Sunday, August 7, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Alternate Title:  Where Everyone Has Gone Before

One sentence synopsis:    The crew of the Enterprise confront a mysterious assailant who seeks a doomsday weapon with which to destroy the Federation.

Things Havoc liked: As is inevitable with anything related to Star Trek, the 2009 and 2013 JJ Abrams-helmed reboots of Star Trek were... well let's say contentious. I know people who burned their Star Trek collections because of the "betrayals" inflicted upon them by Abrams and his gang of slick iPod-aesthetes. As for me, I'm an old-time Trekkie, Next Generation, Original Series, Deep Space Nine, the works. And as a credentialed member of one of Nerd-dom's most storied fan clubs, I thought the reboots were... actually really good. Not the same, certainly, and not flawless either (especially the second film), but then what of that? It's not like the original continuity shows and movies didn't have stinkers (every odd-numbered film, anyone?). What the reboots did have was casting and writing, with a host of younger actors who did almost uniformly fantastic jobs with the old characters, particularly the trio of Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Bones (Karl Urban). The revised movies were fun and campy (just like the original series), written with tongue firmly placed in-cheek, with plots that did not take themselves overly seriously (especially the first movie), and character interplay that just worked. Yes, the plot of both films was unnecessarily convoluted. Yes, both movies had villains that needed more time in the oven. Yes, there were questionable decisions throughout, but you know what, the absence of perfection, even in a holy canon like Star Trek's, is not a slap in the face to the fanbase. As someone who has seen slaps in the face to fanbases, and recently, I appreciate the difference.

So this time, Abrams has taken a back seat, and the director's chair has been yielded to Justin Lin, a strange choice on the face of things, as he's a man who made one great indie film (Better Luck Tomorrow), before going over wholly to the really stupid side of Hollywood action (Fast and Furious). And yet, when you think about it, Lin is a fine choice for a series like this, one that has always looked to bring back some of the madcap energy and action of the original series, which for all its deification as one of the great cultural works of our times, was also a television show that featured a barfight in every third episode. If Lin knows anything, after all, it's how to direct action, and given that this movie has a lot of it, it's work remarking that the action in Star Trek Beyond is generally (though not tremendously) better than that of its predecessors. Scenes are less frenetic (though still somewhat), with a broader scope and (somewhat) better eye for actually framing an action shot, something important when we're dealing with disintegrating spaceships with wonky gravity, or tesseract-folded cities that taurus-wrap around themselves. I won't call Lin one of my favorite directors or anything, but he's competent at the least, and given the flirtations that the previous movies (especially the first one) had with dreaded Shaky-Cam, it's worth noting the absence thereof.

The cast is back, as I mentioned, and just as good as they ever were, whatever the quality of the material (we'll get to that). Highlights this time are Urban's McCoy, who gets some of the meatier scenes, along with John Cho's Sulu, who actually gets to command things this time, and Simon Pegg's Scotty, who has taken the screenwriter's privilege of giving himself most of the best lines in the movie. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (of Mass Effect), continues the new series' tradition of having excellent Admiralty actors (joining Bruce Greenwood and Peter Weller). But the standout of the film is actually a newcomer, Algerian-French actress Sofia Boutella, whom you may remember last trying to cut Taron Egerton to pieces as the Blade-running henchwoman from Kingsman. Unrecognizable here beneath layers of typically-Star Trekian makeup, her character, a scavenger named Jaylah, doesn't actually get a lot to do beyond play the "token tough self-reliant girl", but Boutella elevates the character beyond the thin material, and also gets probably the best action sequence in the movie, as befits someone of her pedigree.

Things Havoc disliked: Those of you familiar with this movie and its cast, may notice the lack, in the previous section, of an actor whose presence, even in bad movies, can be generally counted upon to drive me into paroxysms of rapturous delight. I am referring, of course, to the villain of the film, played by none other than Idris Freaking Elba, and yet his absence above is no oversight, for it is my duty to inform you that contrary to all the laws of filmmaking, decency, and frankly, physics, this film managed to make Idris Elba suck.

It's not Elba's fault. Of course it's not Elba's fault, how could it be? This is the same man who was literally the only thing worth watching in 2013's otherwise execrable Pacific Rim, he knows how to salvage his dignity in an otherwise bad movie. Instead, this is the fault of Lin and Pegg, who decided to repeat the same mistake that X-Men Apocalypse made earlier this year, specifically take the fantastic actor they had gotten to play their leading villain, and immure him within layers of fake laytex costuming and makeup that not only renders him unrecognizable, but robs him of the ability to actually, you know, act. And just like Brian Singer did with the third installment of his reboot X-men series, Lin and Pegg compound the issue here by giving him nothing whatsoever to work with. His character, a warlord named Krall, has no motivation beyond wanting to destroy the Federation because... because sharing and kindness are marks of weakness or something equally stupid. Yes, there's ultimately more to it than that, a lot more actually, but the "revelations" as to what Krall is actually doing are delivered so late in the film, and in such a ham-fisted exposition-heavy manner (I'm reminded of the resurrection-blood introduction from Into Darkness), and leave such gargantuan character holes in their wake, that the result isn't surprise or delight at the cleverness of the filmmakers, as it is confusion and disgust from an audience who presumably came here to watch a story about characters with believable motives and actions. I don't know if this is an editing problem, wherein the arrangement of the material available was simply botched, or if Lin couldn't be bothered to actually devote attention to the plot of his own movie, but the result is to torpedo any possible levels of interest, or god help us, social commentary (this is fucking Star Trek, people), that might have gone into the movie.

And it's not like the rest of the film really picks up the slack in this regard. Indeed, the movie that this film reminds me of the most is Star Trek Insurrection, the Johnathan Frakes-directed 1998 disappointment, whose failings were primarily that the entire movie felt like an extended episode of the Next Generation TV series. Beyond isn't as bad as Insurrection was, certainly, but it has the same feel. There are no real stakes for the characters, despite desperate attempts by the plot to inject some, and the character subplots are firmly in autopilot from where they were before. You know an ensemble film has no real ideas as to what to do with a character when they have not one, but two separate "maybe I should resign from Starfleet" subplots at the same time. Characters like Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are given nothing to do beyond exist and service the plot, interpersonal relationships, even between Spock and Kirk, are sort of left to sit, unaddressed, as though the filmmakers had no interest in them. As such, the movie is left with a script that would probably make a serviceable episode of a rebooted Original Series TV show, if one were to exist. Tune in next week to get some actual characterization, but meanwhile, here's Kirk riding a dirt bike and shooting at aliens as we play the Beastie Boys!

Final thoughts:     Star Trek Beyond is not a bad movie, but it is certainly a mediocre one, and a big step down for the franchise as a whole. While the series has seen far, far worse than this, it does lend itself to questions about just how viable the ideas of the filmmakers are, moving forward. I have my own opinions as to what makes good Star Trek, as does anyone who has ever called themselves a Trekkie, but this... this is not it. This is a mildly-entertaining filler episode that you get through without remembering much of while you're binge-watching the third season on your way to the actual good stuff.

A lot of people hated the first two films of this re-imagined series, and most of them, to my surprise, actually thought that Star Trek Beyond was a big step up for the series as a whole. I can't pretend that I understand why, unless what these people think of as "good" Star Trek, is space silliness with no actual content (maybe they were Voyager fans?). As always, I don't concern myself overmuch with the opinions of other critics, mired in the swamps of bad taste and poor judgment as they are. All I will say, as a result, is that if this is the direction that the majority of Trekkies actually want this new series to go in, then by all means, they can have it.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time:  Brian Cranston, in a daring departure from his previous roles, gets involved in the drug trade.

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