One of the biggest problems I’ve had with Star Trek over the last few years is that the people in charge of it seemingly didn’t understand the characters or the universe. They got a few things right; I have to give them that. I’m on record as being a big fan of the new cast. And the look of the universe – while not entirely what I’d have chosen – has really grown on me. Yes, the uniforms are cool. The ships are more beautiful than they’ve ever been, the sound effects are amazing and everyone even has those cool pointy sideburns that were in the original show.
But that’s the upside. What’s the downside? As much as I like Chris Pine, it’s a whole lot less easy to feel much of anything for Millennial Kirk. Zachary Quinto’s portrayal of Spock was nearly pitch perfect, except for that whole Roid Rage thing. I don’t ever remember Spock tearing his hair out and punching holes in things every time the warp engines got a little low on space-oil. And why is he with Uhura? Why is everything in the galaxy five minutes away? When did the Enterprise become a submarine? Why the fuck is Khan a white guy from Hammersmith?
Have these people even seen Star Trek before?
In another lifetime, for another website, I called 2009’s Star Trek a “triumph”, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. The franchise was all but dead at the time, so there was really nowhere to go but up. This newer, younger, sexier version was more big dumb action flick than anything else, but for once Star Trek found a measure of appeal outside its usual demographic of aging nerds and snarky hipsters who only enjoy it ironically. And it came not a moment too soon – the last few attempts at revival had been either stupid, confusing or just plain boring.
Apparently, nobody had any idea how to write a story about a positive, Utopian future where humans explore the universe, having kick-ass adventures while spreading peace, unity and hope.
Well, they still don’t. If the 2009 reboot was at best a passable facsimile of Star Trek, 2013’s Into Darkness was clearly written by someone whose only exposure to it was a Wrath of Khan comic adaptation drawn by a partially blind, completely hammered Trappist monk while sitting on the teacup ride at Disneyland. It had neither heart, soul or science, and it quickly devolved into just another mediocre action flick full of massive explosions and obnoxious space battles, utterly devoid of satisfaction or substance.
It made a shit ton of money though, so a sequel was inevitable. The only question would be whether or not Star Trek Beyond (“beyond” what?) would be more of the same, or would fan concerns about the tone of the stories be heeded? It’s a dangerous game, fan service – that’s how we ended up with all those gimmicky crossover stories where members of the old cast meet members of the new cast…
They always seem like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect are just painfully obvious attempts to placate a fanbase whose resistance to change is legendary. Fortunately, there are no time-travel shenanigans in Star Trek Beyond. And what reference there is to Leonard Nimoy merely marks his passing in a respectful way that feels organic to the story. It was well done, and I hope this means we can move forward now. The passing of the torch took three goddamn films, but now it’s over.
I like William Shatner. I don’t want him to die. But I also grow tired of living with the constant threat of his bloated, hammy carcass appearing in the next Star Trek film.
Enough. Just. Please. Stop.
Speaking of moving forward, Star Trek Beyond catches up with the crew of the Enterprise three years into their famous five year mission. Kirk (Chris Pine) is lamenting the consistent lack of action and adventure, even going so far as to call it “episodic” (get it?). One would think that commanding the most advanced spacecraft ever built, exploring the galaxy with it, discovering strange new worlds, having occasional green alien sex and boldly going where no man has come before would qualify as “excitement”.
That is, after all, the entire point of Star Trek, and it’s a little disappointing to see Kirk still needing to mature at this point. We covered that extensively in the previous two films and I would say that Kirk 2.0’s captaining skills thus far remain a far cry from the smug, steely eyed certainty of his alternate universe predecessor. Nonetheless, in this timeline, the Enterprise returns to Federation space for a pit stop. They dock with Yorktown Starbase, which looks like some kind of M.C. Escher snow globe in space. It’s easily one of the most impressive locations yet featured in any Star Trek film.
While the crew gets some much needed shore leave, Kirk and Spock are left to wrestle with some rather interesting personal quandaries. For Kirk, his career in Starfleet has provided much needed stability, but a sense of meaning – of personal belonging – is still missing. This version of the Captain grew up without a stable home life, which impacted his development rather negatively. Sadly, the last two films tiptoed around this but never explored it in any meaningful way. Beyond does much the same, giving Kirk and McCoy (Karl Urban) a moment to discuss it before the story just…drops it.
The same short shrift is given to Zachary Quinto. Leonard Nimoy’s real life passing was woven into the plot, and New Spock is deeply affected by what is, essentially, his own death. I’ve criticized the emotional development of New Spock before. But when you think about it, this guy has been through a lot. In the first film his civilization is destroyed, and his mother dies before his very eyes. In the sequel his best friend is killed, and then resurrected when Dr. McCoy inadvertently cures Death. And now, the future version of himself who came back in time to guide him through his darkest hour has died.
That’s some really heavy shit. But thus far the rebooted series has never really dug into the incredible pressure this must represent for Spock.
There are incredibly huge differences between the old and new versions of these characters but it’s a storytelling goldmine that continues to go overlooked. Millennial Kirk and New Spock have been made to face greater challenges, far earlier in their careers, than before. How does this impact their development as professionals? As friends? Kirk is questioning the very purpose of his existence, while Spock wrestles with survivor’s guilt over the death of his race. Such themes recall the ominous, existential tone of Star Trek: The Motion Picture whose entire run time was devoted to these kinds of questions.
But nobody wants to sit through that again, so Beyond drops these concerns almost completely, and early in the story. That’s a shame, because just like with Into Darkness, these characters lack the weight of years required for such things to feel truly earned. So by presenting these ideas but failing to explore them sufficiently, they’re made to feel arbitrary. It’s not nearly as egregious as the last time out, but it still feels like important thematic opportunities were sidestepped in favor of sprawling action set-pieces.
And Beyond wastes no time in delivering on those. Yorktown receives an emergency distress call from a ship trapped in a nearby nebula. The Enterprise is dispatched to help, only to discover that they’ve walked right into a trap. A mysterious villain named Krall (Idris Elba) lies in wait with a spectacular fleet of mechanical drones. The Enterprise, as Spock immediately points out, is not equipped for this type of engagement. It is quickly overwhelmed and destroyed, and it’s a pretty brutal takedown.
Now, we’ve seen the Enterprise destroyed onscreen before…
…but this time admittedly carries a legitimate weight to it. We’ve never seen the ship torn apart quite this way before, so early in the story. And the degree to which our heroes are unprepared for this attack is a little appalling. Yes, it’s a convenient excuse for the 150th redesign of the ship and uniforms in the next movie. But the event legitimately sets the story in motion, stranding the crew on an alien planet. Here the story threads split, pairing off groups of characters and giving them each a little bit of room to develop.
Whatever else you want to say about Star Trek Beyond, it’s way past time we had some level of character development in this series.
But not everyone fares equally well. Kirk and Chekov spend some quality time together, which is something we haven’t seen before, and it’s nice. This iteration of Pine’s Kirk feels more like a seasoned professional. He has a commander’s temperament which makes him easier to root for. Anton Yelchin has never been more charming as Chek of and it’s indescribably sad to think we’ll never see him in this, or any other, role again.
Spock and McCoy have some of the best moments in the film, and I can’t stress enough how tonally perfect Quinto and Urban are. Quinto’s Spock is an almost perfect beat for beat recreation, while Urban’s McCoy is more a lovingly crafted act of mimicry rather than an outright imitation. With the characters in such good hands, it’s nice to see their oil and water personalities finally given a chance to shine together.
Scotty (Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the story) is paired with an alien named Jayla (Sofia Boutella), who is basically what would happen if Jason Statham and Mila Jovovich conceived a child on top of a nuclear reactor while listening to Public Enemy. She’s a breath of fresh air – unusually tough, but strangely innocent and appealing. And she’s a great pairing with Pegg’s borderline self-aware version of everyone’s second favorite Scotsman.
Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) have pivotal moments, but are ultimately somewhat marginalized. I can’t hold that against the story entirely; there are a lot of characters to juggle here, and there are a lot of good actors up on screen. But I would like to have seen a bit more growth out of these two. Yes, we discover that Sulu is gay, and has a husband and daughter waiting for him on Yorktown. It’s a lovely, humanizing touch, but it’s not quite a substitute for true depth and development.
But you can’t have everything, right? And that’s especially true if you were looking for an engaging story. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the villain in a while. Krall is not particularly interesting, and his beef with the Federation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until late in the film, when a contextual “twist” is introduced. Sure, it makes his motives a bit more clear, but they still don’t make any sense. It just seems like an easy way to avoid really digging deep on this guy. Idris Elba is a widely respected actor, capable of delivering great things. He is badly undeserved by this role.
Beyond feels a bit like an extended episode of the television show, which is both good and not so good. This is a mostly character driven story, with lovely special effects but somewhat unconvincing stakes and an almost irrelevant antagonist. While I can’t say it’s a clear return to what makes Star Trek tick, it’s still an improvement over the largely mindless spectacle of the last film. Besides, I’m not even sure the things that make Star Trek what it is really work that well on the big screen anyway. At least, not if you’re looking to make the kind of money movies like this are expected to make.
At the end of the day, Star Trek Beyond is a mostly satisfying, perfectly entertaining film that still feels like it leaves a lot on the table. I still get the impression Paramount has no idea what to do with this franchise (some would say they never have). So giving Simon Pegg some level of control over things may be the beginning of something wonderful. I believe he understands not just these characters, and this franchise, but also knows how to walk the line between what pleases the Suits and what pleases the fans.
After the two steps backward that was Into Darkness, Beyond definitely represents a step forward, if only one. But at long last, it’s finally a step in the right direction**.
**So of course, they’re going back to the script they rejected to make this movie for the next one. Cross your fingers.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."