Film Review: STAR TREK BEYOND
STAR TREK BEYOND
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Lydia Wilson
Directed by Justin Lin
Written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Produced by J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Roberto Orci
Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry
Cinematography by Stephen F. Windon
Edited by Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto, Steven Sprung
Music by Michael Giacchino
Fans of “Star Trek” could not ask for a better fiftieth anniversary present this year, 2016 (the original “Star Trek” television show from creator and producer Gene Roddenberry debuted on NBC in September, 1966), than director Justin Lin’s excellent, rousing, action-packed, humor-filled, suspenseful, well-plotted and quickly-paced modern-day science-fiction film “Star Trek Beyond.” “Beyond” is easily the best film of the three newer, rebooted “Star Trek” films in recent years (following “Star Trek” in 2009 and “Star Trek Into Darkness” in 2013). Just like “Beyond” producer J. J. Abrams’ 2015 “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Beyond” faithfully adheres to its prior source material, universe, storylines, characters and overall aura and spirit, but the film also stands firmly on its own. This combination of old and new, of established canon and new forays into original character, plot and story developments, of the well-known and comfortable and the fresh and original, is a great approach for “Awakens” and for “Beyond,” and both films end up as entertaining sci-fi successes that generate feelings of good will for, as is only appropriate for sci-fi films, the past, the present and the future.
It’s always tricky when dealing with established film franchises to achieve this delicate balance of old and new, and Abrams seems to have perfected this balance, interestingly, and amazingly, with the two biggest science-fiction franchises in film history. Right now, with “Awakens” and “Beyond” riding high—the early critical reception from the better, non-hack critics and from fans who have seen previews for “Beyond” is overwhelmingly positive—Abrams deserves some major credit and kudos for resurrecting both franchises, and, again, for satisfying fans’ connections to the past and presenting fresh characters and stories for newer, next generations. This is a huge feat, and Abrams—right now—is to be praised and congratulated.
Give some credit to the rest of the cast and crew in “Beyond,” too, for the film excels on every level. One notable aspect of “Beyond’s” success that deserves to be noted for special credit is an insightful, smart, human, humane, funny, and, at times, even touching and very personal script—co-written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung—that includes some basic story and script tenets from the “Trek” universe: understated, sly and even intellectual humor (as opposed to silly, stupid slapstick, gross-out gags, pratfalls, irritating insults or juvenile situations); genuinely likeable and even lovable characters who viewers actually care very much about and want to see, hear, listen to and follow (as opposed to many modern-day films with dark, conflicted characters who no one in their right minds cares about on a persistent level); genuinely touching and personal character interaction, kindness and friendship that shows a very real bond, connection and sense of teamwork among the characters (as opposed to many modern-day films where everyone is so fractured, individualistic and separated from each other, you wonder how some characters even exist in the same room with other real, breathing people); continued intelligence, shrewdness, acumen, acuity, cleverness, problem-solving skills and smart trickery from the main characters that shows smarts, ingenuity, ability to think quickly, ability to solve problems in inventive manners, and the ability to, again, work together as a team to solve problems; the ability to recognize, understand, respect and honor the very real differences among people and aliens, and to use that respect of all life forms to form a better understanding of time and space; and a very real devotion, caring and dedication to working as that team to solve problems for the greater good of humanity—in whatever form—and to, of course, help save galaxies, space, frontiers, the universe and everything from destruction, evil, death and war.
These important “Trek” tenets—a type of “Trek” world ledger of requisite guidelines, morals, lessons and general rules to live by—can never get old, as who could argue against these types of positive, upbeat, encouraging and intelligent life lessons? No one can—they are tenets to live by, and that is part of the enduring, endearing “Trek” world—the “Trek” characters are diverse, they come from differing, different backgrounds, races, creeds and worlds, they have their positives and negatives and advantages and disadvantages and quirks and foibles, yet they are all smart, caring, kind and dedicated enough to know that they have to put their differences aside, to put their petty quarrels aside, to stop bickering and yelling, to work together to solve problems, to work as valiant comrades in arms, to simply always work as a team, and, dammit, to save the universe once again, man! All of this, and more, are proudly, prominently, positively presented throughout “Beyond,” and this general adherence to the “Trek” book of guidelines only lifts up, carries forward and helps with presenting an entertaining story, group of likeable characters–and an excellent, entertaining movie.
And this general set of guidelines for the “Trek” universe all originate from the founding foundation presented in such a visionary, forward-thinking, well-produced manner by Gene Roddenberry half a century ago. Roddenberry took a good look at the changing times and demographics of the world, the positivity of the civil rights movement, the sexual liberation movement, the peace movement, the rising counterculture movement, women’s liberation, progressiveness in popular culture and all types of culture—going far beyond the view, still, of most straight-arrow, bigoted and antiquated producers, directors and writers in 1966, it should be noted—and he also took a look at the idiocies and stupidity of the Cold War, Vietnam, the Nixon administration, war in general, prejudice, bigotry, segregation, conservatism, hatred and intolerance, and he took all of this and forged a progressive, forward-thinking universe of science-fiction that broke ground and was inventive on so many levels, time and space here preclude an extended, expansive analysis of Roddenberry’s influence in popular culture, television and film. But, simply put, “Star Trek” was progressive in 1966, and all of its ensuing entertainment universe has been equally progressive and forward-thinking, and, again, that basic tenet is present, proud and strong, in “Star Trek Beyond,” and that progressiveness, inclusiveness and forward-thinking atmosphere is one of the many aspects that helps lift “Beyond” above the ordinary.
But that’s not to take anything away, also, from what “Beyond” also is, which is, overall, a fast-moving, action-filled, suspenseful and visually-breathtaking fun, funny and enjoyable sci-fi film that is perfect for escapist entertainment in mid-July and the summer! There is plenty of action, fights, stunts, spectacle, crashes, bashes, special effects, visual effects, eye candy, beautiful alien women (another requisite “Trek” tenet, happily—and, no, that’s not sexist, it’s feminist), exotic alien landscapes and worlds, scary alien villains, good ol’ good-and-evil conflicts, jokes and humor amid the moralizing, life lessons, intellectualizing and personal interactions! “Beyond” is, still, also, a good sci-fi action film with plenty of action!
“Beyond,” like its two predecessors in the modern-day reboots, presents Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura as younger Starfleet officials existing in some oddball alternate universe and reality—while their original counterparts (the same characters in the “Trek” timeline from the previous ten “Trek” films) still exist in, well, another oddball alternative universe and reality. To be honest, this basic set-up is weak and flimsy and a difficult premise from the outset, still, and it has been since 2009. A much better alternative for these three newer films would have been to simply present new characters—actual new people with new names and backgrounds—who are working in the past, and not have to rely on the Original Seven. It’s not warp science to see that having the Original Seven exist as younger versions of the originals in some sketchy alternative universe is just, in a way, a cheap gimmick to still utilize and capitalize on the lure, attraction and viewer loyalty to the names Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura. The better answer for these last three films would have been to definitely drop the alternative universe, present new characters and create a new universe from the past.
But, since we’re stuck with this alternative universe thing, well, that’s what we’re stuck with. Fortunately, “Beyond” fires on all filmic cylinders and presents a fun movie where, for once, the idiocy of the alternative universe thing is forgotten. It’s forgotten because the film is so darned fun and entertaining.
In “Beyond,” the crew of the Starship Enterprise is in the third year of its five-year mission, and, suddenly, abruptly, a wayward space traveler appear in a vessel, obviously in distress, in shock and in need of help. The Enterprise crew contact her, bring her aboard, and the character, Kalara–a fetching, yet tough; mysterious yet vulnerable; feisty yet questionable alien—proceeds to explain that her ship has been stranded on a nearby planet, and she is in need of help. Lydia Wilson plays Kalara well as a conflicted, tough-girl and somewhat untrustworthy alien. Smart sci-fi viewers know—and it’s not a spoiler—that any alien just appearing out of nowhere in space with a tale-of-woe on a nearby planet may not be all they appear to be. However, Kirk and crew feel a need to check out her story, and, of course, as soon as they touch down on the planet, all planetary, galactic and universal hell breaks loose.
This seemingly simple rescue mission turns into a horrifying, scary surprise attack on the Enterprise from a horrific alien race that appears to be endless, unstoppable and unbreakable—a combination of the Borg from “Star Trek: The Next Generation;” the Replicators from “Stargate SG-1” and the more formidable Terminators from the “Terminator” series. Flying, swooshing, crashing and literally swarming the Enterprise with relentless attacks from all angles and with damaging firepower, the early attack sequence on the Enterprise is at once terrifying, shocking, sad, exciting and suspenseful—but it’s not too sad, because viewers know that if everyone died and the attack won and worked within the first ten minutes, then “Beyond” would simply be a short film. Alas, of course, Kirk and crew manage to escape the attack on the Enterprise, but the crew is scattered, in tatters, injured, without weapons and, ultimately, stranded themselves on the planet.
Thus, in classic “Trek” form and style—but in a good way—various components of the Enterprise officer corps—Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura—are, through various means, separated from each other, and they must work their “Trek” problem-solving magic across the desolate, barren, foreboding planet in fractured small groups to fight the attackers, kill the attackers’ scary, classic evil villain leader Krall, figure out Kalara’s actual motives and plans, make friends with another alien stranded on the planet, the equally-fetching and equally tough-girl fighter and engineer and all-around handyman Jaylah (a wonderful performance by young musician Sofia Boutella), prevent Krall from getting his hands on, and using, a mysterious artifact that was aboard the Enterprise, retrieve the artifact, and, of course, prevent Krall from using that artifact to ultimately kill thousands of innocent people, wage war on the universe, and possibly obtain great, horrible, destructive power that could ultimately destroy billions of people across the universe.
Does this sound familiar? It doesn’t matter. The same could be said of every film in the fantasy and sci-fi universe, of course. But, again, what separates and lifts up “Trek,” and the better “Star Wars” films, is their focus on their characters, characterizations, interpersonal relationships, the humor, the teamwork and the bonding, and that ever-present caring about, and likability of, the characters, so the viewer is constantly rooting for them, supporting them, and even cheering them on. To watch the witty, clever puzzle-solving, gizmo-creating, gadget-repairing, technology-resourcefulness, outright good ol’ fashioned hand-to-hand fighting—and even a little bit of Steve McQueenish stunt work—be pulled off by Kirk and his comrades is to just sit back, enjoy and have fun.
Spock and McCoy are paired together, and they joke about emotions, feelings and basic human nature, like they have for fifty years now—but in a good way. Kirk is, of course, out on his own, everywhere, being the leader, pushing everyone on, figuring things out, devising clever outs and saves and diversions, saving the day in heroic, attractive-macho-testosterone fashion—in a good way. Uhura and Sulu and Chekov are together, which always seems to happen—but in a good way. And Scotty, the Enterprise’s chief engineer, is paired-up with the alien engineer hiding out on an abandoned ship that needs fixin’—and, that, too, however goofily contrived, is good, too. Conveniently, all of the rest of the Enterprise crew is captured, leaving only the Original Seven out to figure things out. This is where some major suspension of disbelief comes in; sometimes, you just have to go with the conventions—in a good way, of course.
As they have through these rebooted films, all of the actors portraying Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg, again, working double-duty as co-writer and as Scotty), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana, striking, also, and that’s not sexist, either) are above-average. They have somehow managed to channel the original characters’ personality traits and the original actors’ personality and acting and portrayal traits and still not end up being trite, campy, rip-offs or one-dimensional caricatures. And all of the actors also manage to still present their own, fresh, original takes on these hallowed, cherished characters. That’s not an easy acting feat to accomplish, and all of the lead actors are to praised for a great job in these films.
And Wilson, Boutella and Idris Elba, who plays Krall in wonderfully frightening dimensions—part psycho, part monster, part evil warlord who, like any crazy villain, tries to rationalize his reasons for terror and war and destruction—are also effective, and they, too, are to be praised for not only solid acting, but for their solid acting buried under beautifully, painstakingly crafted make-up, prosthetics and body art—and costuming. The make-up and costuming for the aliens in “Beyond” is consistently excellent. It’s really not easy to act and characterize beneath mounds of make-up and prosthetics, but these actors overcome those obstacles and make their characters their own.
The previously-mentioned script—equally thoughtful, emotional, funny, scary and action-packed—by Pegg and Jung is also to be praised. Amid the familiarity and action are some genuine twists, turns, surprises and clever plot devices. There is a stunt scene towards the end, a highly-emotional, highly personal scene also toward the end, the aforementioned attack on the Enterprise, and some enterprising stunt scenes that all stand out, are memorable, and are inventive.
The visual-, special- and computer-effects are stunning, as they really must be in today’s filmic marketplace for any fantasy and sci-fi film. The work of hundreds of artists, animators, computer technicians, special and visual effects masters, green-screen technicians and other visual and special effects workers are to be commended. Viewers can often take for granted special and visual effects in today’s films, but the work is long and tedious, requires the efforts of hundreds of people—hundreds—who work behind the scenes, and is often unsung. So, when enjoying the dazzling effects in “Beyond,” remember those workers who toiled away for long hours in the studio offices.
Director Justin Lin, taking over from Abrams, who directed the 2009 and 2013 “Trek” films, obviously felt an attraction, devotion and respect towards the original “Trek” crew, Roddenberry’s tenets and guidelines, past storylines, and, as noted, the traditional personality traits, quirks and phrases and characterizations of the Original Seven. Lin directs with an overriding affection for his characters, and their rightful place not just in the “Trek” story universe, but in the real-life universe, where these characters are important to people and close to people, for fifty years now. Yet, as noted, Lin also keeps things modern, fresh, fast and furious—apt, for Lin directed several of the “Fast and Furious” films. Thankfully, praise the universe, “Beyond” is a far, far better film than any of those car movies. Lin allows the characters in “Beyond” to be familiar and new: “Dammit!” McCoy says, familiarly. Spock over-rationalizes and approaches things too literally, being logical like the logical Vulcan that he is, familiarly. Scotty rails about fixing, repairing and getting running various things, familiarly. Uhura, Sulu and Chekov often provide the more rational, grounded and even-keeled, less emotional take on things, familiarly. Kirk contemplates career moves (not really a spoiler), considers his place in Starfleet, constantly examines his friendships with Spock, McCoy and the others in relation to his job, familiarly. And all of these lovable characters realize they need each other, depend on each other, and, not being sappy or sentimental, but being real, they realize that, deep down, they love each other. That’s about as human as characterization can get.
All of this familiarity works in “Beyond,” is welcome, and it never feels tired, unoriginal or repetitive. Lin, Pegg, Jung and Abrams (who is one of the producers of the film) and the cast and crew keeps things new and exciting enough to balance the familiarity. “Beyond” is, in the end, a welcome, positive return to classic form for the “Star Trek” movie series and universe.
Alas, sadly and unfortunately, a real-life feeling of bittersweet emotion and heartbreak is connected with “Beyond:” actor Anton Yelchin, who so wonderfully plays Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov in the three rebooted movies, died on June 19, 2016—just a month and a few days before “Beyond’s” scheduled release date of July 22, 2016—at the too-young age of 27. Yelchin was found pinned between his Jeep Grand Cherokee and a pillar at his house in what police officials and others described as a freak accident, according to numerous media reports about the sad incident.
Additionally, actor, writer, producer and director Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original television series and in the first six films in the “Trek” film series, and in the 2009 and 2013 films, died on Feb. 27, 2015, at the age of 83 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The presence of Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy are present throughout “Beyond,” and it’s impossible to watch the film and not to think about these two talented actors, one who died in the prime of his life, and one who had such an important, lasting and influential impact on not just the original show and films, but on the newer three films, too. Abrams and his cast and crew flat-out told Leonard Nimoy that they needed him, they wanted him, and they would respect him in regards to these new films—to the point that they would not have gone forward with the films without Nimoy’s acceptance, participation and respect, according to media reports. To show that level of respect, affection and admiration for Nimoy just again shows how Abrams and his writers and actors truly respected Roddenberry, Nimoy and the “Trek” universe. And what a great gift that the filmmakers presented to Leonard Nimoy in the final years of his life.
Of course, “Star Trek Beyond” is dedicated to Yelchin and Nimoy. That the film is excellent, well, that’s another testament to Yelchin and Nimoy—and another bright, shining aspect of the movie.
Like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the recent reboot of “Ghostbusters,” “Star Trek Beyond” reminds filmgoers again that, sometimes, you can go home again, it must be said again. “Star Trek Beyond” is a voyage home, to discovered but also undiscovered countries, but the movie also still represents a continuing mission to seek out new filmic lives, new filmic civilizations, and to boldly go where no filmmakers have gone before.