Saturday, September 24, 2016

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Star Trek Beyond does not have the intense emotion of the 2009 Star Trek nor does it have the dark overtones and riveting charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch.

But what it does have is a great deal of fun.

The Enterprise and her crew dock at the Federation space station Yorktown.  This affords director Justin Lin a chance to escape the sterile confines of space without bringing us to an Earth-like planet.  The visual design for Yorktown was one of my favorite parts of the film and its beauty and structural strangeness were like something out of the video game Mass Effect.

While stationed at Yorktown, the crew contemplate life choices.  Kirk (Chris Pine) considers leaving the enterprise for a promotion while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are once again having relationship issues.  But all of this is interrupted when a ship from a nearby nebula comes begging for aid.  The Enterprise enters this Nebula, cut off from all other help, and they encounter an enemy of overwhelming force.  It gives nothing away (because it was in all the trailers) to show that the crew gets scattered onto a mysterious alien world and must scramble and scavenge to save the day.

The biggest problem I had with Star Trek Into Darkness was that its tone was so somber and that it felt like it was treading over already well-worn territory.  Star Trek Beyond instead feels like a breath of fresh air.  And while the plot could have been something lifted from any one of the other Trek series, it is the execution that makes it work so well.

And the execution is primarily in two areas: characters and action.

Most of the fun comes with spending time with characters we know and love and seeing their relationships grow, challenge, and change.  The film wisely moves the focus away from primarily only Spock and Kirk.  Instead, it feels much more like an ensemble piece which highlights all of the great qualities of the characters.  My favorite parts of the film are watching the stranded Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) try to survive together.  Urban is absolutely fantastic in the film.  People often point to his spot on impression of Deforest Kelley from the original series.  But I think that overlooks how much passion he brings to the character.  If Spock is the superego, Bones is the id.  Urban shows a man who feels things and doesn't hide them.  It also helps that he has the funniest lines in the entire movie.

More time is also given to Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the film) as Scotty and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov.  Scotty even has a slightly flirty romantic storyline with the alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a fellow techie who is also a warrior woman stranded on the same planet.

The second place the fun comes in is in the action sequences.  Lin, famous for his work on the Fast and Furious franchise, brings that same dynamic level directing to Star Trek.  The scenes he films are thrilling and engaging.  I loved his creative use of objects and environments to add an unexpected energy to the film.  The action here is better than anything in this rebooted franchise.

As mentioned above, the plot isn't much to write home about.  It isn't bad, but it doesn't rise to the level of skill the director brings.  Idris Elba as the main villain Krull is sufficiently menacing, but any real personality that this talented actor brings is buried under mountains of prosthetics and makeup.

And as in all Star Trek, there are plot holes galore.  I remember thinking towards the final act of the film, "Can't they just beam themselves where they want to go now?  Wouldn't that fix the problem?"  But the extent to which these plot holes ruin your enjoyment will depend on how much you are carried away by the roller coaster ride the movie provides.

Thematically, the movie does not delve as deeply as the previous two outings, but that is not a particular problem.  Yes there are themes about teamwork and loyalty, but Lin is more interested in creating an entertaining action spectacle.  And on that level he greatly succeeds.

Right before the film's release, there was a great deal of press about how the character Sulu (John Cho) was no going to be turned gay, with a male partner and child.  As someone who is mystified by the constant push for the gay-ification of pop culture icons, my guard was up against being slapped in the face with some heavy-handed message.  I understand if some parents would be concerned about the content.  But, honestly, the inclusion was much more subtle that I had expected.  You have Sulu looking at pictures of his partner and their child.  And when they greet each other, there are hugs and back rubs.  While the implications were obvious to me as an adult, I honestly think that as a kid their relationship would go over my head.  Still, its inclusion seems so odd to me.  As the mighty movie critic John Nolte pointed out, in the Star Trek universe with its heavy emphasis on diversity and tolerance, it makes sense that there would be homosexual characters.  But what doesn't make sense is taking an established heterosexual character and making them gay.  Even George Takai, the original Sulu objected to this change.

Overall, this movie is worthy of a place in the Star Trek cannon of films.  And though it is strange to feel nostalgic for a movie that came out only seven years ago, Star Trek Beyond makes us remember the fun and excitement of the 2009 Star Trek while blazing its own path.

4 out of 5 stars

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