Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Star Trek Beyond"

 3.5 / 5 

Star Trek Beyond is the best of the rebooted Star Trek movies, better than the first one and vastly superior to Star Trek Into Darkness, but as far as the Star Trek films overall, it's low on the list, maybe about on par with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

But even the worst of the first wave of Star Trek movies, and even the least of the episodes of the original series, have something Star Trek Beyond lacks: a believable, complex interaction between its main characters.

Star Trek has always been at its finest, to me, when the crew works together.  The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has a rare spirit and camaraderie.  Behind his back, while guzzling down some Romulan ale, I always suspect Uhura and Sulu and Scotty and Chekov have some unpleasant things to say about Capt. James T. Kirk, but to his face, they have nothing but respect and even admiration for him.  Meanwhile, Kirk could not ask for any more loyal and true friends than "Bones" McCoy and Mr. Spock.  He can rely on them for anything, and they him.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there is a perfect moment when Kirk turns to Spock's chair and sees it empty, and he knows the worst has happened.  When he finds Spock, McCoy and Scotty have to pull Kirk away from his own possible death, because they know he would not think before sacrificing himself for the sake of his friend.

In Star Trek Beyond, Kirk and Spock seem to be cordial co-workers.  There is still a stiltedness between them, between everyone on the bridge.  They all seem relatively new to each other, and at the beginning of the movie, when Kirk records a captain's log entry in which he talks about the three years they have spent in deep space, we see scenes of the Enterprise's crew acting more or less like kids in a college dorm.

It is interesting to compare way the crew relates to each other in the current Star Trek movies to what we know of the original Star Trek, when the crew knew each other so well, was aware of each others' strengths and limitations instinctively.  Perhaps this is because by the time William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, et. al., got around to making movies, they had been living with their characters for 15 years.  It wasn't just their characters that had worked together for years, it was the actors, too.

While Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana and the late Anton Yeltsin are all attractive, entertaining people, they have a difficult time replicating that easy, comfortable way with each other.  When DeForest Kelley chided Leonard Nimoy, it seemed real and funny; when Urban does it to Quinto, it seems forced and stiff.  The newest Star Treks probably read better on paper than they play on screen.

But all that doesn't really matter much to the makers of these movies, because they want to deliver blockbuster, $150-million action films, and on that level, the films deliver.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, Star Trek was about ideas; today, it's about things that blow up.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that.  Star Trek Beyond wants to be a good action movie, and it manages that, with characters that look and act mostly like Star Trek characters look and act.  Like 2009's Star Trek before it (but not like Star Trek Into Darkness), it's a reasonably good facsimile of what is now known as "the Star Trek franchise."

Based on the opening credits, this is the sort of movie that relies three or four production companies, in addition to a major studio, for its existence.  One of those is a Chinese co-production company.  None of that should matter, except that we have moved a long, long, long way from Paramount Pictures presenting a Gene Roddenberry Production; Star Trek no longer really belongs to anyone except brand-management executives, and that has an impact on the film itself.

It isn't entirely soulless, but it is souped-up and amped-up, and there are moments when you can almost hear a discussion with a studio executive about what I assume must have been some more leisurely paced scenes in which characters were able to explain what was happening on screen.  Those discussions probably entailed an executive saying, "Cut out those whole three pages and we'll cover it with a line."

That could explain why we get about 90 percent of the way through the movie when we finally learn a little bit about the motives of the main villain, a scary-looking thug named Krall.  When the motive comes, it's not a bad one, but the knowledge it reveals have propelled an entire film, though one more interested in exploring some grand ideas.

Earlier in the movie, another alien character gets the whole story going by telling Kirk and his crew that her ship needs help.  They don't know her ship, they have nothing to go on but her story -- and yet, off they go to help her.  I understand that these Star Trek movies take place in a parallel universe, and therefore are not technically related to the first movies, but ... certainly the United Federation of Planets requires more than a 10-second explanation ("They attacked our ship ... we don't know who they are") before embarking upon a major mission at the request of a stranger?

I went to see Star Trek Beyond ("beyond what," is a question that still dogs me -- just as I never learned exactly what the darkness was into which the stars were trekking last time) with some series Star Trek fans.  Each in his or her way, they all know the important things to know about Star Trek.  After watching Star Trek Beyond, the general consensus seemed to have been: "cheesy," "silly," "ridiculous," but also "charming" and "fun."

Yes, it is charming and fun, and, yes, it is cheesy, silly and ridiculous, especially when Star Trek momentarily becomes Mad Max and Kirk rides a centuries-old motorcycle through a prisoner camp.  That is ridiculous.  It doesn't mean the action doesn't make sense in the context of the story -- it does. But it does beg bigger questions, like why we are being offered a Star Trek in which Kirk rides a motorcycle, and in which the Beastie Boys' "Fight tha Power" becomes a plot point.  (One of the film's better jokes comes when the cacophonous music of the late 20th century blasts through speakers, and McCoy says, "Is that classical music," to which Spock replies, "I believe it is.")  I very much like a new character, Jaylah, played by Sofia Nutella, who I hope will become a key addition to future movies.

Too much of Star Trek Beyond, though, seems calculated to fit the mold of what a "modern" Star Trek movie "should be."  But the calculations have gone a little nutty; indeed, tthe key miscaluation is that the mold needed to be reformulated.  Sure, Shatner and Nimoy and the rest were getting too old to keep it up (though that doesn't stop Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, now, does it?), but there came a critical misunderstanding of what audiences wanted by casting new actors in the roles of Kirk, et. al., in their "younger" selves.

Now, seven years later, we're at an interesting place: Pine, Quinto, Urban, Saldana, Pegg are themselves aging at a normal rate of speed, which means Pine is now as old as Shatner was when he played Kirk in the series.  So, in the next few years, will we see an Enterprise led by men in arrested development, who play at war and diplomacy like the cocky boys they were the first two times around -- or will we see them age, take on series emotional crises, learn more about each other, succeed and fail enough to realize what flawed, imperfect people they are.

That's what we knew about the original crew of the Starship Enterprise.  They weren't perfect.  They didn't always treat each other well.  They squabbled.  They were pushy and loud.  They were good at their jobs but could always be better, and working alongside each other made them better over time, to the point that you can now point to the crew of the Enterprise as an ideal workplace team.

These new kids, though, they're still just learning.  Give them time, I suppose.  Give them a chance to really try each other out, to see each other as more than simple archetypes, to find their characters and bring those people to life, not caricatures of the performances we've seen elsewhere.

Based on Star Trek Beyond, I think the cast of the new Star Trek movies is finally getting it.  They've got a long way to go.  But then, they've got at least two years left on this five-year mission, so, give them time.  To the crew of the new Enterprise, I'd like to repeat the words of your own Captain at a later point of his life: "I'm going to have to ask you all to grow up a little sooner than expected."

They're making a lot of progress.  Star Trek Beyond has many very good qualities to recommend it, but I still don't think they're quite there yet.  As pure, anonymous action films, they're grand.  As real Star Trek movies, filled with the sort of crises and character revelation we expect, they're making progress, but they still have a little ways to go.  And if you don't want to make real Star Trek movies, as it's been suggested is the sentiment of some top people involved with these films, then the question becomes, why are you making Star Trek movies?  They do something different.  And in Beyond it's clear that the two sides of Trek are beginning to do battle; I have a feeling the serious, thoughtful side is going to win out next time.  (Keep in mind, the "serious, thoughtful" side also gave us Wrath of Khan -- "serious" and "thoughtful" don't have to mean boring or nostalgic.)

I'm excited to see what happens once they get it down perfectly.

They're very, very close.

July 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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