STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
When the J.J. Abrams (STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015, LOST TV Series) reboot of the STAR TREK movie franchise debuted in 2009, I was very happy with how it turned out. And though I also enjoyed the sequel (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013), with its re-telling of the Kahn legend, I was ready, with STAR TREK BEYOND (2016) for a more original story to be told. Homages to episodes- and movies-past can only carry a franchise so far before it needs to stand on its own creative merits. A lesson I hope the Abrams team has learned when the eighth installment of STAR WARS hits the screens next year (even if FORCE AWAKENS was phenomenal in its own right).
Say what you will about STAR TREK BEYOND (as I will, since this is my review), it has followed this path and given us an original adventure for Kirk and company to fight their way through (even if the Enterprise gets destroyed… again). It doesn’t have quite the heart or oomph (for lack of an actual word) of the previous two films, but it still succeeds in other ways.
We left the crew of the USS Enterprise at the end of INTO DARKNESS preparing for a five-year mission into uncharted space, in keeping with the original premise of the 1960s TV series. When BEYOND opens, they’ve been at it for three years, and the extended mission seems to have taken a toll on the characters (and, it felt to me, the actors, but more on that in a moment).
Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, WONDER WOMAN, 2017, THE FINEST HOURS, 2016) is feeling a bit out of place, growing emotionally unanchored in the universe after being in space for so long. He’s having an early mid-life crisis, too, as he approaches his birthday when he will have outlived his father who died saving him and his mother in the amazing opening sequence of the first film. Kirk has applied for a desk job as Vice-Admiral of Starfleet. Spock (Zachary Quinto, HEROES TV series), in a nod to the passing of actor Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock) is mourning the death of, well, himself. Old Spock, we’ll call him. Spock now wonders if his time might be better spent continuing Old Spock’s work rebuilding the Vulcan race after the genocidal events of the first film.
Everyone else just seems tired, and it’s a good time for shore leave. They dock at a remote, but massive space station called The Yorktown. We’ve come a long way from the little Lego construction used as a space station in the original “Trouble with Tribbles” TV episode. The Yorktown is a Death Star-sized bubble containing a complex series of open-air levels and decks, each with entire city blocks reaching upward in different directions: the overall effect being a space-aged M.C. Escher painting. Docking starships enter through a long pipe in the middle of this ball. It’s quite a visual treat, and one of the coolest set pieces in the film. Here, we get a glimpse (albeit brief) into some of the personal lives of the crew, most significantly the fact that Sulu (John Cho, AMERICAN DAD! TV Series) has a husband and a daughter. In a script peppered with personal and genre references, this small plot point was done as a nod to George Takei, who played the original Sulu character.
Not long after, a lifeboat drifts out of a neighboring nebula (a natural phenomenon which has effectively kept most exploration vessels from venturing beyond to explore what may lie on the other side). Its only passenger, Kalara (Lydia Wilson, ABOUT TIME, 2013) explains that her ship has crashed on a planet on the opposite side of the nebula and is in dire need of rescue. Since the Enterprise is the only vessel available capable to making it to the other side, the crew cut their leave short and head out for an unplanned rescue mission.
I enjoyed one small detail around Kalara: she does not speak English, and her language is alien enough to require her wearing a universal translator around her neck. As she talks, the necklace translates for her. In the past, non-humans speaking English relied on the viewer’s assumption that their words were being translated either through their communications or the crew’s communicators. Nice to see an alternative approach out here. If you’re not an avid Trekkie, however, you probably won’t think this small plot point was worth an entire paragraph.
As soon as the ship arrives at the planet, they are ambushed, swarmed by thousands of small space craft that chip away at the Enterprise and chew off its nacelles (the long cylindrical “engines” used to create man-made wormholes, allowing the ship to fly at “warp” speed… didn’t think you’d learn anything today, did you?). They eventually behead the ship, leaving the large saucer section to tumble into the planet’s atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the attackers, led by the warrior alien Krall (Idris Elba, Roland in the upcoming THE DARK TOWER, 2017, and in PROMETHEUS, 2012) board the broken sections of the ship by latching onto, then through, the hull, much like pirates boarding old-time sea vessels. Well, OK, not much like that, but the association is obvious. The surviving crew is taken hostage, while those on the bridge (who happen to be the main characters) escape the saucer as it plummets onto the surface of the planet.
Most of the remaining film takes place here, on Krall’s planet, with the uncaptured crew trying to survive and find a way to rescue everyone else. We meet some new characters, see more nods to other science fiction films, and are treated to plenty of non-stop action until the closing credits.
That’s about as much recap as I can handle. What works and what doesn’t in this newest installment of Trek lore?
I’ll get one off my chest now, something I found troubling all the way through and which I touched upon earlier. The characters, and at times the actors themselves, felt disconnected from each other. This might be a deliberate effect on the part of writers Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, 2015, and who plays engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung. The opening captain’s log explains how three years in deep space have affected everyone in some way. However, this might also be me looking for an excuse for what appears to be a lack of cohesiveness in the cast. In the last two films, the strong interplay and quick dialogue between the actors was a major plus. Here, they’re dressed up as their characters, but not fully into it.
Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, 2017, MONSTERS: DARK CONTINENT, 2014) as newcomer Jaylah, injects much needed personality and life into this movie. She’s a complicated character, having lost her own people to Krall’s attacks, including her parents, and is living in a cloaked (aka, invisible) but broken spaceship hidden far from the hostiles’ prison camp, from which she’d escaped.
There is a cool scene where Kirk and Chekov (the late, and already much-missed Anton Yelchin, also in ODD THOMAS, 2013 and GREEN ROOM, 2015 – who died in a freak accident last month) are running through the demolished remains of the Enterprise’s saucer section, escaping the bad guys. I might be reading more than the filmmakers intended in this scene, but since the ship’s artificial gravity was explicitly mentioned earlier in the film, I believe that was to make this chase scene work as it did. They are on the planet, which has its own gravity, but as they run through the halls of the ship, they sometimes run up walls and ceilings, slipping down to the floor at other times. This could be due to the angle of the crash, but what struck me was that the artificial gravity was still turned on, but in a broken, messed up manner. Either way, this scene is a visual treat even if, in the end, their eventual escape should probably have resulted in Kirk and Chekov being flattened like pancakes before they got away. You’ll understand when you watch it.
Zoe Saldana (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, 2014, AVATAR, 2009) is back as Communications Officer Uhura, and has a major role in this film, even though she spends most of it as a prisoner of Krall. Her interactions with him are another high point in the film. Her character comes across as the strongest of the Enterprise crew.
I mentioned there are scattered nods to other films here if you look for them. One was in the anatomy of crewmember Ensign Syl, played by Melissa Roxburgh. The back of her head looks just like a face-hugger from the ALIEN (1979) movies. There was at least one other, but I can’t remember off the top of my head (no pun intended) and can’t read my notes (you try taking notes in a dark theater before you judge me!).
I won’t give away the “reveal” regarding Krall that comes late in the movie, but it was clever, though confusing in a number of ways. I’d need to see it again to fully grasp some of the finer details around it. Even so, I got the gist, and in a movie packed with this much action, sometimes that’s the best you can do. But I feel his “origins” could have been better explained, and after finishing this review and talking to my brother Paul, there might be more than a few plot holes here as well.
However, I have to give Pegg and Jung’s screenplay—and, as an extension, Justin Lin’s (FAST & FURIOUS, 2009) direction—some credit. Usually everything in STAR TREK is spelled out for the viewer with little room for obliqueness (I might not be using that word correctly). Not here. I get the impression some elements of this story are doled out sparingly, giving the audience some credit for being able to work things out for themselves, requiring multiple viewings to understand it all. Could also be the script was unclear at times and could have used a few tweaks. But I’m an optimist, and prefer to think their intentions were half-full.
Lengthwise, this movie felt too short. The running time was listed at two hours, but a lot must have been the closing credits since I was back in my car before then. Some of the scenes (such as shore leave, and another later when there is a short-lived breakout from Krall’s prison) felt as if they’d had their arms and legs left on the cutting room floor, perhaps to keep the action moving. If they’d remained, the movie would have been longer, true, but it would have allowed more room for deeper character development. Not that a film of this kind is the best venue for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION-style character exploration (they tried that in those earlier Trek films with disappointing results), but there was room for expansion. I’ll expect an expanded edition on DVD sometime in the future. Perhaps some of the more confusing aspects of the film will be better explained then.
The climactic fight between Kirk and Krall was, admittedly, quite awesome. I just wonder why so many action films need to end with hand-to-hand combat between the main characters, regardless of how much technology they have at their disposal. As well, without going into details of this scene, I admit feeling I’d seen it before at the end of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Still, it’s visually spectacular given the set piece in which it occurs. And I need to stop beginning so many sentences with prepositions.
Overall, this is a decent, original addition to the Star Trek pantheon. I did not enjoy it as much as the first two in this rebooted series, nor does it delve as deeply into the crew’s inner worlds as its predecessors, but it does try something new. It misses some marks, but succeeds in others. I’m going to wager the series’ fan-base will be divided over STAR TREK BEYOND, but in the end it’s not going to hurt the overall franchise. It took a chance, (I’m not going to say it boldly went where no film has gone before, because it didn’t) and if you see it, you’ll enjoy it. You probably won’t love it, but you’ll be entertained.
I give it three knives out of five.
© 2016 by Daniel G. Keohane
Dan Keohane gives STAR TREK BEYOND ~three knives.