Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Beyond" Expectations

I was going to pair this review with "The Legend of Tarzan," but you know what? "Star Trek Beyond" deserves a whole post to itself. To date, it's the best surprise I've had from a film all year. I was completely ready to write off the whole film franchise after "Into Darkness," but "Beyond" totally reversed course. It's everything I wanted in an updated "Star Trek" film, even if there are some significant flaws and weaknesses.

First, Justin Lin of the "Fast and Furious" franchise has taken the director's chair, and Simon Pegg co-wrote the script with Doug Jung. And what they've done is to make a movie that operates like an episode of the original "Star Trek," full of technobabble, cheesy heroics, and ridiculous things happening IN SPAAAACE. And it is so much fun, and makes me really feel good about this iteration of "Star Trek." I still have a few quibbles about Zachary Quinto's Spock and Zoe Saldana's Uhura being paired up, but otherwise the characters are all in fantastic form. And this time out, we actually get to spend significant time watching them be these characters and interact with each other.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are now three years into their exploration mission, and follow a distress call into an uncharted nebula. One action scene leads to another, and the crew wind up stranded on a forest planet under the control of an alien baddie named Krall (Idris Elba). He and his fleet of drone warships threaten not only the nearby Federation base, Yorktown, but the rest of the galaxy. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew has been split up and is trying to regroup. Kirk is with Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Bones (Karl Urban) is stuck with an injured Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are with the majority of the Enterprise crew imprisoned at Krall's base of operations. Scotty (Simon Pegg), left on his own, meets a marooned alien, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and enlists her help.

If that doesn't sound like much of a story, that's because it's not. The plot only exists as a delivery mechanism for stunts and thrills, really, but it also serves as a way to put the characters into positions where they can do what they do best. The MVP of the movie is Karl Urban, who gets to kvetch and banter with Spock through most of the film, and is absolutely a joy to watch as he does it. This is also the best outing for Chris Pine as Kirk, struggling to stay on top of every new development, flying by the seat of his pants, and being every inch the super-competent Captain Kirk that the first two movies hinted he'd become. Simon Pegg gets some solo time as Scotty, milking the Scottish vernacular for all it's worth. Really, every member of the crew gets their moment to shine, and remind the audience what's so much fun about "Star Trek" in the first place - being in the middle of a big space adventure with a gang of friends who are great at space adventuring.

I complained in the past that the new "Stark Trek" movies weren't cerebral enough, being a fan of "The Next Generation" crew. Well, I was wrong. What was missing from the first two movies was the emphasis on the camaraderie and teamwork of the crew. It's the same problem that many of the "Mission: Impossible" movies had, with Tom Cruise hogging the spotlight all the time. "Trek" works best as an ensemble effort, embodying that utopian vision of future where the best of humanity bands together for the common good. And aliens too, like Jaylah, who doesn't fall victim to any of the pitfalls that an exotic alien female character usually fell victim to in the old "Star Trek" series. Oh, and if you were following the Sulu controversy, the nods to his sexuality are so slight, they could be written out entirely if George Takei wants to press the issue. But in this version of the "Star Trek" universe, it really feels like it doesn't matter.

In addition, this may be the best looking "Star Trek" film ever made. The Yorktown Starbase is a jaw-dropper, and whatever you may want to say about how silly or contrived some of the action scenes are, you can't say that they aren't impeccably executed. Lin keeps the momentum going and pulls off some scenes that I'm certain looked ridiculous on paper. Older fans will also appreciate that there are nods to the existing Trek canon everywhere, from Chris Pine borrowing some of Bill Shatner's mannerisms, to the familiar bits of sound design incorporated from the television shows. Oh, and special kudos to Michael Giacchino, for writing the first hummable score for a major blockbuster that I've heard in ages.

There are a lot of flaws. Idris Elba's Krall continues the unfortunate trend of shallow, uninteresting megalomaniacs threatening the Enterprise. He has an awful lot of scary technology and faceless minions at his disposal, that do improbable things in ways that aren't really explained. Much of the story involves chasing a Macguffin around, and I'm still not sure exactly what it does either. But none of that's really important. What's important is Kirk and Bones drinking scotch, Jaylah's choice in classical music, Spock learning his lesson about the importance of family, and all our absent friends getting the sendoff they deserve.

I know many Trek fans did not like this film, for one reason or another, but "Beyond" got me invested in the franchise again, just in time for its 50th anniversary. I sincerely hope that the creators drum up enough support for another film installment, and along with the upcoming "Star Trek: Discovery," it can continuing boldly going for a long while yet.


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