Star Trek Beyond(7/31/2016)

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To say I was way less excited for Star Trek Beyond than I should have been for a goddamn Star Trek movie is a pretty big understatement.  I say that as someone who has a pretty high tolerance for bad Star Trek.  Like, as much as I like the old Star Trek TV series I’m kind of the first to admit that something like a third of the episodes of the various series kind of suck and half of the original cast and Next Generation movie adaptations (the odd ones) are comparatively weak.  However, as inconsistent as Star Trek has been in the past it’s always felt like it was done in the right spirit and had a charm that carried it and that is the problem with the recent reboots of the franchise.  J.J. Abram’s first Star Trek was extremely well received in 2009 but I wasn’t so impressed.  I liked it but I didn’t think it was anything too special and I feel like its legacy has more or less borne that out.  People generally don’t hate it but very few people look back on it as some kind of classic of the 2000s… it’s kind of been forgotten.  Then there was its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that wasn’t bad so much as it was brought down by some really bad ideas.  It had the look and feel of a superior sequel but there were aspects of it that were just too stupid to be overlooked and forgiven.  Then it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be leaving the franchise to helm some other science fiction series that was probably more in touch with his sensibilities, to which I was about ready to say “good riddance” but he was then replaced by Justin Lin, who was most famous for having directed four straight entries of the “The Fast and The Furious” franchise.  Now, I enjoy the F&F movies to some degree and I do think Lin was good for that series, but nothing about that resume screams “this guy will bring the cerebral back to the series” and the trailers that followed seemed to suggest as much.  As such I skipped the movie its opening weekend and waited a whole week to see it… which saying it doesn’t seem that punitive… but to have me being so nonchalant about seeing a Trek movie means a lot about how far my expectations have fallen.

Star Trek Beyond picks up a couple of years after the end of “Into Darkness” and the crew of the enterprise has finally started on their famous five year mission to boldly go where no one has gone before.  We open with Kirk (Chris Pine) on a diplomatic mission to deliver a peace offering to a group of aliens who are not terribly receptive to it and ends up beaming back to his ship with the artifact and return to the Yorktown Space Station.  Soon after they arrive a ship of unknown origin comes racing to the station broadcasting a mayday call sign.  The alien woman on board explains that she is the last survivor of a mission on a planet hidden behind a nebula and that the rest of her crew is still there in need of saving.  Because of its advanced navigational equipment the Enterprise is selected to embark with this woman on a rescue mission but soon finds that there’s more going on on this planet than meets the eye and that they are heading toward grave danger.

Star Trek Beyond has one major advantage over its two predecessor films: it has the origin story 100% out of the way.  Kirk is the captain of the enterprise and he’s finally over his youthful arrogance and no longer acts like a cocky teenager.  The film is no longer dwelling on the alternate universe thing established by the first film and it generally isn’t trying to be too clever by half this time around.  In many ways this makes the film feel more like the original TV series than the other movies and can be roughly compared to one of the show’s standalone episodes where an away crew explores some crazy planet with some weird thing happening on the surface.  This is not the worst approach to take all things considered and reminded me a bit of the “bigger than average TV episode” approach that worked well enough for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Insurrection.  Given that this series kind of needed to step back and course correct I don’t mind the decision, but it does mean that there’s sort of a cap on how much could be accomplished by the movie.

The action scenes in this movie are… well most of them are very good but none of them are really GREAT.  Justin Lin has set aside most of the crazy stunt work that he employed in the Fast and Furious series but has maintained his knack for solid blocking and choreography.  There’s a very good scene early in the film which has the Enterprise at its most vulnerable as well as a pretty cool fight at the end.  All of that is consistently fun but none of these are actions scenes for the ages that people will be talking about years from now.  The movie is also saddled with some of the usual summer blockbuster action movie drawbacks as well.  The villain’s motivations do not really make all that much sense for one thing and much of the film’s plot hinges on the characters chasing around an ill-defined McGuffin.  What’s more the film’s meager attempts to engage in Star Trekian philosophizing kind of fall on their face.  There’s a sort of debate established between Uhura and the villain about whether or not Starfleet’s unity makes it strong, with the villain arguing that their unity makes them weak.  Interesting concept but one at odds with the rest of the film.  This villain who seems to hate unity so much is actually in charge of an army that operates on a hive mind which is pretty much unity writ large and, without giving too much away, this unity emphatically does not make this army more strong.

So what does this installment say about the state of Star Trek and about its new director Justin Lin.  It’s a little hard to compare this to the previous two Star Trek movies in that in some ways I think more highly of it simply because there are fewer things in it that piss me off.  I don’t know, I don’t want to encourage franchise filmmakers to be less ambitious but it is nice to see one that is able to relax a little and isn’t desperately trying to surpass its predecessor in every way.  It’s the kind of approach that I kind of wish the James Bond movies would start taking, that’s a series that is really at its best when it isn’t trying to upset the applecart.  As for Justin Lin, he maybe benefits a little less from this approach.  The movie is certainly well crafted, but we already knew he could capably craft a blockbuster.  This would have been a perfect vehicle to show that there was more to Lin than simple craftsmanship and that he could craft a blockbuster that was capable of reaching a bit higher and I think he kind of squandered it.  Still, this is coming out in what feels like a historically lame summer movie season and this isn’t the best of time to be too picky about our entertainments.

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