Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Movie Review

One of the great things about Star Trek, be it any of the series or many of the feature films, is the way it has always put ideas at the forefront of its stories, valuing philosophy and political science above action and swashbuckling. Even First Contact, my absolute favorite of all the movies, found a way to work some excellent action sequences into a film that was mostly about ideas and really developed some of the characters.


Of course all the iterations of the “Star Trek” series had the luxury of airing every week, giving writers a lot more leeway to develop themes. You can have the occasional action-oriented episode to keep people hooked while filling out the rest with good writing. Movies are different. You’ve got about two hours to tell your story. While this was good enough in the 80s and even into the 90s, today’s entertainment culture demands stunts, visual effects, and spectacle. It’s the best way, producers probably rightly guess, to get people out of their houses and into the theaters. So something like a Star Trek movie has to reside at that confluence of business and entertainment. They don’t have the luxury to just wax poetic on the meaning of a universe seeking to better itself or what happens to a military leader who no longer has a battle to fight and he’s outlived what he sees as his usefulness.

And so Star Trek Beyond has an odd job to do. It’s the third in this series, so the ground rules have been established by Star Trek and relationships more firmly fomented by Into Darkness. Now should be the time for focusing on the ideas.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this movie. The principal cast has really begun to settle into their roles. They know each other and they click with nice chemistry. It no longer feels like mimicry of the old cast, but instead the trio of Chris Pine as Captain James Kirk, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, and Zachary Quinto as Spock are beginning to gel with one another, creating that complex set of relationships that was the heart of the previous set of movies. The rest of the cast, too, including Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Doug Jung) as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekhov all find enough room in a crowded plot to make their marks.

Those core relationships give the movie its heart, but on top of that is the action. Justin Lin takes over the director’s chair from J.J. Abrams and brings a new flair to the staging. The action isn’t quite as over-the-top as in Into Darkness, but they are definitely more energetic and conceptually more fantastic. There’s a sequence involving tens of thousands of tiny ships operating according to the rules of a swarm attacking the Enterprise and destroying it piece by piece that is terrifyingly gorgeous and one of the best space battles this series has ever executed. As we marvel at the complexity, we lament the destruction of our heroes’ vessel.

Most of the crew find themselves captured and imprisoned by Krall (Idris Elba), whose nefarious purposes involve recovering a kind of doomsday biological weapon that will destroy the Federation. On the planet, Kirk and Scotty befriend Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who was once similarly imprisoned but escaped at the expense of her family and takes refuge in an old starship.

As fun and exciting and enjoyable as all that is, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the lack of ambition in Pegg’s and Jung’s screenplay. They have as their villain a potentially complex former battle commander who finds his usefulness worn out by a universe guided principally by peace and exploration. There is so much worth exploring in that idea from how it feels to spend your whole professional career fighting and then being told the battle is over to what it means to have armies and commanders and starships without much need for such weapons and training. But most of this revelation is introduced at the end and then rushed toward the final action sequence and just as quickly dismissed. For a series that has always been so good at tackling ideas and powerful subject matter, I feel short-changed by this. All the makings for a great Star Trek movie were put in place, but some of it was sold out for the action.

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