Star Trek Beyond

 

Star Trek Beyond - Bernd's Review

Synopsis

Stardate 2263: Captain Kirk offers an ancient artifact that is said to be a weapon as a peace gift to an alien civilization, but they refuse and attack him. Upon his premature return, the device is stored in an archive drawer on the Enterprise. The time is three years into the Enterprise's five-year mission. As his 30th birthday approaches, Kirk is tired of space travel and plans to apply for the position of vice admiral of Yorktown, a huge starbase on the edge of the Federation. The Enterprise is docked at Yorktown when a lifeboat with an alien woman is rescued from space. The woman, Kalara, says her ship was lost on the other side of a nebula, so the Enterprise is sent to rescue the other crew members. As the Enterprise arrives at the destination, a planet called Altamid, the ship is attacked by a huge swarm of small vessels that cut their way through the hull. The attackers sever the nacelles. The alien leader, Krall, appears aboard, beginning to search for the ancient artifact. But Kirk can hide the device from him. Scotty manages to divert warp power to the impulse engines to escape, but then the attackers cut off the Enterprise's neck. In order to stabilize the ship, Kirk, with the help of Uhura, separates the saucer from the remains of the neck. But Uhura is captured by the attackers. The surviving crew members abandon the ship, but the Swarm ships snatch all escape pods from space, including Sulu's. Scotty escapes in a torpedo, McCoy and Spock hijack one of the Swarm ships, while Kirk, Chekov and Kalara leave the saucer using "Kelvin pods" in the last moment before the crash on Altamid. On the planet, McCoy tends to the wounded Spock. Spock tells the doctor that he learned of Ambassador Spock's death and that he plans to leave the Enterprise to serve New Vulcan. In the meantime, Scotty runs into a young alien woman named Jaylah, who defends him against some attackers with the help of holographic duplicates of herself. She leads Scotty to her "house", a grounded old Federation ship named USS Franklin, and asks him to make it spaceworthy again to escape from the planet. Like many other aliens over the years, she and her family were kidnapped by Krall. Kirk knows that Kalara led the Enterprise into the trap. She promises to cooperate from now. Kirk, Chekov and Kalara board the crashed saucer of the Enterprise in order to scan for the missing crew members. When Kirk pretends to salvage the alien device, Kalara calls Krall's people. Kirk deliberately allowed her to call Krall in order to find out where he is located. Krall's people, however, arrive sooner than expected. In order to escape, Chekov activates the maneuvering thrusters of the Enterprise. He and Kirk escape, whereas Kalara is crushed when the saucer gets overturned. In Krall's camp, Uhura has to witness how Krall "sucks the life" out of his prisoners to regenerate. She and Sulu briefly manage to break free. They discover that Krall is monitoring Federation channels and obviously plans to attack Yorktown. But before they can act, Krall apprehends them again. He threatens to kill Sulu if no one points him to the whereabouts of that old device, the Abronath. An alien Enterprise crew member, Syl, opens the tentacles on her head where Kirk put the device. Krall takes the Abronath and completes a lethal biological weapon, which he tests on Syl. Some of the crew reunite on the Franklin as Kirk and Chekov run into one of Jaylah's traps and Scotty puts the old transporter into operation again to beam out McCoy and Spock. Spock locates Krall's camp scanning for a Vulcan mineral in Uhura's talisman. The transporter of the Franklin, however, is not capable of beaming out the missing Enterprise crew members because of lacking signal strength. So Kirk takes a motorbike to create a diversion with holographic copies of himself, while Jaylah, Scotty and Spock release the prisoners. Jaylah loses her transporter beacon fighting against Manas, one of Krall's aides who once killed her father. Kirk remembers that he promised to leave no one behind and grabs her hand mid-air during a jump with his motorbike so both can be beamed out. Krall and the Swarm, however, have already left the planet to attack Yorktown and kill all of its inhabitants. Scotty reactivates the engines of the Franklin so the crew of the Enterprise can follow the Swarm. But it would be a totally hopeless battle. Spock and McCoy, the two crew members who are a bit familiar with the technology, beam over to a Swarm ship again to examine the possibilities. They find out that a strong high-frequency signal transmitted to the Swarm could disrupt it. Scotty has the idea for a radio transmission of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. Once the music plays, the Swarm ships all collide and explode - except for three, one of them manned by Krall. Krall enters the atmosphere of Yorktown to release the bioweapon, but Kirk takes the Franklin into the flight path so the small vessels get stuck in the old ship's hull. Krall survives the crash. In an old recording from the Franklin Uhura identifies Krall: It is the captain of the Franklin, Balthazar Edison. He was one the three last survivors of the ship and managed to live on on Altamid with the help of life-prolonging technology that some aliens left behind. He holds a grudge against the peaceful nature of the Federation and wants to incite a war. Kirk can keep him from releasing the bioweapon in Yorktown's ventilation system. Krall is blown out into space where the bioweapon dissolves his body, whereas McCoy and Spock rescue Kirk with a Swarm vessel. Sulu is reunited with his husband. The two, like Jaylah and the remainder of the crew, join Kirk's birthday party. Kirk declines the offer to become the vice admiral of Yorktown. He and his crew are looking forward to their voyages on the new starship, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A.

Preface

"Star Trek Beyond" doesn't have a glorious production history. It appears that a first script for the third Abramsverse movie was discarded, purportedly because it was "too Star Trek-y". The people in charge of the franchise, notably J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci, took a back seat. Justin Lin, so far known for "The Fast and the Furious", was hired to direct the movie, while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung hurried to develop a completely new screenplay. This all sounded rather dissuasive, especially for long-time fans. The overkill of action and the music choice in the "Beastie Boys" trailer released in late 2015 only corroborated a common notion among fans that "Beyond" was going in the wrong direction. To some extent Simon Pegg and Justin Lin, both self-confessed fans of Star Trek, could appease the fans base. And the later trailers showed that there may be indeed more Star Trek in "Beyond" than previously expected.

The world premiere of "Beyond" was in Sydney, Australia, on July 7, 2016. And the reactions were almost overwhelmingly positive. And so I raised my expectations a bit when I went to the advance premiere of the film on July 20. I was somewhat disappointed to see that only a third of the seats was occupied but I enjoyed watching the movie in a relatively silent "home cinema-like" environment so I may have caught more of the countless in-jokes. And when I write "enjoyed", I mean just that. Read on why I think this is the best Abramsverse movie so far.

Premise & story

The plot of "Star Trek Beyond" is rather straightforward and boils down to "an alien villain destroys the Enterprise and the scattered crew tries to stop him from attacking the Federation". The apparent complexity of the screenplay has two principal reasons. Firstly, a lot of the complications result from the separation of the Enterprise crew members, who have to work together across long distances in order to come together again. Secondly, we have the usual McGuffin (the bioweapon named Abronath in this case, an implausible and unoriginal blend of thalaron radiation and the Stone of Gol), as well the uncertainty about the true goals of the villain and his identity.

Pegg, Jung and Lin chose to destroy the Enterprise in this movie (Lin: "I had talked to JJ about literally deconstructing Star Trek by destroying the Enterprise"). This sounds like a bold move only to those who are not familiar with previous Star Trek movies. So it could have been very repetitive but this time it turned out a rather good idea. No, not because I hate the design and its purported huge size (the ship is replaced by the Enterprise-A of a similar design and scale so I will have no reason to rejoice anyway). It is because the battle against the Swarm is extremely thrilling and because the pairings of crew members are well thought out to give everyone of the cast a useful role as well as a dedicated discussion partner, to wrap up the current situation of being marooned as well as some more general issues. I like this slowed down part of the movie, although it switches a bit too often from one location to another.

Everything related to Krall, his motivation, his identity, his evil plan and his evil weapon doesn't sit so well with me. It may seem like a good idea that Krall is not simply a stereotypical alien villain with a fearsome look and superhuman powers but someone with a past history with the Federation. However, it is already a recurring and accordingly boring pattern in Star Trek movies since "Nemesis" that in some fashion the enemy always comes from within. The principal villains in all recent films are not just aliens who want to destroy the Federation or Earth or the Enterprise to expand their power. The villain always belonged to or trusted in the Federation. And cites that he was let down by the Federation as the reason for his revenge. As interesting as it may be that the Federation is in some way complicit in a villain's misery, on so far all occasions their accusations were pointless and their glorified revenge not in the least justified. Krall is no exception in this regard. It would have been better to refrain from following the beaten path of villains who have a beef with the Federation. It would have been refreshing, just for a change, to see a villain who just wants to wage an ordinary war for all the ordinary reasons, and without suicidal ambitions. It would have been so much more credible, even though it is obvious it would have meant to abandon a major plot twist (of which this movie has too few anyway). That said, I can only repeat like a mantra that the better Star Trek, the one on TV, usually needed no villains at all to tell great science fiction stories.

If we neglect the total mystery about Krall's motivation for a moment, the story of "Beyond" makes a lot more sense than "Star Trek (2009)" and "Into Darkness", which both gambled away their credibility in absurd plot convolutions. But that is no surprise, considering that there isn't much of a story in "Star Trek Beyond". Even the trailers that were not rated as spoilers already told us 90% of the film's story. And the infamous "Krall" spoiler trailer did the rest and gave away the only unexpected plot twist, that Krall is actually the captain of the Franklin. This was some sort of advantage for me because I think I could catch more of the details with all the knowledge which way the story was going. Yet I would have preferred more of a story in "Beyond".

In a lack of a really good story, I think the saving grace of the movie are the calm acts with their character interaction, at the beginning before the attack on the Enterprise, as well as with the crew scattered all over Altamid. The action sequences, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. As already mentioned, the attack on the Enterprise is awesome, also because it is quite emotional, in a similar fashion as the Kelvin incident in "Star Trek (2009)". The rest of the action falls short of this highlight of the movie.

Characters & acting 

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk is the big positive surprise in this movie. He has undergone quite a development from the jerk he was in "Star Trek (2009)" to the sensible and sensitive person of "Beyond". It is not just a nod to William Shatner's original Kirk that at the beginning of the movie Bones and Kirk celebrate Kirk's upcoming birthday in the same fashion they did (or rather, will do) in the Prime Universe in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan", illegal alien liquor and eyesight jokes included. Pine's character has matured. He knows very well what responsibility means. He listens to his competent crew. And he is always there for his family, including new members such as Jaylah. I think if the spirit of Star Trek shines in one character of the movie especially strong, it is Pine's Kirk.

Zachary Quinto's performance of Spock is a bit uneven this time. I may have to view it again for a really good judgment, but I'm undecided whether it is the intention to show some sort of development in the character due to old Spock's death and the breakup with Uhura, or rather because of the straining circumstances after the loss of the Enterprise and his injury. For some reason I didn't hang on his lips when I watched "Beyond" the same way I did in the two previous Abrams movies. But that may be also because Karl Urban stole the show.

Karl Urban's McCoy was more like a man of metaphors in "Star Trek Into Darkness". He didn't really contribute more to the story than his medical and surgical expertise. This is different in "Beyond" where he and Spock have to struggle for their survival on Altamid. The pairing with Spock works extremely well, I think it is clearly the best combination of of two or more characters in this movie. I find their TOS-like humorous bickering heartwarming, and only realistic in their situation. I am very glad that it found its way into the script, especially since for the first time in the Abramsverse it makes McCoy, as a character, appear at least on par with Spock.

Scotty is clearly the most noteworthy among the rest of the permanent characters. Like already in "Into Darkness", Simon Pegg plays him as more serious than still in "Star Trek (2009)". His character (well, and Keenser's too) benefits from the fact that in "Beyond" Keenser is unable to follow him like a dog all the time. Well, Scotty's interaction with Jaylah is quite comical throughout the movie. But I rather liked that. One might expect that of all crew members, Scotty would have the most problems to cope with the loss of the ship (not to mention the many lives). But Pegg's Scotty is a person who lives for his work and who likes to solve problems. I think the more he complains about his misery the more he actually enjoys the challenge. I know engineers, I am one myself.

Anton Yelchin died in a tragic accident only weeks before the premiere of the movie. "Beyond" is his last film. Fortunately the script gives Chekov a role that goes beyond the wunderkind who can "do zat". Actually, I think Scotty (and Spock anyway) come across as just as gifted in this movie, and this is only realistic. Chekov is isolated with Kirk for a part of the movie, and it is much like the now more mature Kirk is the same kind of father figure for Chekov as Pike was for himself. Their talks are not as memorable as those of Spock and McCoy, but they constitute more TOS moments, considering how Kirk used to mentor Chekov in the series. It is sort of comforting that we can remember Anton Yelchin the way he portrayed Chekov in "Beyond".

Sulu is a bit like the problem child of the movie, at least in terms of the screenplay. Many of the audience will see Sulu as a noteworthy character in "Beyond" for just one reason: he is gay. Don't mistake me, I think his being gay is incorporated into the movie in a very decent casual fashion, by showing how his husband (cameo by Doug Jung) puts his arm around him, while Sulu holds his daughter. This works very well. While it doesn't please George Takei who doesn't like the homage and would have preferred a straight Sulu, I am sure Gene Roddenberry, who was opposed to a character that is defined by being gay, would like it. The reason why Sulu will be remembered as the "gay character" nonetheless is because there was a lot of buzz about it in the real world, and John Cho as Sulu didn't have a lot to do in "Beyond" that could have added more facets to his character.

Uhura's role is a bit more extensive than Sulu's. But on two occasions she suddenly has amazing fighting skills, even against two opponents each of whom is arguably twice as strong. I don't think she should be an action character, also because in this film Jaylah already fills that role. Uhura's probably best scene is when she passes by the monitor with recordings from the Franklin, and her face freezes when she recognizes Krall as the captain of that ship.

I was a bit skeptical about Jaylah, whose look and fighting skills just said "manga girl". But she turned out a positive surprise. Yes, she fits the image of the attractive alien girl that could spice up any science fiction or superhero movie. She also appears to be a bit naive, owing to her limited language skills. But it's naive in a very charming way. Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah like a character and not like a clichéd depiction. The script gives her the opportunity, especially in the interaction with Scotty. The two are the second best character pairing of the movie behind Spock and McCoy.

The one major disappointment among the movie characters is Krall, and for many reasons. First of all, I don't think that Idris Elba gets across any emotions behind the thick latex mask. And Krall's distorted voice is just annoying. It sounds like a normal person speaking through a bad bass speaker. This changes as late as at the end of the movie when we can see more of Edison's/Elba's human face. But overall, it appears to me like a great actor was wasted. Krall is very tall and very strong. He easily lifts Kirk from the floor much like Darth Vader (who also shares the awful voice with Krall) or Khan in "Star Trek II". He is an imposing figure. But not at all an impressive character. Owing to his ever-changing face, I even had a problem distinguishing Krall and Manas a couple of times in the movie.

Moreover, as already mentioned, Krall's motivation is probably the least justified of all Star Trek villains, perhaps only rivaled by Nero. So after Edison was stranded on Altamid, he spent all those years making ships crash and sucking out the lives of their crews? Hoping he would get his hands on that superweapon? To destroy the Federation. Or to save it? Although he could have gone anywhere he liked? Krall has little screen time to make his point, but I think his motivation should have become clear even without much talking and without him explaining his evil plan to Uhura in the camp (which is another supervillain-related cliché). Summarizing, Krall is nothing more than a sadistic madman who kills with no reason. Well, in our world a person with such qualities could become the leader of the so-called "Islamic State". But that is just speculation on my part, the movie itself doesn't exhibit this kind of relevance for the real world.

Look & feel

I went to see the movie in 3D, but as already in "Into Darkness" the 3D effect is only mild in normal scenes without much motion and without objects conspicuously placed in the foreground. It could easily have been omitted, and I would have missed nothing. The 3D effect, however, is very unpleasant every time there is a lot of motion. It adds to the normal motion blur as an additional difficulty and makes some fast scenes, especially fighting, totally unrecognizable, at least for my eyes. The camera moves a lot as well, especially in those scenes that are very fast anyway. Actually, I couldn't follow any of the various hand-to-hand combats with my eyes.

On the positive side, J.J. Abrams's shitty lens flares are gone - finally.

I like the set design for the most part. My favorite is the Franklin, which is credible as a less advanced vessel of the 2160s, although it lets Enterprise NX-01 appear too modern. Yorktown is very impressive (and the warped ground levels are reminiscent of "Inception"), yet much too big to be credible. I think less would have been more. The Swarm comes across as really frightening, while Krall's camp could have been somewhat more impressive. I don't care for the purported slight redesign of the Enterprise (such as a thinner neck), which is hardly visible in the movie. The ship should have remained the way it was in my view.

Michael Giacchino's musical score consists of the familiar Abramsverse main theme that I have come to like very much. On many occasions in the movie the music is a bit less military and more like in old Star Trek series and movies. One of the new themes reminds me very much of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", and I think there are even a few notes of "TOS funny music" (in a lack of a better moniker). Overall, Giacchino's music is a highlight of the movie and contributes greatly to its atmosphere.

Nitpicking

This list will probably still grow, and quite possibly I may have to remove other items because I didn't recognize they are actually reasonable.

And just for the sake of completeness, a note on Sulu's being gay. Well, Sulu was always assumed to be straight in the Prime Universe (which George Takei insists on). But only because gay people were not meant to exist in the 1960s. He has a daughter in both universes. But it wouldn't be major problem to explain that someone is gay against our expectation in the real world and shouldn't be in Star Trek either. Also, for all we know, Sulu is younger than Kirk and could be even a genetically different person in the Kelvin timeline (just like Chekov). If anything, it is rather a problem why it was deemed necessary to give Sulu a daughter in the Kelvin timeline, other than insinuating it could be the "same" Demora as in the Prime Universe. But the Prime Universe Demora was definitely much younger than 34 ("I was never that young.") when she appeared in "Generations", set in the year 2293.

Conclusion

It is Star Trek's 50th anniversary in 2016. Everything in the franchise is expected to pay tribute to the original in some fashion, and not just by die-hard fans. So Justin Lin, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have been hard-pressed to incorporate more elements of The Original Series into their movie. At least, more than in the unofficial motto of "Star Trek (2009)": "As long as we show Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others on the Enterprise, it is Star Trek", and more than in the totally miscarried fan service of "Into Darkness": "You just have to love it, we've got your favorite villain Khan for you".

The TOS tribute in "Star Trek Beyond" works much better than in the two preceding movies and much better than I would have expected. Many reviewers called the movie a blend of a TOS episode and an action movie. I wouldn't go that far though, because I think TOS brought us bold science fiction stories. Unfortunately "Star Trek Beyond" is not a great science fiction story, but an action-driven plot with derivative sci-fi elements, about a marooned crew fighting a supervillain.

The movie excels in the depiction of the regular characters and their interaction but is let down by a cookie-cutter antagonist who is simply evil and has no other facets, at least no credible ones. Krall/Edison says that he wants humanity to fight, but what he does is to fight humanity (including his own being human). This makes no sense, and it makes all his criticism of the Federation way pointless. There is no real bigger picture in the movie. There is no ethical debate. And no relevance of the story for our time.

I already wrote in my reviews of "Star Trek (2009)" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" that I'm not a fan of present-day action and superhero movies. Their style and their storytelling usually put me off. "Star Trek Beyond" has hectic camera movements and combat scenes that can't be tracked with the eyes. It also has people who suddenly develop superhuman forces - for example Scotty, who first miraculously survives the hard impact of his torpedo and then stops his fall grabbing a tiny protruding piece of rock with one hand (ironically, because in the last movie he was the one to lose his grip and had to be saved by Super-Chekov). Finally, one scene just cries "superheroes" when Keenser expectorates acid to open a lock and an obviously very strong crew member who looks like "The Thing" removes the whole gate. I don't know why a Star Trek movie has to curry the favor of the superhero kids so blatantly. I doubt any people go and watch Star Trek for something they can have better in the usual genre movies.

Despite my criticism of the thin plot and the ill-conceived villain I think "Star Trek Beyond" is the best Abramsverse movie. And definitely the one with the most sympathetic characters. It is so sad that one of them is not among us any longer.

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Rating: 7

 


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