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We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek, irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection, content in the knowledge they make it look good.


But where, say, The Search for Spock had a rock-solid script undermined by sloppy direction, Star Trek XIII is pretty much the reverse. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have delivered the most generic, tick-box affair imaginable, ensuring each of the regulars gets their moment in the sun, some more so than others, and that requisite bases are touched in terms of the enduring bond between these fine star travellers. There’s even a nondescript villain worthy of the Next Gen baddies, perhaps even less so, such is his indifferent motivation and underwhelming reveal.


That reveal had the potential for being something of substance, and you can see what the writers were steering for, something self-contained that would pack the kind of punch the Cumberbatch is Khan “shock” failed to in Darkness. And their starting point for Beyond, getting to the heart of why the Federation is a good thing, is a noble quest. But they rather fudge it in their back-ended explanation that Krall is really just a standard-issue aggressor who couldn’t settle down when the Federation was instituted as a preserver of peace rather than the military outfit he was used to (which is a bit hard to swallow in itself, as by the evidence of TOS, the Enterprise crew got to shoot, destroy or stun some alien threat every week without fail; such activities should have kept Balthazar Edison more than contented).


There’s some ripe material to be mined in debating the pros and cons of adopting a united front, then, but in the end Pegg and Jung make plays for only the most obvious targets. The team of Kirk and co versus the singular Krall distils the Federation versus those that would undermine it; they band together to overcome him, while he, as the personification of its antithesis, sucks the life, literally, out of his fellows. The obvious possibilities are ignored (instead of an out-and-out fiend, the Federation could be applying unwanted pressure to a world to join its ranks; the implication that anyone who resists the benign might of the Federation is necessarily bad is taken as read here). And Krall, as the unreconstituted warrior who resists change, is rather serving the function of the Klingons by another name.


Perhaps the writers thought strip-mining real-world topics directly would be too much like Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (particularly since Orci tends to be ardently vilified as a “Truther”, hence the plotline of Darkness). But, in a landscape where the validity of the once unassailable European Union is being daily undermined and the likes of the UN are rubbished as failures (admittedly from Donald Trump, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t on to something), and where grand visions of utopian interactions and freedoms are revealed to operate more along the lines of totalitarian thinking, devolving to the simplistic baseline of a gun nut who went a bit loco is disappointing. Even the read-through of Krall, that he has become the very thing he feared the most (an alien) is left uninterrogated (which in the OST might have been the whole moral). 


Idris Elba is imposing, both in body and actual language; it’s the script that lets him down, serving up the kind of overdressed pronouncements that suggest Krall has been practising in the mirror (“Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness”; “This is where the frontier pushes back”). But his babbling captain’s log persona is poor; it should give us an idea of the man he was and how came undone. Instead, Elba appears to have given little thought to the performance; it’s as if he showed up with a hangover and struggled blearily through his lines.


In terms of script issues, you can also hear the Pegg rhythms in the humorous exchanges, which is both good and bad. Sometimes there’s a feeling that the presentation is a little unfinessed, and thus lacking the slight remove Trek should have from the cadences of the here and now. There are nice call-back touches (the green hand, Chekov’s Wussian inventions, the way Shat Kirk was forever ripping his shirt), particularly the “classical music” charge levelled at the Beastie Boys, but when you have both a rerun of Sabotage (nicely used, it has to be said, but a bit of an easy goal too) and Fight the Power, it smacks of a franchise lacking confidence in its own essential differentiation from the present day.


Often too, the character beats feel artificially employed, rather than having any semblance of resonance. So there’s still no-dad Kirk trying to find his own persona (the birthday thing being an echo of The Wrath of Khan; I think we’ve had enough echoes of that movie), Nimoy-less Spock debating his duty (a better one, but Zachary Quinto has effectively been given another plotline where he can’t get out of the shadow of the original) and big gay Sulu. And, er, Uhura entirely defined by the man who isn’t in her life. They’re elements adhered to the plot, rather than arising from or meshing with it.


The actual theme of Kirk and Spock looking to leave Starfleet for different reasons and finding motivation to stay is a solid one, but if feels like the wrong time and wrong place, like we’re leap frogging from early days to jadedness without the good stuff in between (I guess that’s what TV shows are for). And should we really receive the message that star trekkin’ is boring for these young whippersnappers (which, despite the suggestions that this gets to a more ensemble-exploratory-celebratory OST core than the previous reboot movies, is possibly a far more damaging charge, one that takes away from the whole exciting adventuring ethos)? Of which, the CGI aliens in the opening sequence, cutely Douglas Adams-y as it is in its reveal regarding their stature – which after The World’s End suggests Pegg is a much bigger Hitchhiker’s aficionado than Trek – are really ropily rendered.


One thing about Abrams’ vision of Trek, and his approach to movies generally, is that he “gets” how to engineer elements that pack a punch, be it the soaring emotional high, the plunging depths of loss, or the high stakes dramatic twist, and Michael Giacchhino accompanies him perfectly in terms of score. Lin’s film, for all its vertiginous, virtuoso flourishes (and as a piece of filmmaking, its more instinctively, seamlessly impressive than Abrams’ work), doesn’t really make you care much about anything or anyone. It’s agreeable, very well made, but it has no bite.


Teaming Spock and McCoy pays dividends for back-and-forth banter, and both Quinto (whose pout isn’t very Vulcan, and has a similar problem to Krall; his lines have the “shape” of Spock lines, but feel too devised – “Of course I care, Leonard”; “We will find hope in the impossible”) and Karl Urban (sometimes he seems more like a DeForest Kelly impersonator, but that’s probably because there isn’t a lot to Bones, in the best possible way; conversely, at least they aren’t silly enough to give him an emotional bit) are good value, but it does rather feel that the writers are trying to prove something we already know, to the extent of teaming them again for the finale when it isn’t really germane (when did Bones become such a shit-hot pilot?)


Pine is the standout, and it’s surprising that, given how iconic the Shat is, he warrants the least need for comparison. Perhaps that’s because, as mentioned, the spectre of Nimoy unfairly haunts Quinto even here (complete with a lovingly preserved production photo from The Final Frontier), and Urban’s Bones is uncannily close to his predecessor, but Pine is able to do his own thing and make Kirk his own. Some of the material he’s served doesn’t necessarily help his cause (Kirk’s decision to give the doohickey to the entirely useless Ensign Syl (Melissa Roxburgh), who promptly gives it up at the first sign of a threat to a fellow crewmember, is poor judgement, and not really compensated for by catching on to dodgy Kalara (Lydia Wilson) early on; his raring around on a motorbike is also a bit too boy racer) but he gives Kirk both impetuousness and authority, and leaves a strong stamp.


The other actors (John Cho, Anton Yelchin and Zoe Saldana) are reliable but are given little of consequence (so like the original series movies). And then there’s Pegg, with his carefully preserved combover/rug and incessant cries of “Lassie!” like he’s last man standing at a Star Trek pub quiz. I like Pegg in a fair few things, despite his talent for over-exposure leading to diminishing returns; he’s a positive in the M:I franchise, making for an effective contrast with Cruise that just plain works. But here he’s the wrong kind of fan casting, and he grates whenever he gets (or gives himself) a lot to do (fortunately he shows enough restrain to keep Scotty two-dimensional, like Bones). 


Sofia Boutella (she of the leg blades in Kingsman) is impressively poised as his buddy pairing, although she’s more a cypher than a strongly-defined character (posture and make-up make up for a lot). As for Scotty’s tiny accomplice Keenser (Deep Roy), he’s no more endearing than ever he was, like a persistent ‘80s sidekick who just won’t go away (I hesitate to call him a Scrappy Doo, as he isn’t as intrusive, but he’s along the same lines).


The real star of the show is Justin Lin (Lin having directed Paul Walker’s last fully-completed film of in the Fast and Furious series, and now Yelchin’s last full film in this, one probably ought to be nervous if one is a cast member of any future sequel he attaches himself to). If Beyond is chock full of clichés, and exploding/crashing Enterprises are just one (there was a time when destroying the Enterprise was a big thing, about 33 years ago, now it’s like going to the space toilet; Pegg and Jung go out of their way to suggest there are numerous survivors, so as to avoid the usual casual disaster porn, but we only ever see about 20 assembled at any one time, which rather leaves a negative impression), he more than makes the most of his science fiction playground. So, while he’s given a very TV show scope at times (half of the proceedings are set in a glorified quarry, which couldn’t be more Blake’s 7 – it might have been worth taking notes from that series’ dyspeptic view of the joys of an intergalactic federation), that mentality is entirely in the writing, rather than the execution.


On the down side, that opening attack sequence is so strong, and so masterfully sustained, the rest of the movie can’t equal it. Sure, Lin throws in some highly-polished set pieces (not content with the ship being crashed, it then has to crash again, the saucer flipping over with Kirk sliding down it), and the realisation of Yorktown, in all its multi-planed, multi-perspective splendour is quite dazzling, but there isn’t the same kind of charge to this final sequence. Mainly because the villain ain’t all that, and we aren't invested enough in the potential of his deadly weapon (we needed to see a larger test-run really, rather than just taking out Ensign Syl; as it is his drones have evidenced far greater destructive range).


If they do make the announced fourth outing (the Kirk’s dad time-travel thing doesn’t sound like the best route to go, particularly since Chris Hemsworth is no kind of draw when he’s not Thor), and the box office for XIII thus far makes that questionable, they really need to make it an event to justify the expense. With a new TV show waiting in the wings, Paramount may opt to hedge their bets. Lin would be a no-brainer to have back, but he needs to be serviced with a strong script (and given it has been handed to Patrick McKay and John D Payne, who worked uncredited on this one, that may be in doubt). Star Trek Beyond is fine; it’s energetic, good fun, the action is terrific and the cast are (mostly) highly accomplished. But this isn’t a series that can get away with just “fine” entries anymore; too much rides on it cost-wise, and the previous picture did too much damage to the franchise’s reputation just when it looked like it might become an international (rather than interstellar) monster.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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