Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

            Star Trek Beyond is the third film of the J.J. Abrams led Star Trek reboot. Director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung have stepped in to fill the void left behind by Abrams when he departed for a galaxy far, far away. Beyond has everything you would expect from a Star Trek movie: a dangerous threat to the Federation, the crew enjoying being in each other’s company, an alien female lead, and our heroes coming out just fine in the end. While Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable enough summer action movie, it highlights just how much better Star Trek is suited for television. 

Just a few of the memorable Star Trek characters

           From its original incarnation through Deep Space Nine (Voyager had its moments but devolved into too much repetition and silliness), Star Trek thrived on exploring the lives of its characters. Viewers of the original series reveled in the relationship between the intuitive and impulsive Kirk and the analytical Mr. Spock. The Next Generation offered Jean-Luc Picard and his more diplomatic approach to space exploration. Data yearned to become more human and Worf questioned his role as the only Klingon in a human society. On Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko grappled with his own demons—his anger over his wife’s death while trying to come to terms with his role as the Messiah like figure in Bajoran culture. Odo, playing the role of outsider, attempted to adjust to his life as the station’s chief magistrate. Much of the satisfaction that came from Star Trek came from watching these characters change, grow, and fail over the course of multiple seasons of television. These many hours of television offered depth and nuance to people who while living in a future were very much like ourselves. 

            The best Star Trek movies, at least by my estimation, built off of the themes and character work introduced in the various series. You don’t get Wrath of Khan without the original series episode “Space Seed” that introduces Khan and his genocidal rage. The passage of time between the original series and the film also helps the character work as we see, not the brash James Kirk, but an older, more introspective man reflecting on his own mortality. It is his encounter with his old nemesis and the loss of Spock, his best friend, that reinvigorates him. First Contact similarly builds off a key moment from Next Generation, Picard’s assimilation by the Borg. Like Kirk, Picard must once again face off against his old enemy and destroy them. For Picard, he must confront the trauma and guilt that came from participating in the death of so many of his fellow Star Fleet officers. Data contemplates an offer from the Borg to become more human, the realization of his longstanding dream, only to reject it in favor of saving Picard and humanity. These films build on the character work of their respective series and are deeper and richer experiences for it. 

           While Star Trek Beyond has an enjoyable cast and has a good amount of action and humor, it lacks the depth of these earlier movies. The actors have comfortably settled into their roles as Karl Urban has captured Dr. McCoy’s cranky humanity. Zachary Quinto’s emotionally conflicted Spock stands out as he confronts his own mortality. Simon Pegg plays Scotty with the right amount of camp. This familiarity gives the film an easy confidence as the Enterprise crew are scattered across a barren planet, reunite and take down the bad guy. Each character’s motivations are less clear. Spock is sad, Kirk doesn’t want to be in Star Fleet. Yet we’ve seen these issues explored in the earlier Abrams led films. Here, Lin and the writers don’t have anything new to say about them. They’re just there to be restated and overcome in the course of two hours. Lin’s direction is generally solid apart from his over-reliance on shaky-cam in the film’s opening space battle. He disorients the viewer by not letting the camera linger on anything for longer than a second.  The film’s other big weakness comes from its villain as is so often the problem in these franchise films. Idris Elba is a superb actor buried in alien-ish makeup and a blatantly obvious back story. The cast’s chemistry alone makes for an enjoyable movie, but one that lacks that the character elements that separate a great Star Trek movie from a run of the mill summer blockbuster.

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