and its impressive 2013 sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness,
both of which were flat-out fun summer blockbusters, the latest Star Trek
installment begins on a subdued and somber note.
If you'll recall, the first two films greeted viewers with high-stakes action sequences immediately. These were intense scenes chock-full of mortal peril and intricate scripting that, unlike many a James Bond opener, impinged directly on the major arcs of the films they prologued. Remember noble George Kirk (good ol' Chris Hemsworth) in Star Trek,
sacrificing himself to save his crew and his pregnant wife, who then gave birth to baby James in an escape pod?! Remember how they named the child literally as the newly appointed Captain George charged headlong into the enemy ship!? Audiences were slack-jawed and sniffling before the title image even flashed, and great things seemed in store for J.J. Abrams' franchise reboot.
No such luck in Beyond:
After Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) attempts some diplomacy with a council of CGI'd gremlins — another quick distinction from the first two films, both of which relied chiefly on makeup and natural effects to create alien species — he apprises the audience, via voice-over, of the USS Enterprise's glum foray into deep space, three years into a five-year mission.
The crew has the blues, Kirk confesses, or at least he does. There's a montage of quotidian spaceship life: Kirk spilling coffee on himself in the captain's chair, gazing forlornly at a wardrobe of identical outfits, crew members' making out with each other to pass the time. It turns out Kirk's in a bit of an existential funk, and his plan, once they dock at the deep-space outpost Yorktown, an Elysium-like city-state with complex gravitational fields keeping everything from toppling into itself, is that he'll hand over the Enterprise to Spock (Zachary Quinto). He wants an office job, basically, and has applied for the position of Vice Admiral in the Federation fleet based in Yorktown.
But the Enterprise is soon called upon to assist a downed ship in an unchartered nebula nearby. The mission goes awry almost instantly. The Enterprise is ambushed and itself downed on a planet inhabited by militant Ivan-Ooze types, led by the wrathful Krall (Idris Elba), who's in want of an ancient weapon, with which he intends to destroy Federation planets. Ho-hum.
The vast majority of the film feels like a jauntier version of the Frodo/Gollum interludes in The Two Towers.
Kirk and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin); Spock and Bones (Karl Urban); Uhura and Sulu (Zoe Saldana and John Cho); and Scottie (Simon Peegg) and the mechanically inclined alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, who played the blade-footed assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service
) all scurry through the jagged rocks of this unknown planet, making jokes and eventually plotting the escape of the Enterprise
crew, who have been captured by Krall.
The escape itself is gimmicky but still fun, and allows director Justin Lin (of Fast and Furious
directing credentials) to film Kirk on a motorcycle. But the final confrontation back in Yorktown is sabotaged by Krall's distracting late-arriving origin story, which frankly never quite computed.
There is fun to be had throughout, though. Kirk is no longer the foolhardy charm-bomb of the first two films, but has matured gracefully.
"I always assumed he'd be a vodka guy," Kirk tells Bones, after Bones has stolen a bottle of Scotch from Chekhov's room, in one of the film's quiet moments.
Bones is given the role of principal comic reliever, and Scottie — played by Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script — is as quippy as ever, thought perhaps given more screen time than he warrants. Spock, and even Kirk, fade into the ensemble meringue. In the first two films, the ensemble stayed on the periphery, primarily existing in their own modest arcs and chiming in for one or two memorable moments — Sulu as fencing wizard! Bones as metaphor messiah! But the central conflicts were always Kirk's and Spock's. Here, it's unclear who's supposed to be taking center stage. Is it really Scottie? Is it Bones?
If, as is to be presumed, this self-consciously episodic installment is meant to reaffirm Kirk's commitment to the Enterprise, the movie's beefy middle neglects that theme entirely.
It also neglects the series' penchant for breakneck action. One of the major joys of the first two films, both directed by Abrams, was their constant motion.
The urgency was often fabricated, perilous moments exacerbated by extreme and improbable simultaneous
perilous moments, but it was exciting! Everyone was always sprinting through the corridors of the Enterprise.
Bodies had to be beamed back to the ship while falling to earth; villains had be apprehended (but not killed!) while someone's else life hung in the balance; combat was always part of larger tactical moves; shields were always hovering between 6 and 18 percent.
Star Trek: Beyond
is content to present its action in a discrete series of unmemorable encounters: a bit of hand-to-hand combat here; a bit of senseless explosions in space there; even a bit of goofy strategic heavy metal. It's just a less polished action script.
One more key distinction: The first two films took place largely in outer space, but retained a real connection to Earth. Starfleet HQ was in San Francisco. Kirk himself enlisted in Iowa. A terrorist attack in the sequel leveled a futuristic block in London. This all had the effect of creating a science fiction that remained indebted to reality. In Beyond,
the film takes place largely on the terra firma of an unrecognizable planet, and the human interactions occur on an unlikely outpost that may as well have been carbon copied from a dreamscape in Inception.
The filmmakers might have taken a cue from Kirk, for whom deep space inspired some big-ticket reflection and potential course-correction: What am I doing? Where am I going? Am I still, in the end, having fun?