#7: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Director: Justin Lin
Sci-Fi, Action
2h2min; PG-13

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

There was a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of Trekkies and casual movie fans when Star Trek Into Darkness arrived in 2013. Most of the ill will targeted at the film stemmed from the now infamous Benedict Cumberbatch/Khan plot device, which left many wondering why director J.J. Abrams had kept it a secret in the first place when it was rather obvious. While the issues with Into Darkness are not entirely his fault, I miss J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair for this franchise and hope to see him again soon. That being said, with Abrams serving as a producer on this year’s Star Trek Beyond I have to say that in director Justin Lin’s hands the franchise is still safe. Beyond is a good film and it is a different kind of Star Trek movie.

The film picks up in the middle of the star ship Enterprise‘s 5-year mission that it left for at the end of Into Darkness. The crew has experienced many adventures on their trip so far and while the thrill of discovering new things in the vastness of space is still present, the journey and a sense of cabin fever are beginning to weigh on everyone, particularly Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). The days are beginning to blend together and Kirk, now one year older than his father was when he died heroically long ago, is searching for a way back onto firm ground and he isn’t the only one. Many of the core crew have their own lives apart from the Enterprise and so when they are sent on another mission the sense that there are greater stakes besides the fate of worlds is very present.

Beyond is different for many reasons. One, the first third of the film is positively riveting. I was gripping my seat at the interstellar action occurring on-screen. The second reason is that Beyond is certainly the most action-packed of these recent Trek films. There are multiple nail-biting shootouts and some pretty cool chase sequences and much of this is because of Justin Lin. Lin is responsible for the 3rd, 4th, 5th (my favorite) and 6th Fast and the Furious films so he knows how to construct action particularly when it is vehicular. While the action is very often fantastic in this film the plot is slightly lacking in terms of emotional oomph or even clear direction. 2/3 of the way into the film I still wasn’t entirely certain what the main villain’s motivation or goal was.

Never is there a moment where it seems like people are walking next to a green screen.

While the film may feel mildly aimless at times this is certainly the funniest Star Trek film. Perhaps that has to do with Simon Pegg- who plays Scotty and has co-written and acted in many of Edgar Wright’s comedy hybrids dating all the way back to Shaun of the Dead in 2004- taking up co-writing duties on the script next to series regular Roberto Orci. The funniest moments in the film revolve around the banter between Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban). There is also a moment near the film’s climax that hearkens back to J.J. Abram’s first Star Trek film and had me laughing out loud with joy. Beyond is far less dark and dire than its predecessors and is more of a balancing of the scales and that is completely okay.

The acting across the film is business as usual. Pine, Quinto, Urban and Zoe Saldana (Lieutenant Nyota Uhura) are all playing it just as they have before, although a bit more world-weary. The explosive public backlash that resulted from the announcement that John Cho’s Hikaru Sulu would be revealed as gay was unfounded, of course. Very few social justice- or Trekkie justice, whatever- warriors had seen the film so how could they know? Even the fact that a kissing moment between Sulu and his man was cut from the final product isn’t enough to warrant 5 sentences of anger. He wraps his arm around his man and their daughter and walks off and that’s it. What a fucking outrage.

The deaths of Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin linger in the back of the mind throughout, and particularly when Yelchin is on-screen as Pavel Chekov you can’t take your eyes from him. That he plays a more prominent role in this film is no accident but it is not to preserve his legacy. It is what the film requires. While none of Nimoy made it into Beyond his role in bringing and entire universe to life is not glanced over. There are words for him in the film that are filled with more weight and emotion than we even have a right to witness. It is truly a beautiful thing.

There are two newcomers to this franchise: Lydia Wilson as the warrior Kalara and Idris Elba as the villainous Krall. Elba is now on his way to being a part of every franchise (Marvel, Star Trek, The Dark Tower, perhaps another one….) and in this film there is more of the gruff barbarian Elba seen in last year’s Beasts of No Nation. Very often it felt like I was watching the crew of the Enterprise contend more with a highly intelligent beast than a man. As I mentioned before the film’s plot feels just a bit aimless and the point of Krall’s plan was vague to me even up to the moment of its fruition. All of this aside it would be safe to say the Krall is a better villain than Eric Bana’s Nero in the 2009 Star Trek.

That there are greater stakes besides the fate of worlds is very present.

Lydia Wilson’s Kalara is a welcome addition to the Star Trek universe. Stranded on a hostile planet, she is a warrior who has learned to fend for herself, vowing revenge for a wrong done to her at a young age. Kalara holds her own both in combat and in conversation, especially with Scotty, the first member of the crew that she encounters. While Wilson plays her very serious most of the time Kalara also has some pretty funny moments, particularly involving ’90s hip-hop. If there is only one complaint about her it is that near the film’s climax she pretty much disappears completely and it is uncertain why.

Something I can say that gives me true joy in Beyond are the visual effects. As opposed to The Legend of TarzanCaptain America: Civil War and maybe even Deadpool this film’s visuals look fucking real. There were moments where I could not tell if Krall’s soldiers were effects or flesh and blood. Never is there a moment where it seems like people are walking next to a green screen. The skirmish that occurs in the opening third of the film is a sight to behold and coupled with Michael Giacchino’s booming score puts the spectacle in Beyond on par with that seen in the 2009 film.

This is a back-t0-basics Star Trek. What is so refreshing in Beyond is that so often the human element of the film is almost completed removed from the equation. For the first time this decade we don’t spend any time on Earth. We are taken to new worlds, vistas so beautiful they bring to mind the wonders of Pandora in Avatar. This film asks whether or not the crew of the Enterprise is still boldly willing to go where no man has gone before. After watching Beyond I hope that they are.

 

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