Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Star Trek Beyond": review


"Star Trek Beyond," directed by Justin Lin (of the "Fast and Furious" franchise) and written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung (who makes a cameo as Sulu's male life-partner), is the third movie in the rebooted Trek franchise and the first not to be directed by JJ Abrams.

The story takes place in roughly the third year of the Enterprise's revolutionary five-year exploratory mission, which was the subject of the original 1968 TV series. At this point, captain and crew have become old hands at encountering new worlds and new civilizations, but as Kirk puts it in his captain's log, the days are starting to run together, and the crew could stand to get some R&R. After a diplomatic mission involving tiny, paranoid aliens goes south, the Enterprise docks at the newest, largest, and most advanced starbase the Federation has: the Yorktown, a massive, spherical installation housing millions of Starfleet officers and civilians from dozens of different worlds. While there, Kirk ponders leaving the Enterprise for a vice-admiral position while Spock considers a life of diplomacy after hearing news of Ambassador Spock's death.*

Their musings are interrupted by a desperate plea for help: an alien woman named Kalara claims she is the lone survivor of an attack that occurred in a nearby nebula; her crew has been taken. Kirk and the Enterprise crew saddle up and plunge into the nebula, which is largely uncharted space, arriving at the planet Altamid, where they are quickly ambushed by a swarming fleet of tiny alien vessels that literally shred the Enterprise into tattered bits, causing the crew to abandon ship. The aliens, led by the burly, angry Krall (Idris Elba) and his henchman Manas (martial artist Joe Taslim of "The Raid: Redemption"), manage to capture most of the Enterprise's crew, but the bridge crew reaches the planet's surface in a somewhat scattered manner: Scotty finds himself alone; Spock and McCoy crash-land, but Spock is severely wounded; Kirk and Chekov are paired up; luckless Uhura reaches the surface while trapped with Krall himself. Scotty eventually encounters warrior-woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, previously seen as the deadly, legless assassin in "Kingsman"), who has some idea what Krall is doing. Jaylah, who has evaded Krall's minions through the clever use of holographic technology, shows Scotty that she lives in what turns out to be an old, abandoned Federation starship: the USS Franklin, first ship to make Warp 4. The rest of the movie involves learning the details of Krall's dastardly plan: how he knew so much about the Enterprise to be able to attack it and overcome it so quickly and successfully, why he hates the Federation so intensely, and what he plans to do to strike a major blow against it.

In "X-Men: Apocalypse," there's a joke about how the third movie in a series is usually the one to fall down. That wisdom holds true for "Beyond" which, while entertaining, is weighed down by story and visual problems. The rebooted Star Trek series has, up to now, borrowed many of its story beats from Nicholas Meyer's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." I could see one or two Meyers-like tropes in this movie as well: Kirk and McCoy having an early heart-to-heart over drinks was one. It also borrows from "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" in terms of what happens to the Enterprise. Pegg and Jung have written a story that does its best to break away from the older films, but the plot still clings, somewhat, to the cinematic past.

In terms of actual story problems, the main issue for me was figuring out what Krall was about. We get this information in bits and pieces, and the picture that finally emerges hinges on a major plot twist that I won't reveal here if you're planning on seeing the movie. Suffice it to say that Krall's characterization is oblique. In almost every Trek movie, an effort is made to give every crew member a moment to shine; "Beyond" generally succeeds at this, but Uhura, although she gets to show off some hand-to-hand fighting ability, is pretty much wasted as a communications officer. Unlike in "Star Trek Into Darkness," where Uhura shows off her Klingon skills, we see nothing of her linguistic ability in "Beyond." Later, the Enterprise crew's solution for defeating the alien-swarm fleet is a corny excuse to show off the awesome destructive power of the Beastie Boys' music. Kirk's use of Jaylah's holo-tech is reminiscent of Quaid's use of a hologram in "Total Recall," but as in the 1990 film, holo-tech introduces logical problems, such as why Kirk's holo-facsimiles kick up dust and produce sound.

The above-mentioned visual problems come from Justin Lin's direction and the film's editing. I'll tip my hat to Lin for his fearlessness when it comes to huge sets: he's clearly comfortable with the grandiose, and to that extent, "Beyond" has some impressive visuals, the Yorktown starbase not least among them. But Lin's manner of editing battle scenes is somewhat confusing, and there were moments when I simply wasn't sure what was going on until the action had resolved itself. Confusion is the kiss of death when you're trying to build tension, and quick-cut editing often leaves the viewer unable to get his bearings when things get hectic. Contrast Lin's style with that of George Miller in his amazingly impressive "Mad Max: Fury Road" (lovingly reviewed here). Miller managed to build tension and create a frenetic environment, but he also controlled the visuals such that the viewer was never confused as to who was doing what to whom. Lin could take lessons from Miller on that score. Lin also has a bit too much love for sweeping, swooping, Peter Jackson-style tracking shots to establish a scene. These types of shots aren't bad in themselves, but overusing them can become annoying, especially once the viewer starts noticing the repetitiveness.

There were things the movie did right, though. Spock and Uhura begin the story by breaking up for reasons that have little to do with their love for each other and more to do with Spock's sense of obligation toward his destroyed homeworld. Narrative-wise, this is actually helpful in that it keeps the Spock-Uhura relationship from gumming up the plot for much of the movie—at least until Spock feels the need to go rescue Uhura despite his severe abdominal wound. (Interestingly, McCoy informs us that Vulcans keep their hearts where humans keep their livers. Good to remember if you're a sniper trying to kill a Vulcan, but illogical from an evolutionary standpoint because a Vulcan's rib cage offers far less protection for the heart.) The Spock-McCoy tension is kept humorously alive (watch for the "horseshit" joke); Chekov, unlike Uhura, gets more opportunities to be useful. The biggest surprise for me was Mr. Scott's expanded role (although, really, that shouldn't have been a surprise given that Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, was a co-writer of the screenplay): he becomes something of a father figure to Jaylah, eventually nudging her to join Starfleet. Finally, I have to give the movie credit for one absolutely ballsy artistic move: there's a shot near the end of the film in which Spock looks pensively at a photograph of the old, pre-reboot Enterprise bridge crew. Yes: William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelley as McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, and Walter Koenig as Chekov. The scene was almost a dare, forcing the viewer to compare his experience watching the rebooted movies to his experience watching the older films. For me, the photo produced a pang of nostalgia for the old crew, and I wonder whether that was the point.

In terms of themes, "Beyond" continues the idea, established in the second movie, of the Enterprise crew as a sort of extended family. This gets tied into notions of unity through diversity—something that Krall is adamantly against after decades of bitter experience. The E pluribus unum theme may be one reason why Star Trek films don't resonate in the Korean market: Korea is still a fairly xenophobic culture that has a hard time digesting the level of cooperation and acceptance of alterity** shown in Gene Roddenberry's universe. I did find it ironic, though, that Krall would despise the virtues of acting in concert given that his preferred method of space battle involves the use of coordinated swarms.

"Star Trek Beyond" is watchable, but it's about what you'd expect for a third outing. The screenwriting shows glimmers of joy and genius, humor and pathos, but the story problems do tend to muck things up for the inveterate thinkers in the viewing audience. I'd cautiously recommend seeing the movie once, but I can't say I'm all that keen to watch it again.

ADDENDUM: regarding the whole "Oh, noes! Sulu is gay!" flap that resulted when it was revealed that "Beyond" would show Sulu meeting his male life-partner (the press releases say that Doug Jung's character, Ben, is Sulu's husband, but this is never mentioned in the film; Sulu and Ben are simply shown walking with their arms around each other's waists, with Ben holding a little girl who is, I assume, their adoptive daughter): I couldn't give a damn about this. Sulu is gay—so what? George Takei, who played the original Sulu and who is openly gay, expressed some mild disapproval about portraying Sulu as gay because, in Takei's opinion, Sulu's sexuality was never part of Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the character. Takei was ripped apart on social media, where he was accused—by fellow liberals utterly blind to irony—of homophobia. I found this absolutely hilarious. One of the greatest modern champions of gay rights—a homophobe!

ADDENDUM 2: I'm not sure, but during the movie, I thought I heard mention of the Kzinti as enemies of the Federation. If so, then that's a very cool nod to Larry Niven's Known Space stories. The Kzinti are a race of tiger-like aliens who are so impulsive in battle that they constantly lose against more level-headed, strategically thinking human forces. One on one, however, no human can ever hope to beat a Kzin. They're Chewbacca-level strong.

ADDENDUM 3: Singer Rihanna made a lovely song, "Sledgehammer," that's been marketed with "Star Trek Beyond." I find the song beautiful, but the lyrics, ostensibly about a woman's inner strength following a breakup, have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie. (Spock and Uhura's breakup is amicable; Uhura takes no sledgehammer to Spock's heart.) Rihanna's video, however, is a major Trek tie-in: it initially depicts her as some weird priestess-figure stranded on the surface of a planet and performing strange, evocative rituals as she sings. At the video's end, she becomes a huge, goddess-like face floating in space, toward which a tiny Enterprise can be seen flying. I'm not sure whether I was supposed to laugh, but I found the video cute and funny and maybe even a bit self-deprecating because of the over-the-top role that Rihanna plays in it. Watch it here.

ADDENDUM 4: In the comments, Charles contends that Krall's use of attacking swarms isn't ironic vis-à-vis his hatred of the Federation's valuation of unity-through-diversity. As Charles rightly points out, swarm members aren't truly individuals, and the Federation's unity plays up individuality, not drone-like thought and behavior. I replied to Charles's comment by saying the irony still obtains because Krall specifically attacks the idea of unity. Krall bitterly rails against the way the Federation makes peace with and cooperates with former enemies, which could mean he's anti-diversity, thus supporting Charles's point. But this is undermined by the fact that Krall is using alien technology that not only prolongs his life but is also mutagenic: if he's open to literally changing his own race to survive, how xenophobic can he be? My point is that it's not obvious that Krall's beef is against diversity, per se, but he definitely has something against the concept of unity. So I'm not quite ready to delete my swarm-irony sentence.

Another point: were the swarm craft piloted or unpiloted? I believe they were piloted. In the initial attack on the Enterprise, many swarm craft crash into the larger ship, then open up to allow individual soldiers to board and attack the Enterprise's crew. The soldiers don't exhibit swarming behavior. According to Wikipedia, the craft are repurposed drones left over by the previous alien occupants of the planet. Who are these soldiers, speaking an alien language (which Krall, a native English speaker, has learned)? Their fighter craft move as concerted swarms, but as soldiers, they move individually. Manas, Krall's henchman, is—I think—of the same original race as Krall (still trying to avoid spoilers!); these other drone fighter pilots... are they also of the same race? Do they have the same origins? If so, why do they speak in an alien tongue? There are more story-related problems here, but if Krall is allying himself with individuals who happen to use "cyberpathic" (Spock's term) swarm tactics when fighting space battles, then I'd still say the irony obtains.

*You'll recall that, in the rebooted Trek universe, there are two Spocks—the older Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy and referred to as "Spock Prime" by Trekkies; and the younger Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. The 2009 film showed how Spock Prime ended up in the rebooted universe's timeline. To its credit, "Star Trek Beyond" features no time travel.

**This is a fancy postmodernist word for "otherness."


Charles said...

Just saw this tonight as well. So much I want to say about your swarm comment, but it's time for bed. In brief, acting together in a cooperative and mutually respectful relationship is a very different thing from being part of a swarm. The relationship that Federation advocates is one in which everyone exists as individuals, and every individual respects every other individual. In a swarm, though, they are no true individuals--you either toe the party line, so to speak, or all hell breaks loose (as we saw).

I think this respect for individuality is pointed up when Krall gets Sil (sp?) to give up the artifact by threatening Sulu. In a swarm, the individual is meaningless, as there are so many identical entities that the loss of a single entity is insignificant to the swarm as a whole. But Krall knows how the Federation works, and he sees it as a weakness.

It's also interesting to note that Beyond also pits a military mindset versus a civilian mindset, with the military ending up being the bad guys.

Anyway, just some very hurried and disorganized thoughts before heading to bed.

Kevin Kim said...


"In brief, acting together in a cooperative and mutually respectful relationship is a very different thing from being part of a swarm."

I'll gladly concede that point, but Krall's own analysis isn't that subtle: he specifically despises "unity," which means the irony still obtains.

Also: the military/civilian contrast is definitely in play, as you say. But here, too, there's the troublesome idea that the Enterprise is, seemingly, built as much for war as it is for exploration and peace. Or maybe it's not so troublesome: there's nothing wrong with being prepared for the worst. As Q warned in a "Next Generation" episode, space is vast and not for the timid. In the meantime, I'll believe Starfleet is non-military once it drops ranks, discipline, weapons training, and chain of command. Chris Pike, in the 2009 movie, used the term "peacekeeping armada" to describe Starfleet. "Armada" suggests a military while "peacekeeping" suggests something more like the police. It's all very confusing.

Question: why weren't Spock and McCoy blown up by the Beastie Boys attack? I thought about writing on this in my review, but I felt I might have missed some crucial detail that explained why their stolen ship was somehow exceptional. Was it simply that Spock told McCoy to "Evade!", thus distancing their ship from the music attack?

(I can't believe I just wrote "music attack." That whole damn scene was corny. I'm guessing it was written by Pegg, not Jung.)