Return to Tomorrow
Between thirteen movies and seven hundred twenty-five episodes of television, you’d think that the Star Trek would be a well-oiled machine at this point. Unfortunately, it’s not, as alternating movies tend to falter and the different series have wide-ranging highs and lows. So on this, the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, the movies still have a degree of uncertainty to them. Thus, we must boldly go.
While Star Trek (2009) was a loose, but familiar, origin story for the enterprise and Star Trek: Into Darkness was a
rip-off homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Beyond takes us into new territory, and the film is all the better for it. Dropping all superficial ties to previous Star Trek lore, Beyond attempts to merge the heady sci-fi ideas of the original series with the action spectacle that studios demand. Though it’s not a perfect balance, as we lean far closer to “action movie” than “sci-fi movie,” to say it’s a bad movie would be wrong. Star Trek: Beyond is a great adventure for the characters with whom we’re so familiar.
The emphasis on characters is one of things that make Beyond so entertaining. The prior two movies were, in a way, the “Kirk and Spock” show, with the supporting cast’s dimension being lost in the fray. There was very little depth to Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, Uhura, and McCoy, as the arcs of two leads were front and center in both films. In Star Trek ‘09, Kirk learned to be a leader while Spock learned to reconcile his half-human emotions and his duties, and in Into Darkness, Kirk…learned to be a leader some more and…Spock learned to reconcile his half-human emotions and his duties.
Not only do Kirk and Spock get new arcs, but the supporting cast does too. At the beginning of the film, Kirk is struggling with his lack of purpose in Starfleet. He travels to different worlds and breaks bread with several species, but doesn’t feel as if his work is contributing to anything larger. His father fought for something in Starfleet, but Kirk feels like he’s just running through the motions. He sees Sulu, who is sacrificing a life with his family to be aboard the Enterprise and he knows something is missing. Sulu, on the other hand, does feel like there is something worth fighting for, but he isn’t as decisive as he should be. On a side note, this iteration of Sulu is gay, and I’ve written a whole big piece on that here. Spock is struggling with his own legacy, an element that works as both a narrative devise and a loving tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy. McCoy finally gets to flourish as a foil to Spock, someone who is very human but still respects the Vulcan in…his own way. Chekov is awarded the opportunity to study and learn from his Captain, Uhura comes into her own as a fighter and strategist, and Scotty gets to be more than just comic relief.
The main crew is split up early on in the film, and each member is paired with another who suits his or her needs. By splitting the ensemble, the characters fully form and develop in ways that they haven’t in the prior two films. I was especially pleased with Chekov, who, prior to Beyond, was just a bumbling cartoon with a Russian accent. Now he’s an eager young member of Starfleet with a desire to learn and grow. We spend some great time with the character, which is bittersweet, as J.J. Abrams confirmed that they will not recast the role after Anton Yelchin’s death.
Opposite the main cast is Idris Elba is Krall, a character requiring so much make-up and prosthetics that I could have been cast in the role and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. Krall is, unfortunately, a paint-by-numbers villain who wants to dismantle Starfleet because…he’s a bad guy. Yes, we get some eleventh hour information that hastily explain his motivations, but it’s too little too late, and by that point we’ve already written Krall off as a generic baddie. It’s a shame, too, because writer Simon Pegg has explained that he wrote the script with the intention of exploring the idea of Starfleet’s colonization and the negative effects such efforts can have. Krall doesn’t serve that purpose, so the overall theme is lost in the action.
The exploration of that theme could have probably solidified this as a stronger sci-fi story, but it’s exclusion doesn’t diminish the film’s success in the realm of action. Remember, the NuTrek series is predicated on action, so while it’s not driven by the moral dilemmas and optimistic speculation that defined TOS and TNG, it’s strong character relationships and exploratory spirit are befitting of the Star Trek moniker.
The action in this movie is great, by the way. While there is some cartoonish CGI here and there in the film, there are many breathtaking sequences scattered throughout. Yorktown base is an excellent setting that both looks great and allows for some dynamic action. Likewise, the Enterprise’s destruction (calm down, it was in the trailer) was an excellent setpiece, although it didn’t carry the same weight that it did in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. And while the presence of a motorcycle gave me a brain aneurysm when the first trailer dropped, it’s integration into the story (and the sci-fi technology integrated into it) made for a really unique and rewarding experience.
This story didn’t bank on nostalgia in the way that the prior two NuTrek films did. The fan service and references were both subtle and non-intrusive, and the wide breadth of callbacks (from sound effects to iconography) reward the most hard-core Star Trek fans, not just those with a casual understanding of Tribbles and the Prime Directive.
Star Trek: Beyond is ultimately a success. While it’s themes are muddied by a generic and underdeveloped villain, the colorful cast of characters give the film a layer of depth that had been missing from the prior two films. Yes, it is an action film, which means that heavy ideas and political undertones will be replaced by grand spectacle and heavy-duty special effects. But at the end of the day, there is a passion and love that defines the spirit of Star Trek: Beyond, and while it’s not the same franchise that is was 50 years ago, the will to boldly go is as strong as ever.
Alex Russo likes to talk about movies. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.