Reader warning: Spoilers, including the film’s twist, are discussed below.
This is going to be a hard review to write. Not because Star Trek Beyond is a difficult movie to write about, but because there are certain realms of dialogue that are so spiteful and angry that I fear to enter into them, especially if my words wind up putting me in an ideological “camp” of some kind. The very notion that there are such things as nerd litmus tests is insane to me, but such are the times we live in.
First of all, I need to make some of my general thoughts about the new movies known, the main one being I don’t hate action in Star Trek. Star Trek is an action show. It’s right there in the original writer’s guide and I don’t know why people ever argue otherwise. This is the show that had William Shatner dodge explosives for twenty minutes and then spend the next forty fighting a lizard man with a bazooka. It’s the franchise who’s highest audience-rated episodes and movies – Doomsday Machine, The Wrath of Khan, Yesterday’s Enterprise – are all purely action based. Sure, they’re mildly smart action, but they’re action never-the-less.
I think this anti-action mentality was fostered by Gene Roddenberry after people proclaimed him some kind of genius futurist. He constantly complained that The Cage was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral”. And even that episode features strangled monsters, laser canons, belly dancing, and an all out brawl with a giant with bad teeth and a funny helmet. The only Trek property with no substantial action in it is The Motion Picture, and most people hate that film.
So when people tell me their precious Star Trek has been ruined by J. J. Abrams including spectacular amounts of action I really have to laugh. Generally I liked 2009 at the time, thought very little of Into Darkness, and had really high hopes for this new film. I went in really, really, expecting to like it, but, gosh darn it, I didn’t. And it had nothing to do with the action bits. In fact, the action, while there was admittedly a bit too much of it, was not part of the problem at all. Blowing up the ship? It would have been better as a surprise, but no problem. Motorcycle riding holograms? Great. Halting a cloud of hive ships with the Beastie Boys? Moar!
The comedy and most of the protagonists were great. I liked Jaylah, even if her abandoned ninja mechanic schtick is basically a rehash of Rey from The Force Awakens. She would be great as part of the crew in the next next movie. I was happy to see McCoy have a larger part in the movie. In the previous installments I felt he sort of just went where the wind blew him. This time he’s active, thoughtful, and part of the solution. I like the meaty role, Simon Pegg gave himself, but I also think it’s great that when Jaylah was better than him at something he was humble enough to write himself out of the way.
I even liked Pine’s Kirk, who was one of the bigger problems for me in the previous films. Kirk’s mission to broker peace on an alien world is as old school Original Series fun as the volcano mission that was the only highlight of Into Darkness. While I’m not a wild fan of Kirk as a man being pressed, against his will, to be a leader, his arc made sense for his current characterization and paid off well. Certainly, Kirk’s boredom with ship life made more sense than what ever reason TMP Kirk had for taking a desk job. And, unlike Prime Kirk, nuKirk avoids that miscalculation and reclaims the big chair by the end. For me this shorter mid-career crisis arc is handled much better confined to one film than stretched out over four in the original movies.
The only thing that kind of fell flat for me as far as the hero arcs was the Kirk/Spock relationship. While they both are struggling rightly with their place on the ship and their futures in Star Fleet, they don’t really do so together. I didn’t get the sense at all that these guys were friends and that they would miss each other. I think if Spock had been in the opening planet scene getting out of a scrape with Kirk instead of Kirk going it alone this problem would have been solved better than Kirk just saying “We make a good team, right?” to Spock in the turbolift. You could say their adventures in the previous films were enough, but that’s never been the case in the film series. If you look closely every original cast film has a Kirk/Spock friendship reaffirmation moment at its beginning because when you’ve got 2-3 years between movies you can’t rely on memory.
What did not work at all, and what really makes me dislike this film was the actual story itself. Beyond was billed as a film that would challenge our notions of the Federation and at no time did it even remotely manage this. The whole thing hinges on this alien named Krall, who’s got an unstoppable army of hive ships, luring the Enterprise to his nebula encased planet in order to get the final piece of an ancient weapon. His beef with the Federation is that they’re too peaceful and need some conflict to make them stronger. The Federation is too aw-shucks-peaceful?! Golly gee wilikers, that’s some divisive criticism right there. Honestly, who’s going to argue the world needs more murder and war? Maybe Deep Space Nine fans. But on a whole that’s an easy premise to knock down. “Is the Federation too peaceful for it’s own good?” “No.” “Ok, let’s kill that Krall guy.” So this big conflict that’s going to make us look differently at Gene’s utopia? It just doesn’t exist. Not once does Kirk or his crew doubt the morality of what they do.
What makes things worse is the third act twist. Krall isn’t an alien. He’s a human Star Fleet captain who’s been kept alive by alien vampire tech that’s transformed him into one of those aliens. Apparently he was a soldier who was pissed that there were no more wars to fight when he was finally given a command of his own. His pissiness worsened when his ship crashes on this nebula planet and no one comes to rescue him. So he and his crew(?) turn into aliens that want revenge for not being given a good war to fight and for not being found on a completely unreachable planet. I can’t believe I just wrote down a premise that dumb, and yet two very smart Hollywood-type people wrote that same sentence out and proclaimed it a winner.
There are always ways to criticize a good society. Maybe Krall’s world was harmed by the Franklin crash. Maybe his people were displaced by Federation colonialism. Maybe Krall’s world was savaged by noble wars the Federation fought in. There, that’s three sensible premises right off the top of my head. What Arena and Errand of Mercy told us – sometimes good societies do bad – this movie didn’t even seem to want to touch.
I’m also really disappointed that a movie that finally got the gays right was so utterly tone deaf in it’s climactic scenes. Krall, played by Idris Elba, has vampired enough humans that he’s mostly returned to his human form in time for him to go mano-a-mano with Kirk in the obligatory fist fight. I’m sorry, but I see way too many black people being beaten up by white authorities in real life to be expected to cheer for it in a popcorn flick. This isn’t a problem of casting a person of color as a bad guy and I don’t think this scene was meant to be racist. It is, however, a problem that stems from having to maintain the 1960’s status quo of three white guys flying around in space, because, despite it’s diverse supporting cast and all my love for it, that’s really what the Original Series is. This is why recasting old roles in reboots is a good idea.
Over all, the film was entertaining, but it just left my head shaking too often to really enjoy. I’m not sure it’s something I’d watch on a regular basis, but I feel the same way about all Star Trek movies, none of which are particularly brilliant.
Stray thoughts and nit picks:
• The starbase was really spectacularly rendered, but, honestly, the whole concept of putting your action ready ships in a container is as dumb as putting them in a bay who’s only outlet can be blocked by an easily collapsible bridge… oh.
• As I said before, I liked the Beastie Boys solution but the radio waves didn’t just incapacitate the hive ships, it blew them up leaving me utterly confused. Also, why didn’t it destroy the ship Spock and McCoy were on?
• Speaking of Spock and McCoy, why can they be beamed onto an enemy ship but the pilot can’t be beamed out? Why couldn’t Krall be beamed out of his ship? Why couldn’t he or his weapon have been beamed out of the air pump at the end?
• Kirk’s motorcycle beam-in is a nifty trick, but when the camera pans up there’s no obvious path for him to ride into camp with. Only jagged rocks.
• Jaylah’s showdown with Manas would have been more profound if the guy had done anything interesting prior to it. As it is when she brought him up I went “who?”
• Why does Krall need a super weapon anyway? He’s got his unstoppable hive fleet. Why not just get into the starbase and wreck the place? Red Matter. Thalaron radiation. Death Stars. Star Killers. I’m tired of one button devices that kill everyone at once but take so much effort to deploy. In Real Life terrorists walk into a place and shoot it up instead of hiding the perfect time bomb and hoping it’s never found for a reason. Also, if you’re into war and conflict isn’t it impractical to kill everyone you want to fight in one go?
• What is up with the insane love all these new movies have for Star Trek: Enterprise? From “Maco” to the Franklin’s design and her crew’s uniforms, to the NX class on Marcus’s desk, to Admiral Archer’s beagle, the writers really want us to remember ENT is the only canon left. For Crom’s sake, guys! That show was so bad it was cancelled by a network that was made to showcase Star Trek and had practically nothing else to replace it. Move on, will ya?!
• And that leads us into another problem: too much technobabble. There were so many faux-scientific, multi-syllable terms that one might hear in Berman-era Trek it drove me a bit batty. That’s not how TOS sounded. Stop worshiping those newer shows while trying to write for the old ones. Or just reboot the new shows if that’s what you love so much.