Review: Star Trek: Beyond (2016)

Star Trek: Beyond

Rating

Director

Justin Lin

Screenplay

Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

Length

122 min.

Starring

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Original Preview

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Buy on DVD/Blu-ray

Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

During the Star Trek series’ 50th anniversary year-long celebration, Paramount decided it best to release the third film in its modern Star Trek series. Star Trek: Beyond may share a few more commonalities with its ancestors, but without finding a new path, the results are murky and unfulfilling.

When Gene Roddenberry created the Star Trek universe, he envisioned it as something akin to hit western TV series Wagon Train, but among the stars. However, with science fiction, various talented authors gave us a series that frequently spoke in analogies, comparing narrative events to the Vietnam War, American race relations, or anti-Communism. The original cast films, as well as the Next Generation movies were less focused on these concepts, though oftentimes no less astute.

When the series was rebooted in 2009 and took the characters from the original series and re-cast them with new actors, there was the potential to return to the root of what made the series a cult phenomenon. Unfortunately, with his action-heavy mystery box mentality, director J.J. Abrams was unable to parlay the heavy-handed nostalgia of the film into more than a passable action spectacle without genuine depth to its narrative.

The second film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, borrowed copiously from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which made for a bumpy, moralistically vague film that over-relied on action sequences (a common theme for this new series of films) and on pontificating than on genuine narrative excitement. The third film is more akin to the 2009 film, but still suffers from a penchant for spectacle over social commentary.

Star Trek: Beyond is about endings and new beginnings. After years of calculated mistakes and unfulfilled dreams, Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is contemplating taking a desk job. His experiences in space have left him frustrated. Meanwhile, his first officer, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), is considering the possibility of moving on after news of the death of alternate timeline Spock (Leonard Nimoy). As they mull the matters over in their heads, a desperate plea for assistance leads them through a dense asteroid field to a planet where Federation history will collide with alien technology and that could mean doom to the myriad inhabitants of nearby space station Yorktown as well as the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

After all that’s come before, Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy) and Pine (Captain Kirk) have grown into their roles. They better embody their Original Series counterparts. Unfortunately, Quinto (Mr. Spock), Zoe Saldana (Lt. Uhura), John Cho (Mr. Sulu), and especially Simon Pegg (Mr. Scott) have managed to divert so much from their sources that they’ve almost become parodies of those characters. In the hands of new writers, one would hope that the progressive qualities of the original series would be better handled. However, all of the female characters in the film remain damsels that need saving, even if they can fight their own battles; Mr. Sulu has been turned gay in a tribute to the originator of the character, George Takei, but in a ham-fistedly, pointless, and utterly sanitized way; and Chekov and Scotty have become little more than comic relief of dubious depth.

There’s also something excessive about the details put into the film. The big screen has a lot of space to fill and for most films, the intricate details carved into background elements and set designs can make for thrilling, immersive experiences. What is problematic is when you move away from necessity and start giving details without purpose. From the overly complicated design of the warp nacelles, which had typically been opaque blue glowing energy cells, to the massive, expansive, and utterly inutile Starbase Yorktown, the film wants to eschew scientific realism in favor of fancy, complex detail. As wonderous as Yorktown looks, it borders on obsessive fantasy the likes of which Star Wars typically excels at rather than the purposeful, minimalist aesthetic of the original series and all programs and films that have followed it. The designers have clearly gone out of their way to make everything look really awesome, but without considering why everything that came before worked so effectively.

While the visual effects in the film are solid, it’s another example of too much. Having a swarm of computer-generated alien space ships doing massive damage like a swarm of bees is a nifty concept that plays into the film’s narrative. It’ss carried out well, but too often the action gets mired down in the spectacle, leaving the audience a touch confused in its spatial awareness.

After three installments, it’s clear that even with a new director (Abrams stepped away to tinker with the Star Wars universe and gave the reins to Fast & Furious 6 helmer Justin Lin), the revival films just aren’t what the fans have come to expect. The banter between characters, especially Dr. McCoy and Spock, is a nice throwback to the original, but everything else seems designed specifically to remove itself as far from what made the originals so exciting.

The series no longer goes where no one has gone before. It no longer wants to comment on the sociopolitical environment into which it’s released. The tenets of science fiction have been abandoned in favor of action spectacle and without an allegorical component. The excitement, the intelligence, and the nostalgia of what has come before may be forever lost. Star Trek: Beyond isn’t a bad film, but it’s the latest in a series that is only nominally Star Trek and that’s a shame.

Oscar Prospects

Potentials: Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects

Review Written

September 20, 2016

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