My STAR TREK BEYOND review (spoilers!)
I wasn’t planning on seeing Star Trek Beyond until Tuesday (discount day) due to my strained finances, but a fan was kind enough to make a PayPal donation as a gift to let me see the movie earlier (thanks, Linn), so I went yesterday. (Plus I needed groceries anyway, so an earlier trip was welcome.)
I generally agree with the consistently positive reactions the film has gotten. It is the best of the Bad Robot series to date (or the Kelvin Timeline, as it’s now been officially dubbed). I liked the first two films for the way they handled the characters, for J.J. Abrams’s good directorial work handling emotion and relationships, and for the superb casting — but they both had pretty major logic problems and plot holes, like Kirk’s ludicrously rapid promotion in the first film, the gratuitous Wrath of Khan callbacks in the second film, and the careless astrophysics and near-instantaneous interstellar travel in both films (justified by an implied time cut in the first film, but harder to reconcile in the second). I also wasn’t crazy about the totally unnecessary disaster porn in Into Darkness‘s climax, and I didn’t like how gray and gloomy Earth’s cities looked in the films. So I liked the films, but with reservations. In the case of Beyond, most of the problems of the previous two movies are absent, and there’s plenty of good stuff still there as well. With a different director (Justin Lin) and writers (Simon Pegg & Doug Jung), it has a different flavor and tone, and it’s one that works well, for the most part.
The first two films were meant as prequels, showing the early years of the TOS cast as they grew into the people we knew, or reasonable approximations. Beyond is the culmination of that process. The characters are now three years into the five-year mission, and they’re pretty much the mature versions of themselves at last. Chris Pine’s Kirk is more seasoned, more thoughtful. On the cusp of his 30th birthday, he’s no longer the delinquent renegade he was just five years earlier, but a seasoned commander, a Starfleet company man, serious and disciplined but with a bit of the old bad boy still peeking out occasionally — essentially just like his predecessor. Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s McCoy finally get the extensive interaction they’ve lacked before, and it’s a classic Spock-McCoy interplay, albeit a bit more foulmouthed than would ever have been allowed 50 years ago. McCoy is put in a bit too much of an action-hero role at times (when did he ever show any piloting skill?), but it’s in service to keeping him and Spock together, and that’s long overdue. Spock’s romance with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is downplayed, though not entirely absent, which allows Uhura to stand on her own as a protagonist; she handles herself well, carrying the brunt of the direct interaction with Idris Elba’s villain Krall, standing up to him, and gaining vital intelligence about his true identity and origins. Pegg’s Scotty also gets a good share of the spotlight, unsurprisingly, as he interacts with the guest alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a striking and tough alien of unidentified species, and supports her through her character arc as she aligns herself with our heroes. Not surprising that these movies would prioritize cast members as prominent as Saldana and Pegg. Unfortunately, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin are still basically wasted as Sulu and Chekov, never really given a chance to emerge from the background, which is particularly tragic given that this was Yelchin’s final turn in the role. Chekov is pretty much just there to follow orders and be comic relief, and he has even less of an arc than in the previous two movies. Sulu is given a bit more character depth as we learn that he has a husband and daughter on Starbase Yorktown, and we see his worry about them when we learn that Krall intends to attack Yorktown, but it’s a character arc that’s conveyed almost entirely without dialogue, relying purely on Cho’s silent reaction shots — and of course Cho is more than good enough to put volumes into those wordless looks, but still, guys, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn cast (other than Yelchin — damn it, I’m getting teary-eyed), so give him something to do! (I wonder if there were more scripted lines that got cut because the studio was nervous about focusing too overtly on Sulu’s gay marriage.)
I liked the way the film compensated for the male-heavy core cast by featuring mostly women in the supporting cast. We still had Elba’s Krall as the main villain and Joe Taslim as his sidekick Manas (who was such a minor character that I didn’t even notice him as a presence until Jaylah established in dialogue that he was her nemesis), but we also had Boutella’s standout work as Jaylah; Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Yorktown commander (Commodore Paris!); Lydia Wilson as Kalara, an alien refugee playing a significant role in the first two acts; and Melissa Roxburgh in a small but important role as Ensign Syl, an alien crewmember with a special skill that Kirk cleverly takes advantage of.
Beyond also avoids a lot of the crazy science of the previous Abrams films. Warp travel actually seems to take time (and the new warp effect is utterly gorgeous, the first one that actually looks like it’s representing the warping of space, at least in a stylized way), there’s no transwarp beaming or super-healing Augment blood, and it’s essentially the first Star Trek screen work that’s ever handled alien languages and translations in a realistic way, with aliens either speaking their own languages, speaking accented English, or speaking in their own voices while a computer translation runs parallel, in Kalara’s case. This is what we were always supposed to assume was going on when we saw aliens seemingly speaking English, but now we actually see it shown literally, and it’s refreshing, if a bit distracting. I wouldn’t have minded, honestly, if they’d emulated The Undiscovered Country‘s Klingon courtroom scene and started out that way long enough to establish it, then transitioned to having Wilson just speak English. The science of Yorktown’s outwardly spherical artificial gravity, and the weirdness that results in the center of the field, is a bit fanciful, but no more so than artificial gravity in general, and it’s the basis of a really clever action sequence at the climax. Yorktown itself is a gorgeous setting; unlike the Earth cities in the Abrams-directed films, it’s bright and inviting enough that it actually looks like the Federation should look. (Although I wish it hadn’t been filmed in Dubai, a country that I gather is prone to rather atrocious human-rights violations toward emigrant workers. That hardly seems fitting.)
As for the action overall, I found it kind of meh. It was big and frenetic and everything, but sometimes hard to follow. It was definitely clever in a lot of ways, but the execution wasn’t always there. They did find an imaginatively novel way to destroy the Enterprise, but it gets a little tiresome that deflector shields almost never seem to work in the movies. I’m also not convinced by the claim that the E was unequipped for this kind of attack, given the dozens of point-defense phaser banks it was shown to have in the first couple of films. Most of all, the destruction of the Enterprise had no emotion to it, no pathos. I didn’t feel the loss like I did in The Search for Spock or Generations, because we weren’t shown the characters feeling the loss. The Enterprise wasn’t treated as a beautiful lady that we loved and hated to lose, but just as a vehicle that was abandoned once it was no longer useful. So it was a well-made sequence and all, but rather unengaging. The emotion just wasn’t there. Say what you like about Abrams as a director, but he always focuses on the emotion of an event, no matter how big and frenetic it is. That was missing here.
Now we get into the really spoilery stuff, since I’m going to talk about Krall’s backstory. I guessed pretty early on, as soon as we saw Krall changing appearance when he drained the crewmembers, that it would turn out he was a member of the Franklin crew who’d been changed into an alien. I feel the movie totally failed to explain just how that happened, or where the transformative technology came from. I guess it was something left behind by the previous inhabitants of Altamid, the warrior race that had built the superweapon (and I’m getting a little tired of Trek movies built around superweapons), but the exposition that would’ve tied this together seemed to be absent. As for Krall really being Balthazar Edison, an ex-MACO who couldn’t adjust to peacetime, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s kind of a classic TOS-style plot, with Kirk against another Starfleet captain who’s gone rogue — there’s a lot of Ron Tracey in Edison. I’ve even seen one person express the opinion that it covered similar themes to my novel Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, though I was actually reminded more of the debates in Into Darkness about Marcus’s warmongering view of Starfleet versus the more peaceful approach Spock advocated. And the tie-ins to Enterprise-era history were interesting. The bit about the MACOs being dissolved and folded into Starfleet meshed comfortably with my own books, although the uniform design is quite different from what I came up with. (I’m not worried about inconsistencies with ROTF, though; Simon Pegg has recently said that the Kelvin Timeline was altered in a way that allows its history to diverge before Nero’s arrival in 2233 rather than after, which is basically a way of saying that storytellers in the respective universes can operate independently of one another from now on.)
But I’m disappointed, because the advance word suggested that the story was going to be about how alien cultures perceived the Federation’s expansionism as cultural imperialism — a post-colonial take on Trek’s ideas, as filtered through the perspective of the Taiwanese-born Justin Lin. As a student of world history and frontiers in particular, I would’ve been very interested in a story along those lines, and looking forward to seeing that new perspective. But it turns out that was essentially all just a fakeout, or else a plan that was changed by the time the film was finalized. This was really just another story about a rogue Starfleet officer turning on Starfleet, like we’ve seen many times before — and it again echoes STID in that the villain’s true identity as a figure from human history was obscured for much of the film. I liked the theme of working for peace versus embracing war, but it was rather more conventional than what I was led to expect.
I also don’t think it sold the message of peace very well, because it fell back on the usual action-movie pattern of just killing the bad guys without remorse or qualm. The bit about using hard-rock music to defeat the swarm ships was kind of cute in a hokey way, but it involved killing thousands of alien pilots, and that wasn’t acknowledged in any way. (How many of those pilots were innocent captives transformed into Krall’s servants?) And I was hoping that the climax would involve Edison redeeming himself — to have a Spider-Man 2-style ending where Kirk would persuade him to regain his humanity and he’d sacrifice himself to stop the destruction he’d started… or better yet, work with Kirk to stop it and then survive to be rehabilitated. It’s only paying lip service to the idea of peace if your hero makes no real effort to find an alternative to killing the bad guy. This is one respect in which I have to give the higher score to the Abrams-directed movies. Kirk at least made a token effort to invite Nero to surrender (though that could’ve been handled much better), and they actually did take Khan alive (though that was mainly with an eye toward sequel possibilities).
As for the closing sequence, I think it’s a bit corny to destroy the ship just to set up an Enterprise-A at the end of the same film, although the time-lapse ending was a clever alternative to ST IV’s approach of just pulling a finished ship out of a hat. But I’m disappointed that the E-A looks basically the same as the original. I was hoping that they’d hold off on introducing the new ship and then would come up with a completely new design for its successor in the next, like the TNG films did with the Enterprise-E. Honestly, I’m not a fan of this Enterprise design. Its saucer is fine, if rather derivative of the TMP ship, but the proportions of the engineering hull and nacelles don’t work for me at all. I would’ve welcomed a completely new design from a different art team.
All in all, this is a very solid Trek movie that handles the characters and ideas pretty well, but that has a certain emotional and thematic superficiality compared to some of its predecessors. Its plot holds together pretty well except where it overlooks some things that could’ve stood to be explained. It has some fantastic action and some overly cluttered action, and some fun-but-hokey moments like the music bit and the motorcycle bit. It handles most of the ensemble well, including Jaylah, but still lets Sulu and Chekov down. I wouldn’t say the problems are quite as frustrating as the problems in the previous two Kelvin films, but there are a few things those films did better, especially when it came to emotional engagement with the characters and situations. So it’s an improvement — certainly the best Trek film of the past decade and one of the best overall — but there’s room for future films to improve on it even more.