Tuesday 9 August 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016) - Movie Review

2009’s reboot of the Star Trek film series is a film that is utter impossible for me to view in any critical sense. I say this because, for better or for worse, it was what finally got me properly interested in the franchise and I have been ever since. When the Star Trek series and movies are at their best, they are some of the most thought-provoking and well-crafted science-fiction stories in the history of the medium. Hell, I’d argue that the Next Generation episode Tapestry is one of the greatest works of fiction ever conceived. But don’t mistake this for blind fanboy devotion: When it’s bad, it conversely makes for some of the most brain-dead uses of the art form possible. In stark contrast to my thoughts on the 2009 reboot, 2013’s Into Darkness is far less complicated: It’s decent, but quickly turns sour thanks to how badly it borrows ideas from previous films in the franchise. Are we gonna get a repeat of either of those, or are we in for something else entirely?

The plot: While on a routine rescue mission, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew are ambushed by the alien despot Krall (Idris Elba) and their ship is destroyed. Marooned on the planet Altamid, the now-separated crew have to regroup and find a way to stop Krall before he destroys a nearby Federation starbase, along with numerous Federation planets after it.

The cast here are well and truly comfortable in their roles by this point, which means solid performances all round. Chris Pine may feel a tad softened as the rugged Kirk, but he still delivers as the somewhat emotionally manipulated captain of this crew of very colourful personalities. Zachary Quinto, not letting the damaging rage-outs from Into Darkness get to him too much, is still a master class in showing suppressed emotion without completely dodging it. Karl Urban is hilariously brash, which is helped by how he probably gets the best lines of the entire film, Simon Pegg doesn’t let the co-writing credit go to his head and maintains as the befuddled but capable engineer, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin and John Cho may be a bit outclassed in comparison to the rest of the cast but they still work within their roles. Not to say they’re bad in any way; just that they’re surrounded by people that are just that good.

Of the newcomers, Sofia Boutella easily comes across as the strongest and, if they decide to proceed with the Abramsverse Star Trek story, I more than welcome the opportunity to see her again. Lydia Wilson as Kalara manages to work past the kind of awkward in-real-time translation she’s been given, fitting her amorphous alignment mould without mishap. Honestly, and I can’t believe I’m even typing this, but Idris Elba comes across as the weakest of the lot. He’s just way too stilted in his delivery and blocking, but he gets some form of redemption once his character gets a bit of last-minute fleshing out. It may sound slapdash, but credit to the filmmakers for making it work as smoothly as they did.

The Star Trek label, at its best, has the notions of cerebral and social commentary sci-fi firmly attached to it. Because of this, the notion of handing the reins to the guy behind the bulk of one of the most bombastic and ludicrous action franchises of recent years seems pretty short-sighted… until you remembered what made said franchise work as well as it has. Justin Lin seems to have a very natural talent for directing actors, especially when they end up bickering with each other. With this in mind, he is actually a great fit for this kind of film as a lot of what drives the development on-screen is the crew of the Enterprise just talking with each other. Even ignoring the development we have seen them go through over the last two films, this alone shows these people like the family that Star Trek series keep touting their main casts to be, arguments and all. It probably helps that the couplings made when the crew becomes separated are ideal in terms of interesting conversations, McCoy and Spock especially.

And then there’s the action sequences, and Justin more than earns his brass with this one. He and DOP Stephen F. Windon take a lot of advantage with the gravity-warping possibilities that the genre can afford them, so we get a lot of technical trickery to make this film’s case for being a feature-length production. However, they might have had a little too much fun with this aspect: As much as I enjoy them playing with spatial dimensions, it can make things a little difficult to keep up with due to the frantic nature of the action and how the camera, even in normal parameters, can’t seem to hold still at times and just keeps tilting. It’s the same issue I took with Windon’s previous work on Furious 7, but these guys still work well together seeing as how they teamed up for the best installments of the F&F series. Good to see their behind-the-scenes chemistry is still tight as ever.

The writing team, likewise, is a great fit for this kind of story. While co-writer Doug Jung’s work is relatively minimal, mostly writing for TV, Simon Pegg’s aptitude with sci-fi should be more than apparent for anyone who has seen The World’s End. Now, the plot on its own is pretty standard for Star Trek and space operas in general: Ship crashes on an unknown world, something something something, need to stop a galactic-level threat. In fact, I’d argue that this is basically an upscale version of a two-part episode of the show proper, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Sure, this franchise’s history with cinematic episodes is a tad askew (Insurrection, anyone?) but the format itself works when it comes to what kind of story Pegg and Jung were going for.

Apart from some musings from Kirk about the nature of his captaincy, this is mainly just a fun action-adventure ride, something that is done very well here. The banter between the characters is top-notch, up to par with what I’ve come to expect from not only Abramsverse Star Trek but also the works of Justin Lin, and the way they juggled the different character groups is definitely to be commended. This zigs where the typical Roland Emmerich production zags, in that the different groups have a legitimate reason to be focused on outside of plot-convenient reasons, something aided by how the plot itself is well-paced. The action beats may be occasionally incoherent, and feature a point of awesomely ludicrous that has to be seen to be believed (it involves how the enemy fleet gets taken down, and that’s all you’re getting for context), but they are spaced out so as to not overwhelm the audience, and the in-between dialogue keeps a steady level of engagement. They even manage to make the patented technobabble scenes work as they don’t occupy too much screen time and aren’t so overly intricate as to instinctively set off bullshit alarms.

A recurring theme with the new Star Trek films so far has been that of its place in the franchise’s lineage; namely, it feeling the need to honour the old guard. Now, in the first film, they did a good job of staking its claim while still giving a nod to its ancestors, something helped by the appearance of Spock Prime (rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy). Into Darkness, on the other hand; its biggest weakness was how much it tried to ape the original films, borrowing heavily from Wrath Of Khan in ways that were sometimes clever but mostly facepalm-worthy. Here, the balance gets re-addressed as it feels like this film genuinely wants to just make its own mark as a film, not wanting too many comparisons to be drawn between it and the original nine. The references made to the Original Series mostly stick to Pegg’s standard of snide but still respectful; there’s a fair bit of dialogue that is meant as fanservice for older fans, right down to a sly jab at William Shatner’s hairline.

Probably the biggest showcasing of this would be in how the in-universe death of Spock Prime is handled, making for a nicely underplayed tribute that also happens to shape Spock’s character somewhat. It’s the quieter version of Paul Walker’s tribute in Furious 7, basically, and works within the framing of the plot and the characters. Actually, going back to talking about Into Darkness, this film manages to do a better job of portraying the kind of vengeful forgotten soldier that Khan was meant to be in the new series, without even needing to draw attention to the parallels. It probably helps that Krall’s ultimate motivation is tied into what has now become regular practice in questioning Roddenberry’s idealistic view of the Federation and how it apparently can do no harm. Much like in Into Darkness, this is very much appreciated.

All in all, this is a more than worthy addition to the canon. The acting is still on point, the writing smooths some lingering issues from the previous films while also creating its own identity and tributing the series’ history at the same time, and the direction gives the story and the settings within the grandeur and scale that this kind of space opera calls for, not to mention crafting some damn good action scenes. I can only hope that this isn’t the end of the road for this series, as the series has managed to create a nice lane for itself, but I’m still glad that we got what we did.

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