Star Trek: Beyond
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Review by: S.W. Hannan
Star Trek: Beyond is a marked improvement over the previous two Trek pictures, but it still doesn’t sate my desire for intelligent sci-fi, or good action. All of the flaws of the last two iterations are still present, but with some improved spectacle and narrative spackle between the cracks to smooth out the experience.
To begin, the lickety-split plots of the last two pictures (directed by J.J. Abrams,) have been exchanged for something slightly more calm and dynamic. Beyond manages to squeeze in some extra humor, and a few moments of almost-meaningful character interaction. Though the story is no less blind nor more engaging. And it still unfolds at a speed intolerant of consideration to motivation or complications of alternate potentials. Running forward, the plot forgets to include basic narrative elements like tangible clues, foreshadowing, or motivation. It’s not until the end of the second act where it gives the slightest hint to who the villain, Krall, is (played by Idris Elba) or why he hates the Federation. Almost every significant plot point is comparably retconned. That means for most of two hours, the audience is trying to catch up with the previous scene.
The plot itself is predictable to Trek fans. A distress call brings the Enterprise to distant point in space, outside standard range of communication. The ship is ambushed by a powerful villain who has a beef with the Federation. The crew has to regain the ship and stop the villain. Sounds familiar.
Familiar isn’t a problem, so long as it develops resonant scenarios. This, however, is not the prime directive of the film. Obstacles encountered throughout the picture are straw dogs, devoid of suspense and consequence. Scotty, Checkov, and Spock will tell Kirk there’s a problem rerouting the power, or tuning the frequency of a transmitter. Kirk demands that it happen anyway. A single edit later and all is solved. It happens so fast, I rarely had time to grasp the problem before a solution was in place and working. Every obstacle to success is meaningless filler to pad out a mostly hollow experience.
And I understand this solution structure is a clichés of the TV shows. But this is a feature-length movie. There’s more time and no commercial breaks. Problems can and should be allowed to play out and evolve.
The improvements in Beyond that do exist, are likely due to Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin. Pegg, who co-wrote the script, and plays Scotty, is a massive Star Trek fan. He also co-wrote the excellent films: Sean of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. These are not only the funniest movies since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but intimate, layered, and structurally brilliant narratives. Pegg alone wouldn’t be enough to turn around the run-away train mentality of modern Hollywood action cinema, especially an Abrams production, but his contribution seems to have rounded its edges and given the story moments above water to take a breath.
For example, Beyond takes a stab at being an emotionally resonant picture. Scotty, stranded on a planet supposedly devoid of life, becomes buddies with the isolated and individualistic Jayluh (Sofia Boutella.) Over the course of the picture, he demonstrates to her the concept and value of friendship and teamwork. This counts as a lesson learned for Jayluh. However, the moments where this development take place are necessarily crammed between spasms of ‘plot’, thinning its potential emotional effect, as well as its resonance.
Justin Lin’s contributions as the new director of the series are palpable. The lens flare effects are gone, occasionally the camera manages to stay stable during dialogue, and he has enough patience to bring the plot to halt and let the character development scenes succeed or fail on their own merits.
Lin is also almost an excellent action director. He breathed unexpected long life into the Fast and Furious series starting with Tokyo Drift, and directed the Modern Warfare episode of Community, which is a shining example of the show’s exacting genre work. In Star Trek: Beyond he manages to infuse a bit of awe into action scenes, despite contesting a reviewer weary of generically ‘epic’ CG sequences. He captures the speed of ship combat without sacrificing the scale. He times reveals just right to evoke my ‘oh, cool’ response, a reaction increasingly rare for me. The space station at the end of Krall’s evil plan is a knot of gravity inversions, much like planet hopping in Mario Galaxy. Lin’s sweeps the camera through the labyrinth, full of uncertain of ups and downs and settles in the spot one step beyond where I expected.
And, I admit, I smiled at the use of Beastie Boys’ Sabotage more than I expected to.
Sadly, Lin still doesn’t have the discipline to slow down quite enough to fully distinguish himself from other action directors. The ends of those sweeping movement border on too fast to see. For on-the-ground action, the camera is too close and the editing is too frantic to follow. The hand-to-hand fight between Jayluh and one of Krall’s goons might have been a great fight, but the Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne quick cutting and shaky camera diminish the suspense and impressive fight choreography.
The bar for Star Trek: Beyond was very low. It managed to rise above. Still, the series has a long way to go to meet my expectations for a decent movie, much less the brainy, coherent Star Trek movie of my dreams.