Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Score: 4 out of 5

Maybe "dumbing down" Star Trek was a good idea after all. The last film, Star Trek Into Darkness, tried to go back to the more cerebral plots of old-school Trek, only to find itself bogged down in references to those older films and character motivations that fall apart as the film goes on. It didn't help that the broader plot smacked of a sci-fi version of 9/11 conspiracy theories, and knowing that the film's writer Roberto Orci is himself a "9/11 truther" only made the problem that much worse. The film was saved by the cast and by the action scenes, but overall, it was clear that the fabled "Star Trek Movie Curse" -- every good Trek movie is followed by a lesser one, and vice versa -- was in full effect, and that the big ideas and intellectual plots of classic Star Trek were beyond the reach of the people in charge of the franchise. The announcement that Justin Lin, director of the fourth through sixth Fast & the Furious movies, would be taking the helm for the next film indicated that the people in charge recognized this. While nobody could ever accuse the Fast & the Furious movies of being particularly smart, they're also not as stupid as people often dismiss them as, and two things that they have consistently gotten right are the chemistry between the protagonists, making them feel like a true family, and some mind-blowing action sequences. Plus, Simon Pegg, a gifted writer who also plays Scotty in the reboot series, would be taking over screenwriting duties from Orci. The result of this? A straightforward, no-nonsense action-adventure film packed with thrilling moments, a great sense of humor, and a handful of core themes that it finds early on and sticks to. Star Trek Beyond is a delightful breath of fresh air in what's been an intensely disappointing summer at the movies thus far.

Set three years after Into Darkness, Beyond starts with the crew of the USS Enterprise in the middle of their five-year mission to explore the stars, with Captain James T. Kirk's logs revealing that he's growing bored and wondering what the purpose of the mission actually is. As such, he's requested a promotion to be the commanding officer of the frontier space station Yorktown and hand his duties as captain of the Enterprise over to Spock. However, upon reaching Yorktown, the Enterprise and its crew find themselves on a rescue mission to recover survivors from a missing ship in an uncharted nebula nearby. It turns out to be a trap, and the Enterprise is destroyed and its crew stranded on an alien planet with seemingly no way to get home. As the crew tries to reunite, they discover a plot by a local warlord named Krall who has captured the crews of many ships. He holds a grudge against the United Federation of Planets to strike out and destroy Yorktown, and from there, wreak havoc across the galaxy.

Beyond's greatest strength is in taking what has historically been one of the best things about the Star Trek reboot series, the chemistry and camaraderie between the cast, and using it as the foundation for one of its driving themes. The crew of the Enterprise is far stronger when it's together; when they're alone and separated after getting stranded, they struggle to survive, but as they slowly reunite over the course of the film, they rediscover their mojo and learn to strike back against Krall and his army. Krall, meanwhile, is the dark mirror of this theme of unity in strength -- he's disgusted by the unity between various alien races that the Federation ideal represents, as exhibited by its colony of Yorktown, and holds to a social Darwinist vision of struggle as the great driver of progress and the foundation for good morals. Fundamentally, the story of Beyond is a clash between these two visions, one that may as well have been about the crew encountering the "mirror universe" of Trek where, instead of the Federation, humanity created a brutal Terran Empire that seeks to conquer the galaxy -- especially given that, without spoiling anything, these two radically different visions are revealed to both come from the same place. Krall thrives on the disunity of the people he's captured, who sell each other out to save their own asses and wind up hurting themselves in the long run by doing so, and sees the bonds holding the Federation together as weak and easily frayed. The Enterprise crew, meanwhile, knows that its strength, and that of the Federation as a whole, is in its unity. It's a film that lives up to and embodies the vision of Gene Roddenberry better than either of the other two films in the reboot series, recognizing the greatest strength of those films and building upon that.

It goes without saying that the cast is once again outstanding. Simon Pegg wrote this as, appropriately enough, an ensemble piece; whereas the other films were mostly an origin story for Kirk, here everybody gets equal focus. The separation of the crew after the Enterprise is destroyed gives ample opportunity for each of them to do interesting things on their own. Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy tends to an injured Spock, with Bones' emotion clashing with Spock's logic. Kirk and Pavel Chekov, together with Kalara, an alien survivor of the ship they were looking for, search the wreck of the Enterprise for the object that Krall attacked them for, a piece of an ancient biological superweapon. Hikaru Sulu and Nyota Uhura, having been captured by Krall, fight to escape and sabotage his base from within. Finally, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott finds himself alone until being rescued by a local scavenger named Jaylah, who is living inside the crashed wreck of what turns out to be an old Federation starship, the USS Franklin. Everybody here gets room to shine, starting off weak, scared, and cut off from their crewmates but becoming a force to be reckoned with as they reunite around the Franklin, banding together to take the fight to Krall and stop his evil plan. As for Krall himself, even under a ton of alien makeup, Idris Elba is still a downright commanding presence, as befitting a character who sees himself as an alpha ubermensch who's been hardened by the rigors of the galaxy. Speaking of those rigors, hiring a director like Justin Lin who made his name with blockbuster action movies turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as this film delivers on that front as well. It's not only creative in its setups, but it follows through with the execution, the action here all feeling grounded and having a sense of place even when we're seeing stuff like the wreck of the Enterprise being flipped upside down and crushing some bad guys. This film has explosive, CGI-filled space battles that look stunning, great hand-to-hand fight scenes (with series newcomer, dancer-turned-actress Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, being as much a highlight here as she was in Kingsman: The Secret Service), a motorcycle chase, and a final fight between Kirk and Krall that makes great use of the weird gravitational anomalies in the area it takes place in. There aren't many surprises here, but this is a film that's all about the journey, in terms of both characters and action scenes, the former helping to elevate the latter and make them that much more engaging.

The Bottom Line:

It may not be the most intellectual Star Trek film, but given where the last one fumbled, that may be a good thing. Instead, this is a solid action-adventure flick that knows what it is and what it stands for. The late Leonard Nimoy and the taken-too-soon Anton Yelchin would be proud.

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