The Trouble with Triples
One of my first thoughts after watching The Force Awakens last December was, "Now that Star Wars is relevant again, who the hell cares about Star Trek 3?"
Let's back up a bit. The Star Wars prequel trilogy has its defenders, I guess, but the general consensus is that George Lucas botched his return to the franchise that made him a gajillionaire and a pop culture deity. Encumbered by sleepy performances, recycled plots, and the perfunctory nature of prequel stories, fans came away from 2005's Revenge of the Sith feeling like they'd wasted six years enduring an egomaniac's brainstorming workshop, instead of embarking on a deliberate journey of imagination. Four years later, J.J. Abrams' Trek reboot divided an already shaky geek community by providing a Star Wars film wrapped in Star Trek accoutrements.
Some moviegoers loved the free-wheeling galactic-revenge plot, which was really just a frame on which to drape a colorful tapestry of characters who hadn't yet become their iconic space-adventurer selves. Others saw "Nu Trek" as Abrams' flashy, off-key audition for Star Wars Episode VII, and wished he'd just emailed his fan-film to Lucas instead of putting it in theatres. I'm in the former camp, and I accepted the parallel-universe plot device, which linked the old TV series and movies to a "next generation" of flag bearers.
Four years later, Star Trek Into Darkness soured me on the new direction entirely. It began with Abrams' gross, corporate-shill denial that Benedict Cumberbatch would play series-favorite-villain, Khan. It ended when "Nu Trek 2" turned out to be a watered-down remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of...you guesed it, Khan.
A couple years later, I was ecstatic to hear that Abrams had landed the next Star Wars directing gig. Maybe playing in the galactic sandbox of his dreams would allow him to cut loose. The resulting film, The Force Awakens, was even more divisive than Star Trek 2009. Personally, I thought it was the perfect blend of homage and torch-passing, and it made me excited to see where these characters would go next. Episode VII also went on to be the highest-grossing film of the year, which prompted the question I posed at the head of this review, "Now that Star Wars is relevant again, who the hell cares about Star Trek 3?"
Having seen Star Trek Beyond, the answer does not include the word "me". Though the creative team is new, the ideas and direction are decidedly old. Some hail Beyond as a return to the fun, episodic spirit of the 1960s television series, but I’m not convinced that A) the filmmakers pull it off and B) this was a wise decision in the first place. Lets’ break it down:
1. Continuity, Schmontinuity. Star Trek Into Darkness was, no pun intended, a dark film, tonally and narratively. In it, the United Federation of Planets is revealed to have sanctioned a sinister Black Ops division that defrosted (and subsequently lost control of) the cryogenically frozen terrorist genius, Khan. The Enterprise crew races to stop Khan and unveil the powerful conspiracy that created him; in the process, they commit an act of war against the Klingon Empire and lose Captain Kirk (Chris Pine)—who is subsequently resurrected.
None of these events are commented on in Star Trek Beyond. Instead, director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung sidestep the first two films' nagging problem* by plopping us down in the middle of Year Three. We’re told that the crew is restless, homesick, and kind of lost. It seems they're exhausted by all the space adventures we never got to see.
2. To Boldly Go Where We’ve Already Gone Before. While visiting the remote Starbase Yorktown, Captain Kirk and company receive a distress call from a strange ship that’s come hurtling at them from a mysterious nebula. The Enterprise gang rushes to investigate (because, of course, they’re the only ones who can), and wind up stranded on a rock planet for most of the movie.
It turns out a terrorist genius named Krall (Idris Elba) has been using the planet as intergalactic flypaper, catching ships and taking prisoners in his decades-long search for the missing half of an ancient super-weapon—which he plans to use in exacting his vengeance against Starfleet.
If you’re worried that Krall’s motivations and machinations sound a little too close to those of Nero’s in Nu Trek and Khan’s in Into Darkness, fear not: when the villain’s space ship crash lands in the middle of the bustling city during the climax; when the bad guy disguises himself as a Federation member to blend in amidst the ensuing chaos; and when Kirk offers to sacrifice himself in order to stop the reality-destroying, black-hole mega-bomb, it’s totally different than when you watched these movies seven and three years ago.
Also, the mystery of Krall's identity bears absolutely no resemblance to the Big Reveal in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
3. Caricature Development. Into Darkness plunged Abram’s Star Trek universe into bleak territory. Beyond swings way too far in the opposite direction. Besides a few scenes of faux gravitas, the characters in this outing are cartoons; Pegg and Jung are so focused on cranking up the snappy banter to 11 (hundred) that they forget to imbue Kirk, Bones (Karl Urban), Spock (Zachary Qunto), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) with any recognizable human traits. The writers fall back on the Star Trek style guide: Bones is grumpy, Spock is logical beyond even the stiffness that series creator Gene Roddenberry had imagined, and Uhura—well, she and Spock have a tiff before she gets kidnapped.
The 2009 film balanced levity with drama. Star Trek Beyond sets the tone for its two hours with a scene in which Kirk wrestles a tiny CGI gremlin against one of the least convincing green screen backdrops this side of Birdemic. The writers shoehorn in some of the meditations on aging that helped elevate the early-80s Star Trek films above villain-of-the-week sci-fi, but none of it works.
The original cast were in their fifties by the time Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, and had already invested three years of television and one feature film into their characters. Pine and company are still in their twenties and thirties, and have two tonally inconsistent movies under their belts--so the “Woe is me, I’m old” laments come off as bullshit posturing. Though the creative team continues to milk connections to the old cast, the photograph we see late in the film of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the rest is nothing but a sad reminder of how superfluous this new series is.
Sorry, I haven’t spent a lot of time remarking on Beyond’s particulars, mostly because it is an unremarkable film. There’s a new alien ally, the warrior Jaylah (Sofia Buetella), who mispronounces names and learns about Earth culture through rap music. She kicks a lot of bad-guy butt and looks like an albino Jessica Chastain cosplaying Darth Maul as the Road Warrior while doing it. Krall’s powers don’t make any sense and, after the Big Reveal, the fact that he even has powers makes even less sense.
Director Lin manages to make his attention-deficient Fast and the Furious directing sensibilities even more boring than usual (Hint: Cutting between images every five seconds and twirling the camera into abstract compositions every twenty minutes doesn’t make a movie exciting. In fact, when combined with two hours of weak characterization and cold script leftovers, it can make a film downright intolerable).
It was announced last week that this iteration of Star Trek will return with a fourth installment, and that Chris Hemsworth is set to reprise, in some fashion, as Captain Kirk’s deceased father, George. I can’t tell you how disheartening thist news is to me. The opening ten minutes of Star Trek 2009 comprise one of my favorite sequences from any film, ever. The new series has never touched the emotional or visceral impact of the USS Kelvin’s last stand, and now it seems the writing team is headed back to the graveyard with shovels in hand and bets in mind that no one will notice that, creatively, they’re still treading rapidly evaporating water. Hell, I'm amazed there hasn't been an uproar over Beyond's poster, which is a direct lift from the series' least popular entry.
On the bright side, CBS has also announced a new Star Trek TV series. I say, keep Trek on the small screen for now. Scrap Pine, Urban, Quinto, and the rest. The material hasn't been worth their talents in more than half a decade. Instead, give us a few solid seasons of new characters to believe in and new frontiers to conquer. Wait a few years, and bring Star Trek back to theatres. Maybe by then, audiences will have reason to follow.
*During two two-plus hour movies, the Enterprise crew never actually embarks on their five-year mission. Thematically, this is akin to Bruce Wayne still deciding on which animal to be at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises.