Sunday, August 21, 2016

Star Trek Beyond / ***½ (PG-13)

Captain James T. Kirk: Chris Pine
Commander Spock: Zachary Quinto
Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy: Karl Urban
Lieutenant Uhura: Zoe Saldana
Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Jaylah: Sofia Boutella
Krall: Irdris Elba

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung. Based on the “Star Trek” television series created by Gene Roddenberry. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence).

I overheard a critic speaking recently who said that nostalgia doesn’t belong in criticism. I’m not so sure I agree with this, which is no surprise since I write from a very nostalgic point of view. I understand what this critic was saying. There is an objectiveness that is necessary in criticism and getting too nostalgic runs the danger of adopting the false entitlement of ownership that so many fans espouse these days, leading to much of the illegitimate criticism felt by franchises, such as the “Ghostbusters” reboot. However, I think it’s impossible to critique these franchises without acknowledging their reliance on what has come before. Of course, the best franchise films work just as well if you’ve never seen any entry in the series before, but most are made with the notion their audience is familiar with the franchise characters, tone and mythology.

Few franchises have these elements as well established as the “Star Trek” franchise, which celebrates its 50th year in 2016. I would hardly consider myself a diehard Trekker, or even one of the slightly lesser level of fans known as Trekkies. No. I grew up watching the original series in syndication ten years after its initial television run whenever it happened to be on the channel I was watching. I haven’t seen most of the spin off television shows that followed some twenty years and more after the original, although I have been slowly working through the first of them on Netflix of late. When the first movie came out, it was an event in my life; and I have followed the film franchise ever since. Upon first glance, the newest entry “Star Trek Beyond” may seem a minor installment in the canon of Star Trek as a whole, but in many ways it is one of the more encompassing of all the signature elements of every incarnation of Star Trek.

The third film in the series since it was “rebooted” in 2009, “Star Trek Beyond” attempts to pull away from the driving referential elements that highlighted the previous two films in the most clever reboot premise I expect to see in this age of the reboot, which actually introduced the same characters, premises and slightly altered storylines in an alternate universe to the Star Trek series that preceded these entries. “Beyond” is the first of the new Trek’s to stand purely on its own. As such, the screenwriters, Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, take it upon themselves to explore the episodic nature of the television series, which is also an unavoidable element of extending a franchise over the course of 12 films.

We join Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise three years after the events of the previous film and three years into their five-year mission to explore new worlds and seek out new lives and civilizations. Kirk, who was introduced in this incarnation of the series and character, as an anti-authoritarian and loose cannon, has settled into the ways of the Federation of Planets as an ambassador of peace and is starting to question whether this is really what he wants out of life. The daily routine of space travel and bureaucracy has become a grind for him. This is depicted in a wonderful sequence that is summed up by a shot of Kirk looking through his wardrobe, which is made up of about ten identical uniforms. 

As is often the case with space adventures though, trouble is just around the corner. In this plot, that trouble comes in the form of an alien race trying to get their hands on an “ancient object of destruction” that happens to be in the possession of the Federation on the Enterprise. Krall (a makeup-covered Idris Elba) attacks the Enterprise in a spectacular sequence that results in yet another destruction of the Federation spacecraft, scattering Kirk and his crew across an uncharted planet where they must regroup and discover how to escape all the while trying to thwart Krall’s dubious plans to destroy the Federation starting with their outermost settlement, a space station known as Yorktown.

One point of criticism against the previous two films were their lack of character development to support the emotion these characters share for each other and therefore the emotional ties they build for the audience. The screenplay cleverly solves that problem this time around by separating the major characters (with all the actors returning to their roles) into small groups who must figure out how to survive together. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) must deal with an insurgent threat against their team. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) must lead the captured members of the crew to a possible escape. Dr. McCoy and Spock must overcome their rather contentious feelings toward one another just to survive. And Scotty (portrayed by screenwriter Pegg) is solo until he is saved by a new cast member, one of the new breed of empowered women in action films, the alien Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella from “Kingsmen: The Secret Service”). The most important connections here are made by Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto, as McCoy and Spock respectively, who had yet to truly establish their relationship as the counters to Kirk’s psyche in this new Star Trek universe.

When it was announced that producer J.J. Abrams would be replaced as the helmer by Justin Lin, many questioned Lin’s ability to deliver a Star Trek with a brain. Coming of the wildly popular, but rather silly “Fast & Furious” action franchise, Lin pulled from his debut film experience, the excellent thriller “Better Luck Tomorrow”, to aptly balance the action with character and themes that may even better reflect the Star Trek television show traditions than anything by Abrams. He introduces the series’ first major LGBTQ character by revealing more about Sulu’s personal life. He dives into the moral questions raised by a society established through war and the effects of progress on those who excelled in that society. And he successfully returns to the film series’ questions about how age changes the man with a cast much younger than the original employed. The news that Chris Hemsworth may reprise his role as Kirk’s father, who died in the first five minutes of the 2009 film, intrigues me as to where this particular Star Trek theme might go in the next film.

I wouldn’t call “Star Trek Beyond” the best Star Trek movie I’ve seen. The story isn’t the most original of the series, but the way its told is clever and entertaining. Pegg and Jung infuse a great amount of humor into the proceedings, which also recalls a Star Trek tradition that many felt was muted in the previous film. It is one of the film series’ stronger entries, however, if only for how many of the traditions of the series it reestablishes. Many historical references are also injected into the story references along with a great many Star Trek mythology references. It is rich with wit and intelligence, perhaps the most important elements distinguishing the Star Trek universe from most other science fiction franchises. Star Trek is still boldly going where no one has gone before.

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