furious flicks, is adrenalizing things at every turn.  Getting a little tired of those chintzy old uniforms? Okay, we still have them, but say hello to cool leathery away-team outfits. Did you ever find yourself wishing that Star Trek featured a motorbike chase? Pine no more, as Chris Pine buzzes into action on a decidedly 21st-century pair of wheels.

st-beyond02As with the two previous Trek films directed by J.J. Abrams, the result is a mishmash, where plot and theme merely kickstart the proceedings. What really matters isn’t the Big Ideas that have often characterized Trek, but the sight of colorful starships bashing the bejeezus out of each other, or the cool noises that hand phasers make as they’re fired. For some, this won’t be a bad thing; successfully translating Trek’s warm-hearted, philosophical liberalism to the big screen can be a daunting task. Faced with the choice of trying (and usually failing) to invest a Trek movie with a thoughtful, resonant message, or simply giving the multiplex crowds what they want, the filmmakers have usually opted for the latter. Thus, you get money shots like the redoubtable starship Enterprise’s hull ripped open and expendable crew members sucked into space (in what has become the presiding image of the new Trek movies).

With the new cast inhabiting the old roles of Captain Kirk, Spock, McCoy and company for the third time, a sense of “been there, done that” has already crept in, a  fact that hasn’t escaped Kirk (Chris Pine): “Thing have started to feel a little… episodic,” he sighs. Where it took William Shatner’s Kirk three TV seasons and two movies to get beaten down by ennui, we’ve already fast-forwarded to an incipient mid-life crisis for Pine, which just goes to show how difficult it is to create a sense of progression with these characters when you only see them once every three years. Kirk isn’t the only one jones-ing for a change: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) have split up, with the former ready to abandon Starfleet in order to help rebuild what’s left of Vulcan society. Sulu (John Cho) has a husband and a daughter to worry about. Even crotchety Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) has nothing to do besides sip whiskey and psychoanalyze Kirk. Like Vin Diesel’s gang at the beginning of every Fast and Furious movie, the crew members need a life-and-death situation to jostle them out of their rut, and they get it when a distress call leads them straight into an ambush by Krall (Idris Elba, unrecognizable under mountains of makeup), an alien with a mysterious past and a swarm of gnat-like ships at his disposal. In no time flat they make mincemeat of the Enterprise, leaving our heroes marooned on the planet of Altamid, dependent on their own wits and courage to survive.

stbeyond-05Star Trek Beyond (Beyond what? It’s never explained), as can be inferred from that synopsis, is essentially a standard Trek TV episode writ large, which is a bit of a relief. J.J. Abrams’ previous two Trek entries were so preoccupied with acknowledging and riffing on past iterations of Trek that they fell apart in story construction. While Lin’s pacing can be just as frenetic as Abrams’, he isn’t as eager to please at all costs — all he cares about is rocketing towards the next set piece as efficiently as possible, and his friction-less style allows the movie to go down as easy as Saurian brandy. He’s better than Abrams at spatial dynamics, and the movie’s best shots are both grandiose and unfussy: the Enterprise rendezvousing with a “snow globe” space station, the camera rotating in all directions to match the artificial gravity that spins the station round and round, or Kirk ruminating alone in his quarters as the Enterprise hits warp speed, the stars streaking past his window. Simon Pegg, who pulls double duty playing Scotty and co-writing the script, is an avowed Trek fan, and he manages to cram some nice fan service in between the explosions, running and jumping. An early brouhaha leaves Kirk with his shirt ripped up, just like Shatner’s glory days. Urban’s McCoy, woefully underused in the previous movies, not only pulls out the classic “I’m a doctor not a…” line, but finally gets to hobnob with Quinto’s Spock; though their repartee isn’t that special, their tetchy affection is the closest the movie comes to recapturing the old Trek spirit. A Shakespeare quote is even thrown in for good measure (although it’s not in the original Klingon, so to speak). There’s also a host of exotic tech and aliens on display, the most prominent of the latter being Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah, a lithe warrior in Kabuki makeup who aids Kirk’s team and adds a few laughs, thanks to her idiosyncratic grasp of English.

st-beyond03All in all, Beyond is a clear improvement on Star Trek Into Darkness, but it’s also the very definition of a popcorn movie: you’ll enjoy it in the moment, your tummy might ache a bit afterwards as you ponder the film’s implausibilities, and all will be forgotten the following morning. Beyond has plenty of gloss, but as soon as our characters get marooned, the movie gets bogged down in its Middle Earth-like setting. Most of the fault lies with the script, which is as consequence-free as it gets — an odd thing, given that the villain’s main objective is to eradicate millions of innocent lives. (Elba hisses his lines with trademark intensity, but as with most Trek movie villains, he’s just a clunky plot device.) As hinted at in the trailers, the Enterprise meets a fiery end, but is there any doubt that the crew will be handed a new ship by the end of the movie? The original Star Trek movie series at least had the grace to avoid coming up with another Enterprise for at least a whole film after the first one was blown up. Every bit of manufactured drama similarly rings hollow. Does anyone truly believe the boyish Pine will give up a life of adventure to be a desk jockey, as he threatens to do at the beginning of the movie, or that Quinto’s Spock will walk away from Starfleet? Much of Star Trek’s juice comes from character interactions, and Beyond is too busy hurrying to the next big action setpiece to give the actors much of a chance. The Spock-Uhura romance is all but brushed aside, and the Kirk-Spock bro-mance receives maybe five minutes of screen time. Even cantankerous Bones McCoy spends more time firing phasers and piloting alien spaceships than getting off his usual zingers. The script’s lack of depth is especially damaging to Pine, who truth be told, is a bit of a bore as Kirk. Pine doesn’t hog the spotlight like William Shatner did — he’s too much of a nice guy for that — but neither does he add much spark, and now that his rebellious tendencies from the first few Trek movies have been erased, the only note he has left to play is stalwart captain (like we said, boring). On the other side of the spectrum is Quinto, who abandons the rigor of his previous portrayals as Spock and goes emo, smiling and laughing at regular intervals, his eyes watering at the drop of a hat. It’s a jarring performance, if not a particularly strong one.

st-beyond04It’s easy to get caught up with Lin’s pyrotechnics and Pegg’s cheekiness, and when the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” shows up once again on the soundtrack, the song used to save the universe this time, you just might be able to roll with it. But even if you do, there’s little to hold onto after the smoke clears. “Unity is our strength,” says Uhura, a sentiment that wouldn’t sound too out of place with Vin Diesel’s crew, and Beyond can’t come up with anything more profound than that to foist on the audience. The best Trek films, even the action-packed ones, have something interesting to say about the human condition; besides the occasional bout of bro-bonding, Beyond can only serve up more action. The film does conclude on a lovely grace note, as the death of the original Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy) is acknowledged. We linger on a snapshot of the original crew in all its glory, reminding us of where we’re from (it’s the show’s 50th anniversary after all), and how much we’ve gotten away from it. Where we’re going is another matter: for all the fast and furious action, the Trek franchise is spinning its wheels, and while there are far worse things than a breezy time at the movies, there can also be far better, at least where Star Trek is concerned.

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