MOVIE REVIEW: "Star Trek Beyond"

If you had asked me about two months ago if I planned on seeing Star Trek Beyond (directed by Justin Lin), my answer would have been an emphatic "no." (I would have further informed you that I was having trouble deciding which movie I cared about less: Star Trek Beyond or the upcoming Doctor Strange.) While I'm not a fan of the original series by virtue of not having seen many episodes, my familiarity with fan studies and fandom affords me a bit of general knowledge about the themes and ethos of the original series by Gene Roddenberry, since Star Trek is a seminal text in that field. Star Trek: The Original Series espoused curiosity, exploration, and discovery, envisioned a world in which people from all races and nations as well as planets could work together and live in harmony, and raised variously philosophical questions in the context of the situations the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise faced in each episode. I saw the 2009 reboot in theaters without any of this prior knowledge other than who Kirk and Spock were in the most basic sense, and thus I enjoyed it—it was quippy, banter-y, fun, and just plain cool, and I wasn’t all too concerned with whether it had any of the same qualities that made The Original Series as beloved as it is today. 

After becoming more familiar with Star Trek by virtue of attending an extremely nerdy undergraduate institution, however, seeing Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) in theaters at the end of my freshman year was an absolute, total letdown in nearly everything that makes a movie succeed. In terms of story construction, acting, casting, characterization, and fidelity to the original ethos of the series, Star Trek Into Darkness was not only a poor sequel to the promising reboot: it seemed to have forgotten that the point of Star Trek was never about blowing up things and cool space battles, and it was just a bad storyline to boot. J.J. Abrams, who directed Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness and produced Star Trek Beyond, has admitted to not being a Trek fan, and after his comparatively wonderful handling of the Star Wars reboot last December, it’s easy to see why the latter series suits him so much better than the former. It even becomes clear upon revisiting his Star Trek movies that he’d been nudging Star Trek in an action-oriented direction more appropriate for Star Wars anyway. 
Sofia Boutella as Jaylah and Simon Pegg as Scotty.

Needless to say, my expectations for Star Trek Beyond were as low as they could possibly be.

However, after being convinced by friends that I should give Star Trek Beyond a chance, combined with the fact that Simon Pegg (who plays Enterprise engineer Scotty in the reboot and co-wrote and starred in Hot Fuzz, one of my favorite comedies) was co-writing the screenplay, along with the reintroduction of Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) as married to a man, I was intrigued enough to give it a shot. While it may seem shallow to decide to watch a movie partly based on the fact that it now has a gay character, I am of the opinion that LGBT representation in media, when handled respectfully in a non-fetishized or tokenized way, is incredibly positive in terms of engendering societal acceptance of the LGBT community, and so that definitely served to grease the wheels, so to speak. Having one of the core members of the Enterprise be gay also works perfectly within the explicitly progressive mission of Gene Roddenberry’s vision: after all, Star Trek: The Original Series was one of the first television shows to air an interracial kiss (despite countless objections from the network) during the 1960s, so why not continue to push the envelope a bit in terms of sexuality by having a gay character in 2016? 

Needless to say—much to my surprise—I found myself truly enjoying Star Trek Beyond, despite its faults, even more than the original 2009 reboot. As a plus, I was sufficiently impressed with the course correction of Stark Trek Beyond enough that Star Trek Into Darkness has been reduced to nothing more than a whisper of a bad memory. By focusing on interactions among Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the rest, and by using character to drive the plot rather than the other way around, Star Trek Beyond succeeded beyond my wildest dreams as popcorn entertainment that gives you a little something extra to think about as you leave the cinema.

Star Trek Beyond purports to be the third in the Star Trek reboot begun in 2009, but it works more functionally as well as thematically as a sequel to the 2009 film rather than to Into Darkness. Much in the way that The Dark Knight Rises served to complete the plot threads of Batman Begins while The Dark Knight took a bit of a detour in terms of the mythos of the Batman story, Star Trek Beyond advances the arc of the 2009 film and also serves as a fitting end to what is hopefully a trilogy. The key difference between these two franchises lies in the fact that The Dark Knight was not only the best of the Nolan trilogy, but also a pretty great film in its own right, while Star Trek Into Darkness is by far the worst. In fact, much to its credit, Star Trek Beyond is so divorced from the events of Into Darkness that aside from missing the death of Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), viewers can skip Into Darkness before going to see Beyond and miss nothing of any importance. 

Star Trek Beyond works as a spiritual direct sequel to the 2009 film because it addresses and expands upon the characterizations, interactions, and themes established in the first film. Namely, Star Trek Beyond advances to some degree Captain Kirk’s conflicted relationship to the father who died to save his crew during Kirk’s birth, as well as the legacy he left behind, as well as Spock's emotional struggles regarding the destruction of his home planet Vulcan and his connection to the mysterious Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy), who has died in the future timeline established by The Original Series

But most significantly, Star Trek Beyond is, rather sadly, also a sequel to a film that never got made—a nonexistent film that instead was the static, poorly plotted Into Darkness, and a film that would have ultimately made what works about Star Trek Beyond work better than it already does. Star Trek Beyond is a sequel to a nonexistent film where, instead of running around shooting at things in service of a convoluted storyline, Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise deepened the relationships and various rapports that had begun to crystallize so satisfyingly in the 2009 film and proved why they were a team to root for wholeheartedly rather than simply because they’re the crew of the Enterprise. (It is also a sequel to a nonexistent film that also didn’t use the incredibly cheap device of a fake-out death that was nullified by the end of the film.)

Thus while the storyline of Star Trek Beyond is dependent upon and allows for developing interactions among the characters, its impact is ultimately lessened because it makes the viewer feels as if we’ve missed the middle section of a pretty important story, and are thus being told rather than shown in some cases and having to make up the gaps ourselves. For example, Spock and Bones find themselves separated from the rest of their crew after the villain Krall (Idris Elba) attacks the Enterprise and nearly destroys it, forcing the crew to evacuate and crash-land on a mysterious planet, and are quickly established to have a rather cold, antagonistic relationship. The half-Vulcan Spock is cold and logical, where the human Bones is incredulous, folksy, and sarcastic, and so while we as viewers understand why their personality types would clash when forced into a stressful situation, moments where Spock reveals that he has respected Bones all along and Bones ends up referencing his own dislike of Spock to make them both laugh don’t really feel earned, because neither of the previous films had established that Spock and Bones actively disliked one another. Their eventual friendship feels false because we never saw them really disliking one another to the extent implied in Star Trek Beyond. Again, it’s essentially as if the Spock/Bones dynamic from the beginning of Star Trek Beyond was established in this missing hypothetical second Star Trek film that was never made, so while Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban play well off one another, it doesn’t have the feel-good impact or resolution the screenplay was clearly aiming for.
Anton Yelchin as Chekhov, Chris Pine as Kirk, and John Cho as Sulu.

There’s still plenty to like about Star Trek Beyond, however, and it’s still rooted in the strong characterizations in the script. Because the characters are forcibly separated and clustered together in unexpected combinations on this mysterious planet as they try to find one another and defeat Krall’s evil plan, there are many moments where they are able to interact in ways that deepen their characterizations as well as provide enjoyable moments of comedy and action. Spock and Bones’ interactions, which I mentioned above, are fun to watch even if they aren’t perfect or ideal, and the sweet mentor-mentee dynamic that emerges between Kirk and Chekhov (the late Anton Yelchin) is something I will likely find myself missing in any upcoming Trek films. Chris Pine’s Kirk has matured from the cliched womanizer and hothead he was in the first two films, and makes decisions as captain of the Enterprise that seem more rooted in experienced strategy rather than raw emotion.

Simon Pegg comes off especially well as Scotty, the Scottish engineer of the Enterprise, because Pegg has given himself more to do in this movie than run around the engine room, yell at Kirk, and then disappear for most of the movie as he did in Into Darkness. It is Scotty who makes the most important ally in their cause, the endearing alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), whose history on the planet and with the nefarious Krall leads her to team up with the Enterprise crew to defeat him. To be fair, Scotty does do a lot of running around the engine room and shouting at various people, but he’s also made an important emotional aspect of the movie rather than purely comic relief and science-y know-how. Boutella has a tough role to play as a new female character in a reboot that has not been particularly kind to its female characters in terms of treating them like more than eye candy, but even though her backstory is regrettably light and her alien makeup is regrettably thick, her animated body language, amusing friendship with Scotty, capability in battle, and lack of unnecessary sexualization make her an enjoyable addition. 

The strengths of Star Trek Beyond are likewise evident in the way that Krall’s goals are revealed to the viewer, little by little like pulling layers off an onion. We get necessary foreshadowing and flashes of intuition that, when the truth about Krall’s nature is revealed (which I will not spoil here), it all makes sense, especially Krall’s motivations—and why his opinion of the Federation, the governing body of Starfleet, differs so much from Kirk’s (and from what the audience has been led to believe). Also on the plus side is the initial action sequence of the film, where Krall’s swarm of tiny ships basically destroys the Enterprise piece by piece, is thrillingly staged and creates a real sense of danger—though I do have to say I missed the playful touch Abrams brought to the space battles in the 2009 movie, which were appropriately silent and thus made transitions from inside and outside the ships interesting (since there is no sound in space). Idris Elba’s Krall falls into the pattern of the reboot’s villains not being particularly scary, but his tragic backstory (which, again, I will not spoil in this review), raises important questions not only for Kirk, but for the audience—is it better to go down fighting with the people important to you, or to try and survive no matter the cost?

Unfortunately, there’s also a good bit about Star Trek Beyond that isn’t quite successful. For starters, the relationship between Uhura and Spock has been nothing but a disservice to both characters and characters since it was begun in the 2009 film. Establishing Uhura as both Spock’s student and girlfriend upon meeting her in the 2009 film served to make her without definition and purpose outside of Spock, and the later two films haven’t done anything to flesh her out. We don’t know anything about her background, family, likes and dislikes—we know that she’s good with languages, is tough, and is in love with Spock. In the first film, her function is to comfort him when Vulcan is destroyed, and in Into Darkness she makes no impact outside of bickering with Spock at inopportune moment. In Star Trek Beyond she has more lines, puts up a good fight, and makes some important discoveries that allow the crew to save the day, but she doesn’t do much more than that. Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto also just don’t really have the chemistry necessary to make me believe that Uhura is attracted to the emotionally withdrawn Spock and vice versa, and thus centering part of Spock’s moral dilemma in Star Trek Beyond on whether he should stay with Uhura or revive the Vulcan race doesn’t have the emotional impact necessary to make us care. 

While Saldana does the best she can with what she has, others in the cast do not fare so well. Zachary Quinto’s Spock was one of the highlights of the 2009 film—the actor seemingly having mastered the perfect combination of icy, dry, and sassy when the moment called for it—he seems to be phoning it in this film, with his line readings rather limp and devoid of energy at some critical points. The Spock who stood in the elevator of the Enterprise and cried stiffly when his mother was killed on Vulcan in the 2009 film, barely allowing himself to hug Uhura as she tried to soothe his pain is not the Spock who learns of Ambassador Spock’s death in Star Trek Beyond and… just makes a bit of a face, expecting the audience to fill in the necessary emotion out of respect and love for Leonard Nimoy. Since this reboot has really only decided to give Kirk and Spock the backstories and painful choices that make characters dimensional beings rather than flat cutouts, more’s the pity that Quinto ultimately disappoints.
Karl Urban as Bones and Zachary Quinto as Spock.

In terms of being underutilized, John Cho’s Hikaru Sulu qualifies in every single one of the rebooted Star Trek movies. We keep getting flashes of fire, of iron, of pure badassery in each film from Sulu—in the first film, he demonstrates his skill as a fencer, and in Into Darkness and Beyond he’s given brief, glorious moments as acting captain of the Enterprise, where he sits in that chair as if he was born to it. Even giving him a husband and daughter doesn’t fulfill its potential, since we never learn their names or literally anything about them at all. Mostly what Sulu does in this reboot is fly the Enterprise in increasingly impossible conditions, and John Cho really deserves more from this franchise (and from his career, since Selfie should have not been cancelled after a partial first season, but that’s neither here nor there). Karl Urban’s Bones is also just not rich a character as he could be—he’s funny and his friendship with Kirk is a nice touch carried throughout the three films, but aside from his burgeoning companionship with Spock, he just doesn’t get to do all that much in this movie. You can see in his eyes that Urban’s emoting and really giving his all into his dialogue, but he mainly speaks in farmland aphorisms that function as shorthand for characterization rather than actually indicating anything.

Anton Yelchin’s tragic death hangs like a cloud over Chekhov in this film—also criminally underused and undeveloped, Yelchin really committed to the role, delighting in the thick Russian accent and technobabble that are the hallmarks of the character, as he did in every other film during his career. It’s an undeniably awful loss that he won’t be able to continue to develop and share his gifts, his talents, his twinkling charisma, with audiences for years to come.

On a more technical note, the visuals of the film leave something to be desired, especially in the parts of film that take place on the mysterious planet, which rely far too heavily on the notorious blue-orange dynamic that characterizes the palettes of many recent action films. While I didn’t enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy, it was undoubtedly a very visually pleasing and colorful movie, and Star Trek Beyond should have taken cues from that in terms of how a film can combine space, action, and aesthetics. Some of the special effects, oddly enough, look pretty cheap, and the score is nothing to write home about—though the use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” in the film’s climax is cute, if a little cheesy. While the rotating camera helps to create a floating space-y atmosphere, it also grates after a while, and the way some of the longer takes swoop around to establish the location makes them all look a bit flat and fake at worst, and overdone Dutch angles at best.

In short, Star Trek Beyond is not a perfect film—but it’s exactly what the franchise needed in terms of reminding everyone why the series has endured, and if it ends up being the last film in a trilogy, I’ll be satisfied as a viewer. Balancing the necessary action sequences with the more appealing (to me at least) emotional beats efficiently, it improves upon the 2009 film and is many, many degrees of magnitude better than Star Trek Into Darkness, which is more than I could have hoped for.