Review: Star Trek Beyond

star trek beyond movie poster one sheetAs a lifelong fan, I so wanted to love this latest Star Trek film. I’ve been hooked on the optimistic future, melodrama and visual effects of the show since William Shatner was helming the original Starship Enterprise. When J.J.Abrams brought his flair and action sensibilities to the reboot of the franchise after ten increasingly dull films, I loved it. The 2009 reinvention of the entire mythos was excellent, from its gripping opening scene to the last frame. Abrams didn’t do as well with the second installment, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, even with the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch, but I forgave them because it was still a fun space adventure.

And so we get to Star Trek Beyond.

I really, really wanted to love it, but instead left the theater scratching my head over the glaring plot holes, daft story sidelines and special effects misfires. Yes, there’s a very satisfying thread about main characters Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) contemplating their lives and future goals, but it all ends up just window dressing for the action set pieces that propel the story forward. Mostly.

The film takes place “three years into their five year mission” which suggests that there are two more movies in the franchise story arc until the Enterprise is retired (though it’s destroyed in every film, so maybe it’ll end up like a famous athlete’s jersey, a piece of scrap metal pinned to the wall at a Starfleet bar in some distant galaxy).

Star Trek Beyond opens with a silly scene where Kirk is presenting an alien artifact as a peace offering to broker the end of hostilities between two planets. He fails, is beamed back up to the USS Enterprise and the crew arriving at the magnificent Starbase Yorktown for shore leave and supplies. The space station is really cool, looking like something out of Larry Niven’s terrific Ringworld books and well worth our exploration.

While on the Yorktown, Kirk helps interrogate the alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson) who shares a story of being attacked and having to abandon her crew deep in an unexplored nebula. She barely made it to the space station and is determined to go back and rescue the crew of her starship. As the captain with the most sophisticated ship in the near galaxy, Kirk volunteers and they fly through a meteor field even denser than that from the Star Wars galaxy, just to be attacked by swarms of space ‘bots in one of the most exciting scenes in the film.

The ‘bot swarm is under the control of the evil Krall (Idris Elba), who has his own quite nefarious plans for Kirk, the rest of the Enterprise crew, and the Federation. Kirk, Scotty, Spock and Bones all end up landing at different points on Krull’s home planet and Scotty meets up with friendly local Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Think Rey from the latest Star Wars movie but with different makeup and you’ve got the sense of the scrappy survivor woman archetype Jaylah portrays on screen.

Scotty (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), from "Star Trek Beyond"
Scotty (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), from “Star Trek Beyond”

She’s one of the most interesting characters in the movie, even if her flirtatious romance with one of the Enterprise crew is a bit inexplicable. Still, you can easily overlook that as the other on-screen romances offer both drama and a little bit of comic relief. Spock and Uhura. Kirk and, um, no-one, oddly enough. There’s actually not much character development at all in Star Trek Beyond, perhaps a sign of the maturity of the franchise?

There are lots of long, drawn out epic battles, however, both in space and on the planet, and action movie director Justin Lin delivers a bewildering blur of activity, a dark universe where things swirl and swoop and people are hit without us ever being able to really comprehend what’s happening. Everyone in the film is also an awful shot, which is rather inexplicable given that they’re hundreds of years in the future. Plenty of time for smart firearms to be invented!

Surprisingly, the visual effects are a mixed bag too. Usually these tentpole summer sci-fi actioners are gorgeous with their non-stop CGI scenes, but not Star Trek Beyond. Indeed, there’s one scene where the rendering’s so poor that afterwards my friend and I ended up discussing how it ever made it into the final print.

The lack of a new, fresh storyline really ends up the fundamental problem with Star Trek Beyond. It’s a film that’s resting on its mythical laurels, that offers up characters we know and love in yet another tense but inexplicable situation. Yes, Kirk is charming, Bones (Karl Urban) is ornery and Spock is trying to reconcile his human and Vulcan facets, but that’s not enough when we’ve all seen these elements in film after film. The story itself makes very little sense, and the “revenge against the man” storyline is so exhausted in sci-fi that it’s hard to believe the script was greenlit.

But another Star Trek movie we have, and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll go see it. Who knows, you might really enjoy it. There is the pleasure of our favorite characters on screen, on seeing that great tracking shot of the Enterprise’s hull, of Scotty and Bones offering up their trademark lines, of characters beaming up and using phasers and tricorders. There are also some great visuals and the film (mostly) zips along and has some fun scenes and a few chuckles.

I was just really hoping for more from Star Trek Beyond.

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