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Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (2016; Directed by Justin Lin)

I admit to being grateful for a certain degree of critical distance when considering Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the venerable science fiction franchise’s reboot series and the thirteenth in the series overall (although it still feels off to place the last three films alongside the previous ten without involved disambiguation). I remain relatively firm in my consideration of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as a sublimation of the director’s consuming desire to make a Star Wars film (which he finally got to do with The Force Awakens) at the cost of many important elements of its alternately-focused rival franchise. But my assessment of its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, which I found to be a relentlessly exciting space adventure that intelligently synthesized contemporary American politics into a sci-fi narrative in the established Star Trek tradition, was so glaringly at odds with the negative reaction of the Trek community and genre fandom in general to the film that I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something. That something, for many, was primarily the whitewash casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as a hidden Khan Noonien Singh (the film franchise’s alpha villain thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s The Wrath of Khan) that didn’t need to be hidden and, in terms of the film’s internal logic and dramatic impact, didn’t need to be Khan either.

Perhaps, with more time to ruminate on Into Darkness or even another viewing to consider how it was (or wasn’t) working, my take may have aligned more with the fan-watching consensus. On the other hand, perhaps the tendency to such alignment with consensus is an argument against such critical distance and for immediate reviews. Whatever the case, missing Star Trek Beyond in theatres and catching up to it well after its release is, most likely, beneficial. Justin Lin takes over Abrams’ Trek reboots and mostly fulfills the promise of the closing moments of Into Darkness to adjust the course of the Enterprise back to its storytelling and thematic roots of deep-space exploration, soft-power diplomatic contact with different peoples, and the strength and unity to be found in tolerance and cooperation.

It’s a sad comment on the tenor of our precarious times that such fuzzy progressive themes have become politically contentious, and Star Trek Beyond is, like Star Trek Into Darkness, not unaware of its relevance and applicability to the current moment. Lin’s film, from a script by Simon Pegg (who once again plays resourceful and humourous chief engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung, isn’t heavy-handed with its messages, but firmly rejects ideologies of resentment, fear, and hatred for generally more democratic ideals. Said negative belief-systems are represented by the film’s cruel, megalomaniacal villain, Krall (Idris Elba). Krall is a former soldier stranded by his superiors and, thanks to a magical space relic called the Abronath that has unnaturally extended his lifespan, has had many lifetimes to plot a comprehensive revenge against those he blames for his dispiriting predicament.

The crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), encounters Krall and his unstoppable swarm of wasp-ish attack ships about three years into the five-year mission of deep-space exploration heralded at the end of Into Darkness. Kirk’s captain’s log reveals the strain of the wearying mission, and a recharging stop-off at the Federation’s new enormous space station Yorktown (a cornucopia of vertiginous city-of-the-future visuals) gives him the opportunity to apply for a promotion to Admiral, away from his limited command. Though he recommends Spock as the Enterprise‘s new captain, the Vulcan has other things on his mind, having broken up with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and mulling an exit from Starfleet to dedicate himself to the rebuilding of the diasporic Vulcan race in the wake of the passing of his older, alternate-timeline self Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, to whom the film is dedicated).

These internal strains and escape-hatch plans are swept suddenly aside by the catastrophic contact with Krall and his minions, and the value of the crew’s collaborative unity is reinforced by their struggles against him. Stranded and separated on an isolated planet in an uncharted nebula, with much of the ship’s crew dead or captive and soon to be killed to feed Krall’s continued self-renewal process, Kirk and his officers uncover their foe’s troubling history and attempt to first free their crew from his clutches and then foil his destructive plans for revenge on the Federation. They are aided by two survivors of Krall’s traps: Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who claims to have lost her crew to Krall’s forces as Kirk fears might happen to him, and Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a survivalist scavenger on Krall’s base planet who lost her family at his hands and becomes a prickly foil to Scotty (no filmmaker outside of Edgar Wright gets Pegg as a lead, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the finest comic-relief blockbuster sidekick working in Hollywood today).

Narratively, Pegg and Jung smartly construct the core section of Star Trek Beyond as an extended away mission on that planet, emphasizing character arcs and sparking interactions, drama, and action by splitting up the prominent crew members: Kirk and Ensign Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Spock and Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), and Scotty and Jaylah all coupled up, with Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) imprisoned with the rest of the ship’s crew. When they reunite after a brazen, clever rescue involving phasers, transporters, holographic distractions, hand-to-hand combat, and Kirk bombing around on a motorbike, the film builds towards its more predictable climax at Yorktown, with Kirk and Krall slugging it out in a classic-Trek-film final fight.

It’s worth noting how much of Star Trek Beyond works and how well, with the action-oriented Lin (who directed no less than four Fast & Furious movies) synthesizing the expected blockbuster effects sequences while indulging his unabashed Trekker side with nods to and intelligent employments of more familiar franchise elements and themes. This synthesis bears the most fruit in the film’s giddiest, more joyful sequence, during which the Enterprise crew (with an assist from Jaylah) incapacitate Krall’s swarming fleet by combining science-wonk tech solutions with rebel-cool rock n’ roll brashness to the propulsive rhythm of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (“classical music”, as Spock and McCoy observe) If the scene is more Fast & Furious than Star Trek, perhaps Lin can be forgiven for the indulgence; in a reboot series that has never lacked for fun, this moment is Peak Fun.

Star Trek Beyond, like its two reboot series predecessors (collectively known in the Trek community as the Kelvin Timeline, after Kirk’s father’s ship in the 2009 Star Trek), succeeds wildly in Making Star Trek Fun Again, not to mention making it profitable on a scale it never had been before. This swallowing of the popular but commercially modest sci-fi universe with its cerebral tangents by geek-empowered Hollywood and its prerogatives for flashy, easily-marketed entertainment has exacted a cost on the product, which purist Trekkers will be glad to expound about at length if you ask them to. But it has also renewed and re-energized Star Trek, which had become creatively and commercially moribund, and given it a sizable (if not as discerning) new fan base.

The reboot films have also provided the necessary momentum to bring Star Trek back to its ideal medium, television, which has belatedly caught up to creator Gene Roddenberry’s ambitious storytelling vision and the innovations in serialized screen storytelling that his followers (especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) felt secure enough to push to their devoted fan base. The Trek movies have always emphasized adventure over ideas (this is part of the reason The Next Generation movies were mostly middling, and why DS9 never crossed over to the big screen), but ideas and themes have taken consistent precedence on the small screen. With future Star Trek films providing the adventure and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery show likely to tackle ideas, the future of this vision of the future looks as bright as it’s ever been.

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