Star Trek Beyond

star-trek-beyond-poster-international
The only thing this colorful in the actual movie is McCoy’s dialogue.

One of the more interesting concepts that Star Trek fandom has developed is the so-called Odd-Even rule about Star Trek films. The rule states that, in the order they came out, all odd-numbered Star Trek movies are bad, while all even-numbered ones are good. Now, some of you more Trek-savy people might ask, “But Z, didn’t we have two back-to-back bad films with 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis? And wasn’t 2009’s Star Trek, which most people liked, technically the 11th in the series?” The solution, as others have pointed out, is to recognize 1999’s Galaxy Quest as a proper Trek picture in its own right, thus preserving the integrity of the Odd-Even rule. So with that in mind, we see that the newly opening Star Trek Beyond is the 14th Trek film by our count. The question is, does the rule still hold true? Is this latest movie in the series good?

The answer is complicated and will likely vary on how you view this series in total. The best way I can describe it is that it’s an okay film if you aren’t especially concerned with what this franchise is ostensibly supposed to be about; and otherwise it’s kind of not-so-good.

Star Trek Beyond plays out like fan-fiction written by someone who liked the original series but wished it had way more testosterone. The end product is a straight-forward science-fiction action flick that has been built into the framework of a traditional Star Trek episode. We are treated to a basic, Trek-familiar plot that has the Enterprise crew crashing on a strange new planet and encountering seemingly hostile natives, just like the good old days; but with way more action scenes. And I mean way more. Star Trek Beyond is practically filled to the brim with spaceship fights and phaser shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat and foot chases and even motorcycle action (I’ll get back to that one later). Granted, most Star Trek films have good amounts of action, and that has especially been true since J.J. Abrams (who directed the previous two entries and produces this one) started working on these pictures, but this movie takes it to a new extreme. Whatever else you might say about Star Trek Beyond, it’s certainly not lacking in bombastic spectacle.

Unfortunately, it seems as though all of that action was really the focus of the filmmakers, who didn’t devote nearly enough time to actually constructing an effective story. While the plot is far from horrible, it is very uneven, with arguably more bad than good. Before I get too negative, though, I’ll be optimistic by starting with what does work about this narrative.

As I alluded to earlier, in terms of plotting, Star Trek Beyond comes the closest of any Star Trek film to feeling like an episode of the original show; and that is very cool. It has been a while since the crew of the Enterprise were on an uncharted planet meeting new creatures; and that kind of callback to classic Trek was definitely something that I, at least, wanted to see from these movies. Additionally, there is also some good character work going on in this picture. The actors and the characters they play — by far the strongest aspect about the series since Abrams got involved — are still really enjoyable. Moreover, the film smartly scatters the crew when they reach the planet surface; this allows different members to be doing different things, which helps us to appreciate them better on an individual level. In particular, there are some nice moments between Dr. McCoy and Spock, who are stuck alone together for much of the film. Also, the film does a surprisingly apt job of incorporating the death of the original Spock (a nice allusion to Leonard Nimoy’s recent death) as a small subplot. It actually works pretty well and has a very heart-warming pay off at the end.

Now on to the bad stuff. To begin, the villain in this movie is awful. He is very cliched and underwritten, with motivations that are not nearly well developed enough. As though they became aware of this problem only at the last second, the filmmakers try to save face by including a strange plot twist at the end to try to make him seem more interesting. Unfortunately it’s an idea that was clearly shoe-horned in at the eleventh hour, doesn’t really making much sense, and falls flat on its face. I was surprised to learn that this character was played by famed actor Idris Elba, as he is very unrecognizable due to the alien makeup he wears. It really is a shame, as Elba’s considerable talent is wasted pretty badly here, and you could definitely imagine him being able to play a great bad guy if only the writing allowed for one. But alas, Khan Noonien Singh this is not.

Next, while the sheer amount of action in the movie makes it acceptably entertaining, some of the action scenes come across as somewhat annoying, very forced fan service — the kind of content a writer of fan-fiction, rather than a professional, would dream up — particularly with regards to Captain Kirk. That motorcycle scene I talked about earlier? Yeah, Captain Kirk is the one riding that, zipping along and firing ray guns at aliens in a frenzy that would put the Terminator to shame. There’s no good reason why there’s a motorcycle for Kirk to ride or why they still exist at all during a time when you can beam matter from here to there; there just is one so that the filmmakers have an excuse to make him look cool. While I’m on the subject, a later scene literally has Kirk “flying” (admittedly it’s through a quirk a gravity, but still). Now granted, much of Star Trek is focused on the inherent awesomeness of Captain Kirk, but scenes like those in this movie just border on caricature.

In another ridiculous bit of fan service, remember that cool trailer that featured The Beastie Boys track  “Sabotage”? Yeah, that song is actually in this movie*, played during the big climax. And no, it’s not just background music. That song literally plays a critical role in the crew’s plan to defeat the aliens. I’m not kidding. Granted, I find that a bit amusing (and I certainly like The Beastie Boys), but it’s just so outlandish and unjustified by the script and not really how I want a Trek movie to resolve its conflict (not to mention that references to modern society take me out of the futurism of this series). Again, it comes across as something our hypothetical fan-fiction author would think would be cool to have in a Star Trek film, rather than something that actually fits.

This would all be much more forgivable, though, if not for the film’s true problem, which is that it’s not about anything. Now, I’m not by any means a hardcore Star Trek fan, but I do occasionally watch an episode of one of its several series or one of the many movies. And the thing that I have come to appreciate (backed up by the insights of others) is that the best Star Trek stories are always, at their core, rooted in strong ideas that relate to society or politics or philosophy or some other big theme. They can still have action and spectacle, but they ultimately try to get you to think about something meaningful. This movie doesn’t really do that**. The closest it comes to that approach is by paying lip service to it at a few points in the film by having the villain being against the notion of peace and unity that an expanding federation represents, but it never goes anywhere with that idea. A better film might have tried to at least do something with those concepts. Just as an example, it could have had characters reflecting on the challenges that can happen when calls for unity and peace overlook important differences between cultures that wind up never getting resolved. Or something; but this movie seems perfectly content to gloss over any deep discussion and just provide dumb action. And while I don’t have anything against dumb action movies on the whole, I do expect a bit more from Star Trek, given what this series has been capable of in the past.

This lack-of-theme makes me reflect back on statements made previously by actor Simon Pegg, who not only stars as Scotty in this picture but also has writing credit on the film. Supposedly an earlier draft of the movie was, according to him, accused of being, “…a little bit too Star Trek-y.” Pegg was asked to make the film “more inclusive” and more reminiscent of a genre picture. While I don’t want to point fingers or jump to conclusions, I suspect this is also responsible for the thematic watering-down of this picture. It’s a shame that more inclusive potentially also meant less thoughtful, but I guess that’s the world we live in.

That being the case, given what seems to have happened with Simon Pegg’s rewrite of Star Trek Beyond, as we look ahead to the future and the inevitable next Star Trek film, I find myself thinking back to Roger Ebert’s review of Star Trek: Nemesis. The review is amusing throughout as Ebert’s criticisms of the movie breakout into criticisms of the franchise as a whole as it had become in 2002, but the final paragraph is especially insightful, and, in my opinion, it applies as much to Star Trek Beyond as it did for Nemesis:

“I think it is time for ‘Star Trek’ to make a mighty leap forward another 1,000 years into the future, to a time when starships do not look like rides in a 1970s amusement arcade, when aliens do not look like humans with funny foreheads, and when wonder, astonishment and literacy are permitted back into the series. Star Trek was kind of terrific once, but now it is a copy of a copy of a copy.”

I really hope the people making the next Trek film can keep something like that in mind.

To sum this up, if you’re the type of person looking for decent science fiction action and a handful of good character moments and would enjoy the likes of Captain Kirk on a motorcycle shooting aliens and the Enterprise crew jamming to a 1980’s rap-rock group, then Star Trek Beyond isn’t a bad movie. And compared to its science fiction action competition currently in theaters (i.e., Independence Day: Resurgence), I’d even call it a, more-or-less, good movie. But the writing in this picture is, on the whole, far too weak and far too thematically empty for me to recommend it as a good Star Trek film, or even a good film for anyone not up for science fiction action. I guess you could say that this breaks the Odd-Even rule for me. You know what, though? That’s okay. Rules were meant to be broken, and to let you in on a little secret, I happen to like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, despite its odd-numbered status, so really this rule was never completely true for me anyways. It’s just as well; I’d rather decide for myself what Trek films I like. For that matter, so should you. And regardless of how I felt about Beyond, I’m still looking forward to the next entry in this franchise, whenever that comes out. 

Also, RIP Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in these last three Star Trek films. You died way too young. May you live forever on that big stage in the sky.

*I’m aware that the song was also in 2009’s Star Trek, but in a much more reserved capacity.

**An argument can be made that neither 2009’s Star Trek nor 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness were about anything either, but I didn’t get a chance to review those when they came out.

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