Star Trek Beyond (2016), third in the “Kelvin timeline” movie series that kicked off with Star Trek (2009), and the thirteenth entry overall in the movie incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, will please fans of the two previous pictures and even prove palatable, if not necessarily nourishing, to more Prime-adhering Trek aficionados, who found the previous flick, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), notoriously unsavory.
My experience? Summer blockbusters aren’t typically interested in what I go to Star Trek for, and this is no exception. While Star Trek Beyond contains moments of genuinely heartfelt and well-rendered character interaction, particularly in the classic Kirk/Spock/McCoy trio, and it does explore a few philosophical and moral ideas consistent with the preceding series and films, it’s still too explosive, too FX-focused, too loud and too violent for me to grow rapturous.
A few words about the plot:
A little under three years into his five-year mission, James T. Kirk is in a contemplative mood, musing that things are starting to feel episodic and wondering what it is that he and his crew are really trying to accomplish. Shore leave at the new Starbase Yorktown is interrupted by the discovery of an escape pod whose lone occupant, Kalara, manages to convince the Enterprise to head into the Necro Cloud nebula. There the Enterprise is viciously attacked by a swarm of alien ships led by someone named Krall. Krall boards the Enterprise, in search of an artifact in Kirk’s possession. In the ensuing conflict the Enterprise is severely damaged and crashes on an M-class planet, Altamid, inside the nebula. The crew becomes separated, many of them captured by Krall’s forces. Scattered and stranded, the crew must fend off the local aliens, free themselves from Krall’s captivity, find a way to get off the planet, and prevent Krall from detonating a weapon pf mass destruction on the Yorktown.
Nicholas Meyer, highly regarded Trek writer and director, has described Star Trek as “a bottle into which different vintages can be poured.” Of the three Kelvin timeline movies, it feels to me like the first one, which I like best, heated up that bottle’s glass and spun it for good measure, while mostly conserving the basic bottle shape. Into Darkness, which personally ranks a distant third after Beyond, blew the bottom out and reconfigured the bottle into a torpedo. The current movie remolds that weapon into a more amicable shape, but if so it’s a small rectangular receptacle more likely to contain fashionable cologne than it is traditional liquor or wine.
From these comments you’ll gather that I’m not the ideal audience for these new Trek films, though I do applaud their craft, and their financially revitalizing effects on the franchise. I’ve watched every episode of every Star Trek series (a ghastly seven hundred and thirty-four episodes, by some counts) and every preceding film--more than once. I’ve also read many of the associated novels and non-fiction books. This familiarity with even the most recondite corners of the Trek universe has alienated me from these recent big-screen treatments, which consciously—and successfully—set out to appeal to folks unfamiliar with Star Trek’s labyrinthine history, i.e. “the casual fans.”
In a way, Star Trek Beyond provides a meta-textual commentary, surely unintended, on its own commerce-bound role in the ongoing franchise. The swarm of re-appropriated drone ships that Krall and his followers use to rip apart the Enterprise are relentless and obnoxious, devoid of individual thought or strategic innovation. They hollow out our beloved ship. What better metaphor for the relentless market pressures of blockbuster revenue-generation that eat away at artistic ambition from the inside out, lobotomizing precious minutes of a movie such as this one?
And yet perhaps the movie is not totally unaware of the vacuousness of some of its action sequences, of its catering to what it believes is a plebeian demographic that only finds satisfaction in lowbrow sensory inebriation. During the film’s climactic showdown, Kirk attempts to reason with Krall, heroically trying to help him break free of his perspective and anger. Kirk appeals to humanity’s ability to adapt and evolve: “We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.” The film then immediately proceeds to hit formulaic action beats, adhering to familiar protocols that exactly replicate those “same battles” to which Kirk alluded. How much of the irony is deliberate and how much accidental remains unclear.
Stylistically, Beyond represents an improvement over the last two films. For one, Justin Lin’s direction consistently reminds us of the three-dimensional nature of space, making the visual spectacle more immersive. With an elaborate set design that included 360-degree-rotating pieces, and cameras that ceaselessly swerve and swoop and tilt, everything becomes fluid. (I’ve heard some viewers complain that this makes the move dizzying and difficult to follow; your warp mileage may vary). Also, despite the movie’s tone being lighter, and its plot more infused with camaraderie than the previous film, many scenes are more darkly lit. The bridge, in particular, was very bright in the 2009 film, and here appears more muted, inviting us to partake in the exploration of space rather than positing that it occurs somewhere out there, beyond the ship’s hull. The underground cave settings also generate more intimacy. And I, for one, don’t miss the lens flares.
The cast delivers strong performances, and Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy and Sofia Boutella as Jaylah in particular shine. Michael Giacchino turns in his most mature and elegant Trek score to date, with some rousing choral work. The editing is also superior, allowing character moments to breathe when they need to, and framing up the elaborate action sequences in a tight, coherent fashion.
Thematically, too, the film feels cohesive and grounded in Trek truisms. The opening sequence, in which Kirk’s diplomatic overtures to an alien race (the “Teenaxi”—if you’ve seen the film you’ll get the joke) inadvertently make them angry, is a delightfully comedic study in the importance of scale and perspective. Besides being a nice tribute to the Tribbles, it foreshadows the film’s preoccupation with learning to figure out one’s place, and evolving one’s ideas and decisions in accordance with changing situations, a journey that Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Jayla all undergo. In the film’s opening log, Kirk wearily wonders, “But if the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?” A later line by Spock—“We will find hope in the impossible”—is the perfect Trek antidote to such doubts.
Unfortunately the film-making elements I praised above don’t elevate this beyond serviceable entertainment. My primary problem is one of pacing. The most interesting dilemma raised by the script comes too late, and is surrounded by too many punches and explosions: Krall, the lead antagonist, turns out to be Balthazar M. Edison, the former Captain of the Federation ship USS Franklin. Edison’s appearance has been changed by life-preserving energy transfers performed on Altamid. Krall/Edison believes that conflict is vital for strength and self-improvement, and that the Federation will ultimately benefit from his attack. He’s fueled by rage, too; there’s a sort of Nietzschean primalism to his motivation that makes for interesting Trek fodder. It would have been a lot more compelling, I think, if we’d learned of Krall’s identity earlier in the film, and could have therefore better empathized with his actions. As it stands, his character arc is clichéd-reptilian-villain for about 90% of the movie and plot-twist-tool for the remaining 10%.
As plot twists go, it’s not a particularly fresh one, either. In fact, many blockbusters feature the hero turned dark these days. Remember, for example, Javier Bardem’s chilling portrayal of ex-MI6 operative-turned-terrorist Raoul Silva in Skyfall (2012), the twenty-third James Bond film? Like Krall, his experiences deformed him on the outside just as much as on the inside. And for an even closer parallel within the Trek movie universe, consider the much-maligned ninth picture, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998). One of that script’s major reveals was that the peace-loving Ba’ku and the villainous Son’a were in fact the same race. And just like Krall, the Son’a had resorted to life-extending technologies that had warped their appearance.
Add to this numerous plot contrivances and logic leaps. Krall apparently discovers from Starfleet logs that the missing half of the Abronath--the super-weapon--is on the USS Enterprise. That seems unlikely, given that the Enterprise crew itself doesn’t know what they have, and they must have come across all sorts of mysterious relics and unknown artifacts after three years in space. We must imagine they keep extremely detailed logs, and that Krall has been scouring all such databases on all such ships. It’s also mighty convenient that the race that created the super-weapon, as well as the mining equipment and drone technology, and the technology that can apparently transfer “energy” (whatever that means) from one humanoid race to another to extend its lifespan indefinitely, left all of it in perfect working order on Altamid and then vanished without a trace. Jaylah uses cloaking technology to hide “her home” from Krall: but her home is the USS Franklin, his former ship, so why wouldn’t he remember where it was? How many explosions can Kirk surf without consequence? Apparently “Sabotage,” which was in vogue in 1994, will be popular again in 2164, and then again in 2245, and then of key importance in saving the Federation in 2263…
I’ll say too that while the Yorktown is eye-popping in an Inception-esque way, its cluttered aesthetic doesn’t sit well with me as part of Star Trek. Open, clean lines are far more suggestive of a utopia in which everyone disposes of resources aplenty. The backdrop should recede from our attention, better foregrounding the characters’ moral plights. Keeping us a-goggle with spectacular high-rise vistas and serpentine walkways is the definition of superficial charm. I feel like some of the aliens in Beyond are also tonally jarring, more like something out of Men in Black than Trek.
On the plus side, there’s a plethora of easter eggs. I’ll mention just a few. We get references to MACOs and the Xindi, from Star Trek: Enterprise. Kirk pondering his future on his birthday is straight out of The Wrath of Khan. The USS Franklin (named after the director’s farther, Frank Lin) has the registry number NX-326, a tribute to Leonard Nimoy’s birthday. Commodore Paris—distant relative of Lieutenant Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager? The film shows fifty new alien races, to celebrate Trek’s fiftieth year. And so on.
Okay, I’ve groused a fair share. If Star Trek Beyond is unambitiously diverting but fails to satisfy my Trek needs, what is it that I’m looking for?
The answer can be found in Leonard Nimoy’s own words.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), directed by Leonard Nimoy (who also helmed the third film, The Search for Spock) was one of the most successful and popular Trek films in the original series. Regarding that film, Nimoy said:
"I really wanted to have a good time on this one. Somebody had been constantly dying in the films, and this time I said, 'Nobody's going to die. I don't want anybody hitting anybody, I don't want anybody shooting anybody,' or any of that stuff. If anybody was going to be injured, it was going to be accidental. I insisted that there be no bad guy. [...] Circumstances would be the problem. Lack of awareness, lack of concern. Ignorance would be the problem. Not a person. [...] We're saying, 'Enjoy yourself, have a good time, and don't mind us as we drop off a few ideas along the way.'"
Thirty years later, that’s an even more refreshing sentiment than when Nimoy voiced it.
As nice as it is for Beyond to pay homage to the character of Spock Prime and reference the real-life loss of Leonard Nimoy (and Anton Yelchin), an even finer tribute would be to continue the legacy of Nimoy’s artistic vision with a Star Trek movie that doesn’t rely on destruction and violence to generate its thrills. Adventure is not synonymous with action, and drama is not synonymous with jeopardy. At one point Krall says, “This is where the frontier pushes back!” Maybe so; but in retrospect his frontier feels far more provincial than Trek’s beloved final frontier.