STAR TREK BEYOND – Review
The multiplex has been all about a certain science-fiction feature film franchise of late. I’m speaking of all the hoopla last December with the release of STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (and it’s started up again for the stand alone flick ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY). And the year before that, 2014, the big buzz was about the new planet-hoppin’ series from Marvel Studios, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (a sequel touches down next May). Somehow, the grand-daddy (or maybe the older uncle) has been neglected. Star Trek has been drifting in the cinema cosmos for over three years. In 2009 Paramount Studios recruited J.J. Abrams to reboot the films with younger versions of the characters from the original TV show (and first seven features). Four years later they were back, with Abrams directing once more, for STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. Soon after its release, he was whisked into that galaxy far, far away. So, what of Kirk and company? Abrams has stayed on as a producer, but the directing reins have been handed off to a film maker best known for another very successful film franchise, Justin Lin, the man behind most of those FAST & FURIOUS flicks. Can Lin handle starships after years with “muscle cars”. The result, STAR TREK BEYOND, beams onto big screens today.
As we revisit Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), he’s had a trying day at the office (his office being outer space). After a failed diplomatic mission with a testy alien race, he’s feeling “burnt out”. Three years into that fabled “five-year mission”, he feels his time on the starship Enterprise has become “episodic” (clever!). Neither a cocktail (secret scotch) with the ship’s MD, ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), nor his upcoming birthday (he’ll be older than his father, the late Captain George Kirk, ever was) can cheer him up. Maybe a stopover at the Federation station Yorktown will help. Upon arrival, we see that the romance between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) has soured. While the crew enjoys “shore leave”, Kirk meets with Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to discuss his request to be promoted to vice-admiral and allow Spock to helm the Enterprise. But before any of this can happen, Yorktown security encounters a desperate alien in a battered space vessel. Her ship was attacked and her crew were taken prisoner on a planet protected by an unstable nebula. Kirk immediately volunteers his ship and crew. But things go badly when they are engulfed by a swarm of small hostile fighters. After a very rough landing, the crew is separated with many captured by the brutal mastermind known as Krall (Idris Elba), who is assembling a weapon that can destroy all life on the Federation’s united planets.
With the third outing, this talented cast slips into this iconic roles like sliding into a pair of comfy ole’ slippers. Mush of that pressure from the 2009 reboot is gone along with a need to mimic the original players. Pine tones down the swagger (not the stud of the galaxy here) to give us a hero at a crossroads, unsure of his future until duty steers him into “hero” mode. Kirk is a decisive man of action, almost a father figure to a crew that seems more like an extended family. Of course he’s got two brothers to help shoulder the burden. Quinto’s Spock learns to accept “illogical” humans more this time around, clueing us into his sly amusement via a raised eyebrow. This is evident as he frustrates the delightful Urban as the constantly agitated and worried “country” doctor. Happily the two are paired up for much of their time on the hostile planet, letting us enjoy this new interpretation of a classic comic “team”. Saldana is tender (in her romance with the unsteady Spock) and very tough, often rescuing her would-be rescuers. Simon Pegg uses his superb comedy timing to convey the fear and confusion of the pessimistic master engineer Scotty. John Cho projects an air of confidence as the cocky “space jockey” (maybe trying to bluff himself more than the captain). And the late, great Anton Yelchin is all youthful enthusiasm as he recites lotsa’ pseudoscience jargon at near light speed. He’ll be missed on the next “mission” (Abrams has said that the role will not be recast). As for the new additions, Sofia Boutella (the razor-legged hit-woman of KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE) is fierce and formidable as the exotic warrior Jaylah, an escaped planet prisoner who aids Mr. Scott. These impressive heroes need an equally impressive villain, and Elba superbly fills the bill as the brutish overlord Krall. An air of danger engulfs him and his many victims, as Krall drains the life out of the captured, like an unstoppable alien vampire (shades of LIFEFORCE!), as he spits out threats concerning the most hated Federation (the story’s big mystery).
Director Lin keeps the action racing along (a F&F callback!) making for a brisk two-hour action epic. The main problem may be that action, as most of the space battles are cut in such a frenetic fashion, that we often have problems following the flow and direction of the sequences. At least he’s not emulating Abram’s penchant for “light flares”, although many shots could use a bit more illumination. Another distraction is the constant camera movement through every opening of the ships and settings, like a “GoPro” camera strapped to a souped-up drone. We’re careening down a hallway, then up a wall, and now we’re upside-down (for mere seconds). It’s too often disorienting and the serviceable 3D doesn’t help, even in the bright sunlight of Yorktown, an M.C. Escher influenced shiny metropolis The true strength of this film is the original script by Doug Jung and a multi-tasking Mr. Pegg (now a true “geek god”). While the last entry was shackled to (one of the best of the film series) STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, this story can soar with no ties to former flicks or TV episodes. Perhaps the greatest part of this franchise (although the other “star” series and the Marvel Studio films come close) is the sense of family, the close-knit bond between these characters. The stellar menaces aren’t as interesting or as compelling as the interplay between this talented ensemble. Their affection for each other and their roles comes through with every glance, even as they’re dodging debris and laser blasts. It’s not all good-natured “joshing”, though. There are reflections on mortality that will make even the most casual Trek fan misty eyed. It’s the true human (and Vulcan) emotions that stick with us more than dozens of piranha-like missiles. Much better than the previous adventure, STAR TREK BEYOND reminds us why this little “failed” TV show has been part of our culture for fifty years. Here’s to many more “stardates”.