Friday, November 11, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (Paramount, Skydance Media, Alibaba Pictures, Huahua Media, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark, Perfect Storm Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Star Trek Beyond (note the absence of a punctuation mark in the title), third in the sequence of Star Trek movies in J. J. Abrams’ “reboot” of the franchise with the Star Trek film in 2009. This time Abrams yielded the directorial reins to Justin Lin, whose main credits to this point had been some of the Fast and Furious movies — which probably explains why Star Trek Beyond looks so much like a Fast and Furious movie, only with starships instead of cars. The opening scene, which in some ways is the most entertaining part of the movie, deals with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) of the starship Enterprise being sent on a mission of peace to a planet where the dominant life form is an articulate but malevolent sort of badger, about two feet tall when they stand erect (they can shift back and forth from bipedal to quadripedal motion), who turn on him when he tries to present them with a priceless artifact as a peace offering and say they won’t accept an item the Federation stole from someone else. Kirk radios a distress signal to the Enterprise and they beam him up — and take a couple of the badgers with him. But that’s not the main intrigue: the main intrigue is that they receive a distress call from another starship that was sent to explore a particular nebula — only it’s a trap: they’re lured into orbit around a planet from which they’re attacked by a swarm of unstoppable machines that strike in groups like bees (which of course becomes their nickname), which literally tear the Enterprise to pieces in space.

It turns out in this version of the Star Trek mythos that the central “saucer” part of the Enterprise’s design can be flown in space even without the long rear nacelles attached — in Gene Roddenberry’s original conception the nacelles contained the ship’s matter-antimatter reactors and the engines they powered, but apparently this isn’t the first time later Star Trek adapters have enabled the saucer to fly without the nacelles — and this is also another one of the maddening reversals of the Star Trek universe in which the starships routinely fly through atmospheres even though in Roddenberry’s original guide for Star Trek writers he stressed that the ship “never lands on a planet.” The whole point was that the Enterprise and its sister starships were built in space and constructed to fly through space, not either to leave a planet’s atmosphere or gravity or (even worse) to re-enter one and burn up on the way back, since, being intended only for inter-space flight, it didn’t have a re-entry heat shield. (I guess having re-seen Apollo 13 just recently had me thinking a lot about the need for heat shields for a spacecraft re-entering an atmosphere.) Though Abrams relinquished the directorial reins, he remained on as one of the innumberable producers on the film and most of his team from the previous episodes in the “reboot” remained — the writers were Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, with uncredited assists from Roberto Orci (who at one point was set to direct as well), Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, and they kept such unwelcome Abrams revisions as the ongoing love affair between Lieutenant Uhura (Zoë Saldana, who seems far less comfortable in this role than she did in the brilliant James Cameron fantasy Avatar) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). Despite the “saucer separation” and Kirk’s attempt to escape the trap, the Enterprise falls into the planet and the entire crew, except for the series principals, are kidnapped by the assailants, who are led by a man named Krall (Idris Elba) who apparently gets off on forcing down starships, kidnapping their crews and torturing them to death one by one. (One wonders if the character name “Krall” was a tribute to the film Forbidden Planet, in which the extinct indigenous inhabitants of the planet Altair-4 were called “Krell.”)

The principals — Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin, who died at 27 in a freak car accident shortly after the film was finished — after that and the death of Fast and Furious franchise star Paul Walker, maybe it’s not such a good idea for people who make movies for Justin Lin to drive or ride around in cars!) and engineer Montgomery “Scottie” Scott (played by co-writer Simon Pegg) — get separated on the planet’s surface, and Scott encounters Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, who turns in the best acting job in the film — maybe in part because she’s playing a newly minted character and therefore we have no one from past Star Trek TV shows or movies to compare her to). Jaylah asks Scott to fix something — and the “something” turns out to be a fully operational starship, the U.S.S. Franklin — representing an earlier generation of Starfleet technology than the Enterprise — and eventually the principals unite and, with Jaylah’s reluctantly given help, get the Franklin to lift off the planet’s surface and fly through space to stop Krall’s next planned attack, against the Starfleet space station Yorktown. Despite their out-of-date technology, the Franklin is able to defeat Krall’s attackers by sneaking on to their control ship and essentially hacking into the computer that’s controlling them and programming them to act together like real bees. It also turns out that Krall is really Balthazar Edison, a renegade Starfleet commander who was trained to be a warrior and found that when the United Federation of Planets was formed he was expected to become a peacemaker — a transition he was incapable of and didn’t believe in anyway — so he decided to attack the Federation and Starfleet because he believes that it is struggle, not coexistence, that defines and secures the future of humanity. (After the outcome of this year’s Presidential election, in which a candidate whose whole appeal was to heighten the divides of America beat one who said we’re “Stronger Together,” this is a very timely Zeitgeist position.)

At the end Kirk turns down a proffered promotion to vice-admiral in Starfleet when he realizes it’d be just a desk job, and a new version of the Enterprise is shown under construction at Yorktown with the implication that once it’s completed Kirk and the rest of our familiar crew members will fly her. Star Trek Beyond is a perfectly acceptable action-adventure movie — despite some lapses, like the mask-like heads worn by the actors playing aliens — but it’s much more problematical as a Star Trek movie. The basic issue is that presenting this story as part of the Star Trek franchise means that the characterizations and situations are inevitably going to be compared to what Roddenberry and his writers worked out back in the 1960’s — and the actors in it are inevitably going to be compared to the magnificent cast Roddenberry put together. None of the players in this movie are as strong as the 1960’s originals, though Zachary Quinto comes close (and would probably come even closer if he could play the proper version of Spock, the one who was ruled by Vulcan logic and wouldn’t have dreamed of cruising Earth women) and Chris Pine is the next best (though at least part of that is he’s copied all too many of William Shatner’s obnoxious mannerisms — there’s even a scene on the included “gag reel” in which one of the actors says to him after he blows a particular line reading, “That’s so Shatner!”). Star Trek Beyond is a perfectly acceptable movie (though disappointing after the two earlier entries in the “reboot,” which perhaps because Abrams directed them personally are both better than this) but not really Star Trek — despite the odd tributes paid to Leonard Nimoy. Apparently J. J. Abrams and his team weren’t about to let Nimoy’s death serve as an excuse to keep him out of this movie — early on the current Spock is shown receiving an ID card with Nimoy’s photo on it as “Ambassador Spock,” and at the end he’s presented with a group photo of the original Star Trek TV cast — and Charles said there’s probably enough “wild” footage of Nimoy out there they can keep inserting him into future Star Trek movies, Ed Wood-style!