Doomsday Reels: The Caretaker
July 18, 2016
Movie Curiosities: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
July 25, 2016

Movie Curiosities: Star Trek Beyond

What’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek? “Star Wars is fiction,” as my dad used to joke.

In truth, the bigger difference is that Star Trek is all about the vision of a brighter future. One in which humans had outgrown war, poverty, greed, sickness, and so on. Gene Roddenberry’s vision encompassed a whole galaxy full of science fiction allegories for our current problems, allowing the more enlightened crew of the Starship Enterprise to come in and solve them, imparting their wisdom and spirit to the audience along the way.

The downside, of course, is that there are only so many storylines to explore when your main cast of characters is entirely faultless. By design, the characters of Trek are barred from infighting, and only resort to violence of any kind when all else fails. Compare that to Star Wars, in which the concept of conflict on a massive interplanetary scale is right there in the title. That said, Star Wars has always been much more of a swashbuckling adventure, interested primarily in the simple thrills of watching good triumph over evil. Both brands are built on the promise of adventure in the uncharted depths of outer space, but Star Wars used the space opera conceit as an escape from the problems of our world while Star Trek was a space opera that addressed them head-on.

Star Wars sacrificed a higher artistic purpose for the sake of easy storytelling. Star Trek did the opposite. That’s the difference between them.

For this reason, it’s been increasingly hard to find new ways of keeping Star Trek fresh since Roddenberry’s passing. How is it possible to tell 50 years’ worth of stories without sinking into redundancy, or betraying the central conceit that humankind had outgrown conflict? At first, the franchise was given renewed energy with the masterpiece that was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Which is probably a huge part of why every single Trek film in the 30+ years since has been shamelessly rehashing that movie’s themes of mortality, obsolescence, the passage of time, and so on. While that was going on, somebody came up with the grand idea of starting over, going back to a time when the Federation was new and there were still so many unexplored wonders and unknown dangers to be found. When this approach resulted in the uneven “Enterprise” series, it was clearly shown that something else was needed.

So then somebody thought that Star Trek had to be made more exciting. Bring some thrills and adventure to go along with exploring the final frontier. Thus the franchise was taken away from longtime stewards Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, and given over to J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot crew. What resulted was the mindless spectacle of the most recent Star Trek reboot series, which culminated in the just plain embarrassing Star Trek Into Darkness. Made as a half-assed 9/11 truther allegory, with bits from Wrath of  Khan shoehorned in, STID was a loud and stupid mess of a film, emblematic of everything that had gone wrong with the franchise over the past thirty years. Incidentally, it’s also what happens when you tell a couple of conspiracy theory nuts (namely co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) to make something timely and socially relevant.

J.J. Abrams has repeatedly apologized over how the film turned out. Co-writers Orci and Kurtzman probably got the worst of it, especially after they had come off the similarly disappointing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 at about the same time. Their careers promptly took a nosedive, and it certainly didn’t help that Orci alienated fans and critics with childish rants against those who didn’t like STID. The third Star Trek film was handed over to a new director and new writers… without budging the release date or the production schedule. Yes, the folks at Paramount were absolutely insistent on releasing a new film in time for the 50th anniversary on 2016, regardless of whether the film in question turned out to be any good.

Put all of this together and it’s become abundantly clear that nobody at Paramount ever had any idea what the fuck to do with this property. This franchise — built on a message of transcending greed for the sake of a better tomorrow — was never anything more than a broken machine made for printing money as far as anyone at Paramount seemed to know.

What made it even worse is that nobody seemed to articulate exactly what the problem was and how it could be fixed. How was it possible to bring Star Trek back to its intellectual roots without sinking the audience in tedium? What’s the secret to finding that middle ground? I was as stumped as everybody else, and then I saw The Martian.

Here was a film that glorified astronomy, science, and technology with dazzling results. It was a film that celebrated the intelligence and perseverance of humanity, showing what tremendous things we could accomplish if we set aside our petty differences and worked together as one. That’s when it finally hit me: I had just described the perfect Star Trek film.

Star Trek should leave its audience feeling happy to be alive and motivated to make the world a better place. It should renew our faith in science, technology, ourselves, and each other. It should give us a renewed sense of optimism that we could outgrow our petty differences, make our world a utopia, and reach beyond the furthest star if only we came together as one.

We don’t need Star Trek to be exciting. We need Star Trek to be INSPIRING. That’s what brought so many fans to Star Trek while Roddenberry was alive, and it’s what the franchise has been sorely missing ever since he died.

So here we are with Star Trek Beyond, in which Justin Lin takes the reins after directing half the Fast and Furious series. It seemed as if Paramount was doubling down on the “Make Star Trek exciting by making it loud and noisy” approach, especially after the string of godawful trailers. But the interviews told a different story. Everyone in the cast and crew talked about a villain who conflicted with the Federation on a philosophical level, deconstructing the five-year mission of the Enterprise and whether the Federation had any right to go where it may not be wanted. I was also intrigued with the notion of an adversary that fought with tons of smaller ships instead of one huge ship, applying a kind of 21st-century “War on Terror” mindset (“Look how much damage one suicide bomber can do!”) to a property that was very much a product of the Cold War (“Who has the bigger ship and the most powerful arsenal?”).

Even better, screenwriting duties had been handed over to co-writer Simon Pegg (Scotty himself), who had long since proven his writing prowess and his geek bona fides by way of “Spaced”, Paul, and the “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy. Problem: Pegg and sophomore writer Doug Jung were hired in January of 2015. Production began in June of that same year. And the film was just released in July of 2016.

All because Paramount just had to get something out there for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. IDIOTS.

To be clear, it’s not like the screenplay is a complete wreck. As an example, Kirk’s daddy issues (by which I of course mean Chris Pine’s Kirk) are brought up in a nicely heartfelt way that adds to the character without overstaying their welcome. Likewise, the death of Leonard Nimoy is very tastefully handled. Nimoy’s Spock dies offscreen, which forces Zachary Quinto’s Spock to deal with his own mortality, living up to the other version of himself, and so on. Again, while the subject of mortality has been long since overdone in Star Trek, this approach (and the actual loss of Leonard Nimoy, of course) gives the matter a new and powerful emotional punch.

Oh, and speaking of Quinto’s Spock, this movie is good enough to finally put a hatchet in his ill-advised relationship with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. Of course, the two of them have to spend the whole movie dealing with their history together and figuring out how they can maintain a post-breakup platonic friendship, but at least it’s finally over. And Uhura is still able to hold her own as a worthy officer of the Enterprise in her own right.

One of the rare few things that this rebooted continuity has consistently gotten right is in how every single member of the main cast is treated as an indispensable part of the team. And that holds true in this film, as every single main character somehow contributes to the plot’s resolution in their own unique way. And of course it also helps that the cast was impeccably chosen at the start and they’ve had seven years to get comfortable with these characters.

But by far the most interesting part of this story is in the ideas that are explored. At its core, this is a film that questions the concept of strength through unity. Our villain (Krall, played by Idris Elba) submits the notion that peace invariably leads to complacency and weakness. Therefore, growth can only be achieved through struggle and conflict. Moreover, while Starfleet tries to ensure its strength by protecting every single one of its members to the best of its ability, Krall’s fleet maintains its strength because it’s loaded to the brim with so many disposable soldiers ready to die for the cause. It’s a fascinating conflict of ideologies, potentially a fantastic hook to hang a Star Trek story on.

Then we have Yorktown, the massive Federation outpost that plays a pivotal role in the story. There are quite a few scenes in Yorktown, and every last moment of it feels like Gene Roddenberry’s dream fully realized. A huge, thriving utopia of gorgeous parks and lakes and towers, populated by citizens of all different kinds from all different planets all working together and living in harmony. A moon-sized monument to fruitful collaboration between the greatest minds in all the cosmos. Also, the colony seems to have been designed as a knot of roads and buildings all held together by artificial gravity. It’s dazzling to look at.

(Side note: In keeping with a long-standing J.J. Abrams tradition, Greg Grunberg was obligingly given a cameo role as Yorktown’s commander.)

Speaking of the visuals, Justin Lin and his crew pull off some pretty spectacular work here. Even without the superb CGI and the ingenious creature effects, there are some truly dizzying camera movements that swoop and spiral in a way that somehow adds to the grandiose and otherworldly effect of what’s onscreen. The filmmakers shoot scenes in ways that I don’t know if anyone else would even think to, and the whole film is far more impressive because of that. And of course it should go without saying that Lin’s extensive background as an action director pays huge dividends here.

It also bears mentioning that Lin put his own unique stamp on certain things established by Abrams in the previous films. For example, external shots of the Enterprise cruising through space at warp speed used to be migraine-inducing. Now, it looks like all of space is sort of bending itself out of the ship’s way, conveying speed in a manner that looks gracefully psychedelic. The transporter effect is also different, and I don’t know if I like the change as much. Instead of looking like a gradual effect that conveys the process of getting turned from matter to energy and back again, this transporter effect looks more like a television image flickering on and off. It just doesn’t work nearly as well. But (save only for a quieter scene in the denouement) at least there are no more goddamn lens flares!

Oh, and Michael Giacchino returns to compose the music. Since his work has always been another consistent highlight of the rebooted series, this was a great relief. His main Star Trek theme has become an iconic part of the franchise, and it’s wonderful as ever to hear it.

There are so many great ideas in this film, and it’s abundantly clear that Lin and company understand this property better than Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman ever did. Which is why it’s so infuriating that the writers only had half a year to cobble together a script.

The plot is clearly and woefully underdone. From start to finish, we’ve got problems solved through the power of technobabble, characters who appear out of nowhere to suit the needs of the plot, and all manner of various contrivances and holes. To be fair, a lot of this is the kind of stuff that’s become so common with Star Trek that we tend to take it for granted and move on. But that excuse only goes so far when we’re talking about a two-hour movie. At that length, the film could have — and most likely should have — been extended to spackle over some plot holes and provide some more in-depth explanations.

Also, without getting too deep into spoilers, this film continues the rebooted canon’s tradition of randomly placing two plot-necessary items on the exact same rock out in space, independently and without any knowledge of each other (see also: the new Kirk, the new Scotty, and the old Spock all getting dropped within meters of each other in Star Trek). But that’s just a minor pet peeve compared to the superweapon that serves as our MacGuffin for the film. Again, without getting into spoilers, it’s already been established in the trailers that our villain has the firepower to tear through the freaking Enterprise — repeatedly said to be the most powerful ship in Starfleet — without any problem. Next to that kind of capability, this supposed “doomsday weapon” might as well be a squirt gun.

Then we have the supporting characters introduced in this film. Shoreh Aghdashloo appears briefly, dispensing exposition and wisdom as the new mentor figure for Kirk. She does okay, but Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella play characters who are far more prominent, and they turn in such wonderful performances that there’s no question they deserved better.

EVERYTHING in the advertising seemed built around hyping us up for Jaylah, played by Boutella. And rightly so, as she’s a crucial character who kicks all kinds of ass. That said, I can honestly say I don’t know anything more about her now than I did when I walked into the theater. I have no idea who she is, where she came from, how she got to be such a skilled fighter, where she learned her engineering prowess, or how she got to be so ungodly good with holograms, and her motivations for going up against Krall are paper-thin.

It feels like the filmmakers set out to deliver an empowering and proactive female character new to the Trek franchise, and they figured out her role in the plot, but the deadline came up before they could figure out anything else about her. As a direct result, she doesn’t resemble a character so much as a plot device. That said, I’d definitely like to see more of her, and there’s still the distinct possibility that she could come back as a regular cast member for further development in later films. Especially since there’s now a, uh… *ahem* tragically unexpected vacancy on the Enterprise bridge.

Alas, Krall (Elba) suffers from pretty much the exact same problem. It’s like the filmmakers had a solid grasp of what the character had to be and do and believe for the sake of the plot. Everything else felt like a placeholder for later revisions. It’s never sufficiently explained how Krall can do any of the things he does, and his backstory ultimately raises more questions than it answers. What’s probably worst of all is that while Krall speaks a great deal about how unity makes Starfleet weak and peace is anathema to strength, it’s never anything more than lip service. Krall and his forces never really do anything to prove how much stronger they are individually. The best we have are the huge fleets of miniature fighters, but since they all rise and fall in perfect unison, the point is effectively moot.

Star Trek Beyond is infuriating because it seems like the filmmakers had everything they needed except time. The visuals are great, the cast is spirited, the score is wonderful, the themes and ideas on display are a perfect fit for the property, the Easter Eggs and nods to the previous continuity are very sweet, the action is thrilling, and the plot is as stupid as a screen door on a starship. The story is so ridiculously convoluted, so loaded with holes and implausibilities, and so dependent on things that are never adequately explained, with new characters who are given such woefully insufficient development, that it’s clear the script was two or three drafts removed from where it needed to be.

It’s obvious that this new group of filmmakers know and understand what makes Star Trek so great, which immediately makes this movie better than STID, but that’s a pathetically low bar. That said, this new continuity has always been made with the promise of delivering something in the spirit of the original series, like what Gene Roddenberry himself might have made if he had the budget and technology of modern Hollywood. And there are times in this movie when it really did feel like that promise had finally been fulfilled. That’s worthy of some very high praise, but I still have a hard time recommending this when Paramount seems so absolutely insistent on fixing this franchise until it’s broken.

As if to prove my point, Paramount has already gone and greenlit a fourth Star Trek film, in which Kirk will finally meet his father (Chris Hemsworth, reprising his role from the first film) via time-travel. Screenwriting duties will be handled by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who wrote the unused screenplay of the third film that got thrown out when Pegg and Jung took over. Just when Paramount seems to have found a way forward, they still insist on moving backward. Such a damn shame.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.