FILM REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek holds a special place in my heart, as it has done for many people for its 50 year history, combining thoughtful science fiction with adventurous derring do, characters we have all come to love and a positive, progressive ethos that spoke of the best of humanity. I reviewed Star Trek Into Darkness here back in 2013 and it was written, like this one, in that initial post-viewing glow. I liked aspects of Into Darkness then, but over time, the frustrations I spoke of during that film deepened. I watched it once more and came to resent it a great deal. I'm still not over it.
Into Darkness made the mistake of infecting Star Trek with a cynicism the show rarely possessed and the way they approached the story, the bizarre retread of Khan and the appropriation of Trek history was such a disappointment that I was ready to outright ignore the Kelvin timeline and await Bryan Fuller's TV series. I speak of this now to provide some context to my emotions going into Star Trek Beyond. I've been deeply reserved throughout the marketing campaign, growing more cautiously optimistic when the early positive buzz started filtering through, but still very hesitant.
It is, therefore, a joy to report that not only did I enjoy Star Trek Beyond, but it has managed to almost entirely renew my faith in the Kelvin timeline; STID means I will never be 100%, but hey, this is one hell of a comeback.
Captain James T. Kirk is three years into his five year mission of discovery and boldly going with the rest of the Enterprise crew. He's a little weary and considering making a promotional step that would take him out of the captain's chair and behind a desk. When a distressed refugee arrives at the Yorktown starbase (a truly phenomenal piece of design) needing help to retrieve her crew, it is, naturally, the Enterprise that is tasked with the rescue mission. They head off into uncharted space and straight into a trap that scatters the crew. Kirk, Bones, Spock et al. are forced to combine their smarts to outwit their rather angry opponent and get the crew of the Enterprise back together again.
What strikes me most about Beyond is that it feels, from the start, like a Trek story. The world around them has a tangible history to it, allowing for subtle callbacks to the Federation's history that fans will understand. Unlike the heavy-handed reference-flinging of its predecessor, Beyond simply allows its world to exist rather than feeling the need to consistently and loudly point it out. Much of this comes for an inherent respect of the property that they're working with, helped enormously by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung's screenplay. The love of Trek practically bursts through the screen on occasion and it's hard not to get swept up in such enthusiasm.
And, like the best Trek tales, Beyond manages to combine its adventurous tone with a thematic weight and properly worked character arcs. The key message here, oft-repeated, is the idea of 'strength in unity,' what the Federation stands for across the galaxy. The bad guy, Krall (an imposing Idris Elba), believes it's all empty rhetoric and that his particular brand of conflicted, battle-scarred individuality is the way to go. It sets up an intriguing opposite to Kirk who acknowledges the need for his crew at all times; he's never the individual hero here, but part of a team.
Justin Lin's direction yields some beautiful moments of sublimity including a gorgeous shot of Kirk surveying recently wrought destruction from a position of powerlessness. But Lin also can't seem to keep still. There are great looping camera movements around characters or through Yorktown, all of which look very pretty, but becomes a little tiresome as the film goes on. The editing during the action sequences falls into one of the common traps of never quite being able to convey what is happening. Some fights are more than a little confusing, which is a shame during some of the higher concept action sequences as there's some inventive choreography going on there.
When it comes to the cast, Chris Pine is one of the major strengths of Beyond, depicting the loneliness of command early in the film before slotting instantly into the leadership role as the narrative demands. He anchors the core conflict of individuality versus community in his performance that, at times, feels Shatner-esque in tone or expression, but without resorting to the parody of the character that the other two films lapsed into on occasion. This Kirk is a product of his father's death and all the anxieties that come with that and it's in the little moments that that comes forth, such as a close up of his hand nervously gripping his chair arm during a battle sequence that feels deeply human. It's not all drama though; the wicked sense of humour gets a chance to shine frequently.
That sense of humour spills into the other characters too, especially Bones and Spock. Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto are the most Bonesy and Spockish they've ever been; their expanded relationship is given the time to explore their respective roles as representatives of the heart and the head. They have a conversation about mortality, a theme of the film that gets a little lost in the action elsewhere, but here feels like a near-perfect microcosm of how they work together as the clash of heart and hea. The Bones-Kirk-Spock trifecta is also seen more and carries a real sense of how the trio's inter-dependence becomes essential to their relationship. It's the closest they've come to matching their Prime timeline counterparts and it bodes well for future instalments.
The other crew members are served well with Sulu and Uhura each getting their turn in the spotlight. The use of Uhura as the audience proxy with Krall is a clever play on her communications role, her conversations with him offering us insight into his history and motivations. The late Anton Yelchin's enthusiastic performance as the adorable Chekov gives the film its bittersweet note and he's a joy once again here, all badly pronounced Vs and gesticulation. Newcomer Sofia Boutella's Jaylah slots in well to the existing line-up and allows for that strength in unity theme to be played out in another format as she learns to work with the crew.
Above all, the message of hope that runs through Beyond feels needed now more than ever. There is no problem here that can't be solved with a little ingenuity, no obstacle that feels insurmountable if everyone is working together. In the current unsettled political climate, it feels particularly timely. The threats are clear and present, the stakes high, but you have faith, just like Kirk, that the crew will find a way out of whatever dilemma they've wandered into because that's exactly what they're good at. It's an enormously positive message and a love letter to the power of a united population. And that, to me, is quintessential Star Trek.
Now if I could just stop thinking about Madness every time I read the title...