Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In Which I Review Star Trek: Beyond

Time; it marches on. Three years ago, one of my very first blog posts and, really, first review, was of the second modern Star Trek movie, entitled Into Darkness. I was pretty harsh, reading the review again for the first time in a long while, but deservedly so. It remains a lackluster remake of The Wrath of Khan, easily the most beloved and well made of the original Trek films. My anticipation, then, for the latest installment, "Beyond," was mixed. On the one hand, this is still Star Trek and since I was eight years old, I have loved Gene Roddenberry's world. I have loved its characters, ships, themes, morals, philosophy, heart, and meaning. From the Original to Voyager, there are few science-fiction franchises that mean as much to me as Star Trek. On the other hand, the second movie demonstrated that the writers and directors have only a passing understanding of what made Trek, Trek. If the second movie had been a standalone, no fifty year history with which to grapple, it might have been a more solid film, but the fact is that this movie, and all subsequent ones, are going to be judged by the vision, writing, talent, and views of Roddenberry. There are two questions we need to examine when viewing any new Star Trek film; first and foremost, is it a good movie? And second, does it live up to what Roddenberry envisioned when he pitched a TV show about space exploration many years ago? Grab your favorite red shirt and let's go!

General Thoughts

Can you get lost in space? I suppose, in a literal sense, yes of course you can. You find yourself on the wrong end of a magnetized polar variation and bam, you're stuck in the Delta Quadrant for seven years (no offense Captain Janeway). But what Star Trek: Beyond wants to tackle is whether a person's identity can get lost in the vastness and sameness of space; whether it's possible that the day to day living aboard a vessel can leave people questioning their own purpose and general direction in life and whether the solution is a new tactic or the same shtick ad nauseum. In other words, when things begin to feel a bit episodic (pun intended), what keeps us, and the fearless crew of the Enterprise, going at warp speed toward the next horizon? Those types of questions are explored in Star Trek: Beyond. There is a throughline in the movie that should the crew of the Enterprise break up, the individuals of the ship would cease to be the people they need to be. Uhura tells the main antagonist that there is strength in unity and the film goes to many great lengths, via both intense action sequences of everyone working together and quiet musings, to demonstrate that the team, the crew, and the sum total are greater than the parts. But what happens if individuals were to carefully remove themselves from the equation? Take away the linchpins and slowly people lose themselves. Kirk contemplates taking a Vice Admiral position; Spock wonders if he should aid in the re-population of New Vulcan. As fans of the Original Series, and just Star Trek generally, we know, of course, that Kirk and Spock (and Bones, Sulu, Checkov, Scotty, and Uhura) all belong with each other aboard their beloved Enterprise. We know that in another timeline Kirk did achieve the Admiral status and gave it up because his true love, passion, and reason for being is Captaining the Enterprise. In another life, Spock left Vulcan (twice!) to be with his friends. However, the crew members themselves are not privy to the same history that we have; they are living it, making the history we already love. They have to figure out for themselves that there is beauty in the episodic, a sort of mundane glory in wearing the same shirt day after day and recording the same sort of stories time after time; that while chaos gets the blood thrumming and the heart racing, it's the day to day adventures, twists, turns, and sometimes negotiations gone horribly wrong that are their first and best destiny. With that in mind, it's easy to see how Star Trek: Beyond is a coy wink and a nudge from the writers to the fans. This "episode" might be on a much grander and more blockbuster scale, but the script and plot could have come, broadly, from any individual episode of Star Trek (take your pick for series; they all have episodic one-offs). While the crew of the Original Series Enterprise never engaged in this many space battles, the crew landing on some far off planet and dealing with someone who's own ideas stand opposed to the Federation, but is dealt with by Kirk and company, feels all too familiar. The broad strokes of the story could have played on a smaller screen and been a perfectly fine episode and that's what we're dealing with here. The writers want us to love the episodic, to embrace the formula that their Star Trek series is going to stick to. Just like Kirk accepts the glorious mundane, so too we accept and love the comfort of the known. It may not be fresh, innovative, or groundbreaking, but it will feel like the Star Trek you watched as a kid. Even with the many space battles and inexplicable lens flairs.

While the interpersonal relationships between the crew and the broad strokes of the plot might be served by this episodic approach, it fairs less well with its main villain, Krall. So far, in all three new Trek movies, the villains have been fairly uncomplicated, barely fleshed out baddies with a penchant for growling lines, quick sob stories, and in every case, a Magical MacGuffin weapon that simply must be stopped before it destroys the Federation, the ship, the crew, ect. This is where the new Trek runs aground; the villains in the many TV series tend to be much more complex than simply "bad guy;" this is usually because their villainy is couched in some sort of understandable humanity. They worship a computer thinking it a god because they do not know better; they were chemically poisoned by a flower to experience euphoria and forget their Starfleet or scientific mission; they are trying to save their race; they are trying touch their creator and feel that humanity stands in the way. There are "bad guys" who do what they do fully understanding that they might take a life or harm another, but their motivation behind said action is sympathetic if not empathetic. The Cardassians are bigoted nationalists who colonize other races, but is their spread through the galaxy, trying to instill their way of life, all that different from humanity's; is Gul Dukat nothing but a black hat baddie? That's the nuance of Star Trek. To bring this back to Star Trek: Beyond, Krall is about as rote and transparent as it gets. He wants to destroy the Federation because he's a solider and because he's angry. Going into details would constitute a major spoiler, but having a villain that is like all the other villains that came before him only makes him fall even flatter than would have on his own. The episodic nature might be great for some parts of Star Trek: Beyond, but I wish the writers would have pushed themselves in the Krall-regard. Why might someone loathe the Federation? In Roddenberry's world, the Federation was akin to a utopia; everything worked in harmony because humanity learned hard lessons from its past--slaughter, eugenic wars, famine, greed were all overcome--and had made a better place that the Federation wanted to share with everyone else among the stars; that is all well and good when you're inside the system but for those outside looking in, the Federation can seem insidious (like Root Beer, if you ask Quark and Garak at the DS9 station) and just as much a colonizing swarm of insistent bees as any other. Here in 2016, it's great to have a classic Trek episode to watch when it comes to the how the crew understand themselves and each other, but it's past time that this new franchise begin to explore villainy in all its complexities. A person's reasons for wanting to destroy a race or an organization should never be boiled down to just one root cause; it's a disservice to the complicated and multi-layered reasons and psychology behind not only conflicts but the people embroiled in them and to be perfectly blunt, Star Trek is better than that.

What I Liked And Did Not Like

--If this movie did one thing exceptionally well, it was mixing up the normal pairings of crew members to allow those not often seen together a chance to play off each other. The heart of the franchise will always be the incomparable trio, but too often the other crew members are sacrificed for the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones--and quite often even my dear Bones gets the short stick. The movie took a chance by having Kirk working with other people and keeping Bones and Spock together for a change. It worked! One of my favorite episodes from the Original Series is "Bread and Circuses" in which Spock and Bones have some time apart from Jim and you really see that while they might be wholly different in terms of philosophy, they still care for each other a great deal and would die for one another if they had to.

--"You gave your girlfriend a tracking device?"
"...that was not my intent."

--The moment when Spock opens up Spock Prime's belongings and finds a picture of the Original Crew tore my insides up and it was all I could do not to cry in the theater. It keeps with the throughline of being your best self with others but it was also a very nice acknowledgement of the past history.

--Modern day science fiction has a nasty habit of thinking that it needs big battle sequences in order to be classified as Science Fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth and if you go back and watch many episodes of Star Trek (again, any series) you'll see that big battles in space are few and far between. Star Trek is more philosophical and introspective than constant torpedoes. While I understand that a big summer blockbuster is going to have at least one action sequence, having more than 4 in a two hour movie wears on the eyes, the ears, and patience.

--Props to Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the movie, for putting the humor back into Star Trek. There have always been witty exchanges among the Star Trek crew; in the last film that felt decidedly lacking.

--I suppose I need to address the Sulu controversy. Yes, in a very brief scene it is established that Hikaru Sulu is gay and has a husband and child. This was done to honor George Takei, the original Sulu and outspoken LGBT advocate. I have no problem with Star Trek having a gay character and, frankly, it's really about time. But I don't think, in this case, it was done for the right reasons. Star Trek is all about progressive views on society, showing the audience how humanity could be if it could just overcome its pettiness concerning religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. While having a gay character is progressive (sort of, it is 2016 after all) it wasn't done as a demonstration of progressive attitudes but to honor one man and his lifestyle. It's not supposed to be about Takei, but about Roddenberry and his world view. Next time, create a whole new character, gay and fleshed out, so that we might see the progress.

--I think the film writers want me to be impressed with the Jaylah character but while she's a "tough female character" she's also in the mold of what men think a tough female character should be. In other words, they give them hallmark male characteristics--fighter, handy, intrepid, tough--and expect us to applaud their feminism. While women are certainly all those things, feminism isn't about taking male characteristics and simply putting a vagina on them. It's about who controls the female's agency--her or a man. Jaylah might be a pretty tough fighter and she certainly plays a part in the grand plan to get off of Krall's planet, but she's heavily reliant on the male Starfleet officers to progress her story off the planet and, in the end, into the academy. Cool makeup, though.

--Some nice canon touchstones like reference to the Xindi wars and Jim Kirk not wanting to celebrate his birthday (but Bones really should have presented him with some Romulan ale and Spock gifted him a copy of A Tale of Two Cities).

--I honestly have no idea why this movie is called "Beyond."

--For the next Star Trek film, should there be one, I'd like more exploration before the problem falls into Kirk's lap. One of the best things about the franchise is the creative imagination that spawns brand new worlds, new races, and let's us traverse a new landscape. Going along with this, please stop destroying the Enterprise. It doesn't have the same emotional impact as when Kirk blew it up in "Search for Spock" because unlike that ship, this rebooted one doesn't feel like one of the main characters. The original ship, in all its NCC-1701 glory, was "a lady. You treat her right, and she'll always bring you home."

Final Ratings for Star Trek: Beyond: B

It's very much a summer blockbuster but because the story feels more like a classic episode of a most beloved franchise, it evens out all the very tedious fight scenes and dull villain. It's still Star Trek, after all, and that will always mean something.

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