I’ve seen it once, but I’ll state this right out: this is the best quality Trek film since Star Trek: First Contact. And it comes very close to being the Star Trek film that comes the closest to catching the tone of the original series.
Before I start this review in earnest, I want to remind everyone that this exists.
Look, this is what the original series was. Space Lincoln. Space Romans. Space Nazis. Space Gangsters. Space Greeks. Space Cowboys.
Now don’t get me wrong, the episodes I’ve just mentioned are good for a case of beer with friends on a Friday night and little else. The spinoffs make no mention of them, so they were effectively dropped from canon. And there were no shortage of dramatically affecting and thematically effective around which to make a franchise.
The point I’m trying to make is that this is a series that simply knew how to have fun with itself. And even still, this is the franchise that pioneered silly, hand waving technological solutions so that the characters could go off and resolve the actual conflict between characters.
If you’ve seen the movie, some of this should really be sounding familiar. If not, well, you’ve hit the wall of spoilers. They will be plentiful below.
The cold openings that JJ Trek has been pioneering are very effective. In the absence of an episodic series, they at least nod to the fact that the Enterprise is warping from planet from week to week. And unlike the previous cold open, where the crew make stupid, inexplicable decisions and use stupid, inexplicable contraptions to advance the plot, in this one the conflict actually seems to come from external factors.
While the fact that most Trek aliens are extras with funny bumps on their heads is canonically explained, it can still be relatively tiresome. With the big budget, we can now get creatures and races that actually feel alien. That’s one of the things that I really liked about the big reveal in the beginning of the film; that the intelligent alien race is much smaller than humans.
The film moves on to the Enterprise in deep space, and Beyond moves into the character arcs that will define the film. In it, Kirk is uncertain about his position as captain, but more to the point, is uncertain about his position in life. But instead of the previous two films (Into Darkness had absolutely no excuse on this point), Kirk doesn’t start as a bumbling fool.
Being a year older than his father, he is dealing with an existential crisis, and wondering how he can define his own role in life. It definitely tracks with Kirk plot arcs in previous original series films. The Wrath of Khan deals with his impending mortality; The Search for Spock deals with sacrifices; and in The Undiscovered Country he must grapple with his own bigotry.
The Enterprise returns to Yorktown Station. This is absolutely a masterpiece of production design. It’s the type of staggeringly large, sweepingly complex facility that’s been described in countless science fiction yarns of yore. And yet due to budgetary constraints, objects of this scale and complexity have scarcely been depicted on the big screen.
Upon departing, the crew engage in their various points of exposition.
Uhura and Spock’s relationship appears to be on the rocks. Now this is something in the JJ Trek films that I’ve been profoundly skeptical of. A friend derisively referred to Uhura as “Spock’s Beard” after Trek 09. Many commented on the sexist depiction of her as a nagging girlfriend on a critical mission in Into Darkness. Now maybe this is something that I’ll revise as I continue in the franchise, but in this case, their care for each other really felt genuine. It felt like a part of the plot this time and not shoehorned in.
In a moment that has caused a great deal of discussion in the Trek world was the depiction of Sulu’s family. In this case, I understand and respect both sides of the argument. From the point of view of the filmmakers, they were paying respect to Takei’s legacy and importance in the LGBT community, and adding a great deal of needed representation to the franchise. Further, they felt that adding a new character who was gay would feel heavily shoehorned in. On the other hand, George Takei spent a great deal of time conceiving of Sulu as a character. He went as far as to actively campaign for a Captain Sulu spinoff set aboard the Excelsior after the events of The Undiscovered Country. So on this issue, I’m going to defiantly not take a stand. I understand that both sides on the issue have merit, and both mean well.
Shohreh Aghdashloo appears as Commodore Paris, and I’m immensely joyous that this franchise has already found its spiritual successor to Bruce Greenwood’s Christopher Pike. Star Trek has this recurring problem, where many of the other Admirals and Captains are depicted as incompetent or unsympathetic technocrats, who exist only to impede the crew of the Enterprise. This tactic may be an easy route to take dramatically—after all, who doesn’t like a “fight the system” story—yet for a universe that heralds cooperation, and the capacity of people to come together, it’s just baffling that the authority figures in the wonderful Federation are all just such assholes. The only notable exception to this is in Deep Space Nine with Admiral Ross. Yet here with Admiral Paris, we have someone who is both wise and supportive. I am aware that Aghdashloo, whose voice and acting talents are on par with Morgan Freeman, was inserted in the film via reshoots. I profoundly hope that she is given a greatly expanded role in the next film.
And then we come to Greg Grunberg. If you like Greg Grunberg or his stupid cameos, I’ll shoot you out of the fucking airlock with him. Moving on.
So after some exposition and the Enterprise being sent on a mission to rescue people (yes, this is what they do!) they are attacked by a swarm of ships.
I’m a sucker for space battles, and this one delivers. The only thing to match it in JJ Trek is the Destruction of the Kelvin in Trek 09.
The problem with the end of Trek 09, or the end of Into Darkness, is that it’s just destruction porn with no build or no logical progression. Oh no, they’ve hit this system! Cut to random explosion. Oh no, they’ve hit another system! Cut to another random explosion. And continued on, until finally in a tremendous anticlimax, the ship is miraculously saved.
The key difference in Beyond is that the drama and the tension of the scene actually builds. The destruction of the Enterprise happens in stages that the audience can really visually grasp, as opposed to random explosions and scorch marks on the hull. Named characters actually run through the ship to attempt repairs. And there are stages to their response, including a saucer separation.
It’s exciting stuff.
So the ship is boarded and the MacGuffin is revealed as such.
Here’s where I’m going to temporarily deviate from my chronological approach and just talk about his character, his motivations, and the themes of the film.
Producers of the world, you don’t hire a world class talent like Idris Elba and have him be practically mute for most of the film.
Ultimately it is revealed that Krall has been a veteran of the Xindi and Romulan wars, and that after the disillusion of Earth’s military, he was given the command of a Starship.
Now here’s where a giant plot hole takes place. His ship is stranded on this strange planet. He discovers a device to siphon life. But why necessarily does he feel abandoned?
The one actual problem that I’m willing to say that Star Trek Beyond faces is that it totally lacks exposition regarding the villain. On the surface, for the third time in a row, they’re delving into the trope of the bad guy simply wanting revenge on the people or institutions they feel have done them harm.
Though in the grand scheme of things, I feel that Star Trek Beyond actually does enough leg work to pull it, well, beyond its predecessors and into the realm of actually meaning something.
Through the film, lines are tossed here and there that hint to a profound clash of ideas.
The Federation means both pluralism and unity. I can’t emphasize enough, to the core of my soul, just how much these values mean to me as a human being.
In the original series was introduced the philosophy, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It was a goal to be aspired to, the most logical way to organize a society.
The idea that diversity and unity are complimentary, not contradictory, ideals.
Krall, on the other hand, heavily advocates a kind of Social Darwinism. That conflict and suffering is somehow the source of strength. It’s something that, again, I would have preferred more exposition about.
But that was the theme of the film. Starfleet representing unity through pluralism. Krall representing division and hatred, might makes right. And that ultimately, the former is the stronger.
This was something that, to the core of my bones, I needed to hear in 2016.
So the crew are all separated to various point on the planet. Out of all the JJ Trek films, they all seemed to be fully utilized.
Enter Jaylah. She is the rey of sunlight in this film. Everything I want in a guest character. There is a strength and self sufficiency to her, and yet the she finds a mutual need with the crew. With the unfortunate demise of Anton Yelchin, I hope that they graduate her from the Academy and bring her aboard during the next film as a worthy replacement.
Excitement! Action sequences! Banter! The meat of this film was excellent, and I really don’t feel that I necessarily need to give a blow-by-blow. Until we hit the next point of “controversy” among Trek fans…
The escape sequence. The motorcycle.
My largest piece of trepidation entering this film was thus: Paramount saw the magnificent success of the film Guardians of the Galaxy, and subsequently hired Fast and Furious director Justin Lin. Well, Star Trek is neither Guardians nor Furious. And given that the trailer prominently featured a motorcycle, couples with the Paramount lawsuit against Axanar, I had all but written off the movie.
Frankly, the inclusion of the bike seemed relatively natural given the plot of the film. They find an old Federation starship, okay. Kirk had been established riding a bike two films ago, okay. But most importantly, the sequence is built around him being a loud distraction, and not the actual core of the plan. So without much skepticism or any ire, I’m on board with this as a fun sequence.
As the backstory of the USS Franklin was revealed, I was rather pleased with how they acknowledged the most underrated of Star Trek series, Enterprise. There were some topical inconsistencies, it’s true. But I’ve strived to never be the kind of Trek fan to let that bug me. Moving on.
Okay, so when we hit the destruction of the alien swarm fleet, keep in mind that the joke about the giant green hand attacking the Enterprise was actually a reference to an original episode, right?
In Grad School at USC, I wrote a paper about culture in Star Trek, and why it always seems so outdated by our standards. Now unfortunately that paper was lost to the sands of time, but let me reconstruct some of my arguments here.
At the present moment, we have a generally poor idea of what constitutes the great and enduring culture of our time. Look at two decades ago. In 1994, among the highest grossing films were The Santa Clause and The Flintstones. The Shawshank Redemption was 51st. So keep in mind that what might be considered a contemporary classic might also be quickly forgotten a few years later, and that a masterpiece might not find its audience for many years.
So in The Next Generation, for example, the “edgy” music that was played with Riker’s Jazz. The dust hadn’t quite settled on the legacy of more contemporary music.
So when Public Enemy came on the speakers, I was beyond thrilled.
And when the Beastie Boys were referred to as “classical music,” I howled in delight.
And again, with the whole plot to destroy the alien swarm, remember what I said at the beginning of this article. We’re in this theater to have fun. And no solution is too ridiculous. I loved it.
The film ended with an amazing climactic fight scene. On the Yorktown space station, in a gravitational confluence between, levels, Kirk and Krall battle in a microgravity space. And in a modern science fiction film this is exactly the kind of mind bending and ambitious choreography that filmmakers should be attempting.
The film ends with a feeling of togetherness. Of unity. Kirk lets the crew into his personal life, and celebrates his birthday. Kirk and Spock elect to remain on the ship. Jaylah is accepted into the Academy. And as the newly minted Enterprise-A departs for space, the crew, together, recites the mantra of the franchise.
As I’ve indicated, Star Trek Beyond has its plot holes, mostly due to a lack of exposition.
But it just FEELS like Star Trek. Energetic, positive, happy, hopeful.
A vision of of the future where the phrase, “out of many, one” is given its true meaning.