Five years after it launched, JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company released the last (so far?) of their quasi-reboot Star Trek trilogy, with “Star Trek Beyond” (2016).
My personal scorecard for this trilogy was one hit with 2009’s “Star Trek, and one very big miss with “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013).
My feelings for a third film were (very) cautiously optimistic, to say the least.
Fresh eyes were brought to bear on the script, with Doug Jung (“Dark Blue” “Big Love”) co-writing with “Scotty” himself, Simon Pegg (“Shawn of the Dead” “Hot Fuzz” “Paul”). A new director took over the reigns from JJ Abrams as well. Justin Lin was a somewhat controversial pick for Trekkies like myself, who’d only heard of him from his involvement with the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise.
The “Fast and Furious” movies aren’t exactly my cup o’ joe. I find them to be textbook examples of pretty much everything wrong with modern movies. To me, they’re over-produced, misogynist, hyper-violent exercises in toxic masculinity combined with mindless, lazy, dumbed-down storytelling. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear that Lin had been picked to helm a Star Trek sequel, but the more I’d read of Lin’s personal love of Star Trek, I decided to give him a chance. Maybe the F&F movies were simply his way of paying the bills and getting credits till he got his dream job? So, I vowed to (in the best interests of Trek) put aside prejudices and give him, and the movie, the benefit of the doubt.
So the movie is released in July of 2016, and at that time, I was right in the middle of the five day geek extravaganza that is San Diego Comic Con. But I was determined to see the film opening week, so I decided to take one morning away from the convention and I walked to a local shopping center downtown to catch the film in a multiplex. “Beyond” had its big world premiere at San Diego Comic Con the previous night (on a giant outdoor screen, no less), but the surrounding crowds (as well as tickets for entry) were formidable, to say the least. I’d decided to simply wait a day and see the film in the relative quiet of a smaller theatre downtown (minus the “Soylent Green”-sized crowds of the convention). The showing I attended was in “Real 3D” (a process I’ve come to loathe), but this was the earliest and most conveniently-timed showing, so I took it.
I did have a Comic Con to get back to, after all…
So after months of feeling an acute mix of anticipation and dread, the movie that was released in the year of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary wasn’t quite the big, splashy, bells-and-whistles extravaganza that “Doctor Who” got for it’s half-century mark. However, on its own merits “Star Trek Beyond” was surprisingly… enjoyable.
I enjoyed STB so much that I’d catch it a few more times with my wife when we came home from San Diego. The movie has now become my personal favorite of the Bad Robot Star Trek movie trilogy. Granted, it’s not a perfect film, nor is it even the best Star Trek movie of all time, but it brings back a couple of things that I feared were lost in the newer Trek films; genuine Star Trek-style optimism, as well as that feeling of family between the main characters.
Once again, I’m skipping a plot summary (my readers don’t seem to need those), but I will post a…
**** STARBASE YORKTOWN-SIZED SPOILER ALERT!! ****
…just in case.
What I enjoyed about “Star Trek Beyond”:
* The five-year mission is finally underway.
After two previous Star Trek movies that departed from and returned to Earth, it was nice to finally see an Enterprise crew untethered from the ol’ home planet. Frankly, I thought the ending of 2009’s “Star Trek” (ST09) was supposed to be the beginning of the ‘five year mission’ (it was implicit, anyway). But nope. “Into Darkness” (STID) put the kibosh on that, implying that the full year of movie time (4 years audience time) between the first and second films was nothing but a really long shakedown cruise. With STB, I was happy to finally see Earth in the rear-view mirror, as the crew finally headed out into deep space.
* Kirk’s failed diplomatic mission to Treenax.
Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), three years into his five-year mission, is negotiating a peace between the Treenaxians and their arch-enemies, the Fibonans. He presents the Treenaxian leadership council with a piece of an ancient alien superweapon as a gesture of peace. The gesture, and the mission, fail spectacularly. In a funny moment that defies audience expectations, the deep-voiced Treenaxians charge at Kirk, and are revealed to be the size of angry poodles.
Kirk then beams back aboard the ship with a ripped shirt (another nod to the original series). Gotta admit; when I first saw this scene, it gave me a genuine chuckle. Silly or not, it works.
The alien superweapon-artifact/failed-peace-offering is then stored and catalogued by Spock aboard the Enterprise for future plot convenience…
* Some of the Original Series’ ‘family feeling’ between the characters was back.
There are so many little moments. Kirk and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) sharing confiscated liquor from Chekov’s locker (“I figured he was a vodka guy”). Sulu (John Cho) keeping a picture of his daughter on his console (this timeline’s version of “Demora”?). Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) getting thrown out of an Orion crewmember’s quarters. Chekov and Kirk teaming up to go back to the broken remains of the crashed USS Enterprise. Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg) welcoming a new alien ally named “Jaylah” to the family (Sofia Boutella). There is more heart and warmth to this Enterprise crew than we’d previously seen in the first two Bad Robot Trek movies.
STB saw the Enterprise crew coming together in a way that the previous two films hadn’t quite managed, largely because ST09 was an origins story, and because STID was just awful. STB finally saw the crew functioning as a family; and much closer to their personas as established in The Original Series (TOS) as well.
Speaking of which…
* The “Odd Couple in Space”-relationship between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) is back!
Since Spock and McCoy’s frenemy-feuding was one of my favorite elements of TOS, I was very glad to see STB bring it back with such a vengeance. The previous two Trek movies had surprisingly little of this easily exploitable character resource, save for one-liners or quick moments. Pegg and Jung’s script wisely puts Spock and McCoy together as often as possible throughout the movie. McCoy is forced to save Spock’s life after a crash landing, and there’s a wonderful moment of the two of them together in an alien cavern, as Spock is mourning the loss of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy). The dialogue between them in that scene feels so right that I could easily imagine a younger Nimoy and DeForest Kelley saying those very lines.
I also appreciated Spock’s deteriorating emotional control due to his extensive injuries, and how he managed to let loose with a honest-to-goodness laugh at McCoy’s jab about ‘throwing a party’ if Spock left the ship.
Spock’s exhausted laughter in that scene reminded me of a similarly traumatized Spock’s post-V’ger mind-meld laugh in sickbay from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) (“I should’ve known…”).
They have many other such moments during the film, including Spock’s getting rescued by the USS Franklin’s transporter ahead of McCoy (“Typical,” grumbles Bones). We also see them serving together aboard one of the alien swarm ships together twice; once during the evacuation of the Enterprise, and later in an attack on the swarm itself. Maybe it wasn’t the best use of McCoy to have him be the expert to fly a swarm ship (he’s a doctor, not a kamikaze pilot), but then again, it’s no worse than McCoy ‘performing surgery on a torpedo’ in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), so there’s that.
Any excuse (however illogical) to get these characters together is fine with me. I love the Spock/McCoy moments, and STB is loaded with them. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban certainly rise to the challenge, as both are terrific.
* The movie mourns the passing of a legend and the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in one elegant move.
Rather than trying to work the real-life passing of Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015) into the plot somehow, STB wisely opts for a poignant moment of reflection instead.
Spock Prime was an essential part of this alternate reality (his very presence arguably aided in its creation). But rather than a doing a cliched montage or anything so maudlin, we have a pad readout silently indicating the character’s passing, and a quick moment near the end of the film when Quinto’s Spock goes through his alternate self’s personal effects. The death of his prime-self forces Spock to reexamine his decision to remain in Starfleet after the destruction of Vulcan in ST09.
After choosing to remain in Starfleet near the end of the film, Spock finds the backlit photo of Spock-Prime with the prime-shipmates from his universe (a publicity cast photo from 1989’s “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”). It was a quiet celebration both of the life of Leonard Nimoy, as well as the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and its charismatic cadre of characters. While a part of me wanted a splashier celebration of ST’s 50th anniversary, another part of me appreciated the more poignant approach instead.
It’s a quiet champagne toast instead of an all-night party.
* Starbase Yorktown.
I love the idea of a faraway, high-tech starbase on the edge of ‘the frontier.’ The starbase itself is beautifully rendered, with actual location shooting in Dubai for the surface scenes of the artificial, self-contained space station/planetoid. As the movie wisely gets the action away from Earth (as opposed to the previous two movies), Starbase Yorktown represents the United Federation of Planets in a nutshell (or a ‘snow globe’ as McCoy calls it).
We see many diverse aliens living within this technological utopia on the edge of the unknown (a nearby nebula that hides a dangerous secret), and despite the danger, the inhabitants live their lives harmoniously and cooperatively. Even after the base is attacked in the climax, we get the impression in the coda that life will indeed go on within Yorktown, much as it goes on within Star Trek’s optimistic future. STB’s message (much like TOS Star Trek) is that despite any dangerous obstacles we’ll face in the future? Those best aspects of a united humanity will ultimately prevail. Diversity and unity winning over tribalism and aggression; a lesson now timely right now than even two years ago.
Starbase Yorktown was a glorious splash of desperately needed future-chic optimism in a franchise that seemed to be running dangerously low on it.
* The USS Enterprise docking at Starbase Yorktown.
It’s a fleeting moment, but damn, it makes for some gorgeous ship porn.
Which makes the next favorite moment all the more heartbreaking…
* The destruction of the Enterprise.
To those that hated the redesign? Well, you got your wish. The ship is cut to pieces by swarm ships in a surprise attack on a ‘rescue mission.’
Though we barely got to know this Enterprise, the sight of the crew rushing desperately to their emergency “Kelvin pods” (nice callback to the disastrous Kelvin incident that created this timeline) and then watching helplessly as their starship home is ripped to shreds is potent.
It’s a painfully slow death, as the ship’s separated primary hull crash-lands on the planet Altamid; it’s an homage to the loss of the Enterprises in both “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984) and “Star Trek: Generations” (1994). Others may hate this version of the ship, but I was warming up to her (except for that damn brewery engine room), so her destruction was sad to see.
The middle act of the film also highlights how this crew (or family) still works together towards common purpose even without their beloved starship. In this way, STB’s story structure is also similar to “Star Trek III” as well (STIII is an underrated movie, in my opinion).
* New character “Jaylah” (Sofia Boutella).
After seeing the movie and comparing notes, a friend of mine jokingly told me that Jaylah is who she wants to be when she grows up. She is a terrific character, and in my opinion the best new female Star Trek movie character since Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley/Robin Curtis). Tough, scrappy, vulnerable, well-acted and topped off with a beautiful makeup job by Oscar winner Joel Harlow. Her use of the lost Federation starship USS Franklin as her ‘house’ reminded me of Star Wars’ Rey living in a hollowed-out AT-AT walker in “The Force Awakens.” Her appreciation of ‘classical’ rock music (“I like the beats and shouting”) was both cute and in keeping with her rebellious nature.
Sofia Boutella plays her just right (I can only imagine how she must’ve aced that audition) and her accent adds a nice touch of exotique to the character. Jaylah’s mad skills as a technological tinkerer makes her a natural partner with the more straight-laced “Montgomery Scotty” (Simon Pegg), whom she bonds with in a fraternal way. If there is a sequel, I sincerely hope that Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah plays a part in it.
* The lost starship USS Franklin.
A ship whose 22nd century design brings to mind the NX-01 of the prequel series, “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005). It’s a nice in-joke that she’s named after director Justin Lin’s dad, but audiences could just as easily assume that she’s named after American ‘founding father’ Benjamin Franklin (or some as-yet-unknown future space pioneer named Franklin, for that matter).
The ship’s cruder interior layout subliminally recalls the more simplistic production design of TOS Star Trek and “Enterprise” without being overt about it.
I also appreciated that she was lost in what is described as “the Gagarin radiation belt”, which vaguely recalls the ‘galactic barrier’ of TOS’ “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (the second pilot of the original series).
Scotty mentions some of the old legends about the Franklin’s fate, including one about a ‘giant green space hand’ (a witty nod to TOS’ “Who Mourns For Adonais?”). The rescued Enterprise crewmen using the repaired wreck of the Franklin as a means of escape from Altamid is a thrilling moment, as the ship has to gain momentum for reaching critical velocity by going over a steep cliff (!).
It also leads to this humorous little Kirk and Sulu moment:
* The Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage” serves a dual purpose.
It’s both a nice callback to Kirk’s moment of childhood rebellion in ST09 (driving his uncle’s Corvette over the cliff), and a nice way to sap the hostile alien swarm ships of their mojo; death by rock ’n roll. Usually I’m not a big fan of adding contemporary pop songs to science fiction movies for their own sake, but the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” adds a nice auditory punchline to Kirk and the crew kicking the swarm ships in their collective asses. It feels earned. There’s also a funny bit where McCoy, hearing the song playing over his commandeered swarm ship’s comm system, asks Spock, “Is that classical music?” To which Spock replies, “I believe so.”
Nice to see that jazz and Mozart aren’t the only music that survives to the future of Star Trek. To quote Kirk, “Good choice.”
* Kirk’s birthday celebration.
A subtle nod to “The Wrath of Khan” without resorting to the cut-and-paste clumsiness of STID’s cobbled-together mess of a script. Referenced early on in a scene between Kirk and McCoy aboard the Enterprise, and later bookending the film with all of the characters (including newcomer Jaylah) attending a surprise birthday party for Kirk at Starbase Yorktown. It’s also a means for the Star Trek franchise to celebrate its own birthday without being too on-the-nose.
Also nice to see the crew out of their regulation duds and letting their hair down a bit. The party scene also reinforces that ‘family’ feeling of this crew that was largely missing from the previous two ST movies.
* A subtle, if very late, acknowledgment of Star Trek’s many LGBTQ fans.
STB was (and it’s hard to believe it took so long) the first studio-made Star Trek to show an openly gay character in a committed relationship. In this case, it’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and his husband Ben (played by screenwriter Doug Jung), with their young daughter. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, when Sulu is reunited with his family at Starbase Yorktown, but it’s there. And it’s significant.
Until “Star Trek Discovery” finally showed openly gay characters serving in Starfleet, this was an area where Star Trek franchise had been far behind most of contemporary pop culture. It was downright embarrassing for a series that used to pave the way for social progressiveness to be so behind-the-times when it came to openly showing or even acknowledging the diversity of human sexuality as well. Yes, there had been a few attempts at analogy/metaphor for the subject in later Trek series (TNG’s “The Outcast”, DS9’s “Rejoined” etc), but none of the series or movies showed any openly LGBTQ crewmen living aboard the Enterprise… or anywhere in the Trek universe, for that matter.
George Takei (the now-openly gay actor who originated the Sulu character) was reportedly not pleased with STB’s decision to show Sulu as gay, since he’d said that he’d deliberately played the character as straight in his version.
But who’s to say that love has to be so binary? Maybe Sulu was bisexual (or pansexual) for his entire life, and just didn’t realize it till he met the right person. Several people in my own circle of friends have lived much of their lives ‘one way’ till they found that special other as well. It’s not unusual (to quote crooner Tom Jones) and it’s not wrong, either; it simply is. I was frankly a bit surprised by Takei’s reaction (as were STB’s producers/writers), since the move to play this version of Sulu as gay was clearly an attempt to acknowledge Takei’s own tireless work on behalf of LGBTQ causes and politics. Takei was most effective in my own state at overturning Proposition 8; an outside state-financed attempt to ban gay marriage in California when it’d been previously legalized. It’s a shame Takei didn’t recognize the tribute as such. At any rate, I am a great fan of George Takei, and admire his work as actor, satirist, playwright, and activist.
* The new uniforms.
I like ‘em. The higher collars add a touch of dignity to the primary design of the TOS uniform. The overall look is a simple, sleek return to the basics.
* Once again, some gorgeous alien make-ups by Oscar winner Joel Harlow and his crew.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Harlow on two occasions; once in Las Vegas last summer and earlier this year at the IMATS makeup convention in Pasadena. I bought his new book on the Star Trek makeups (“Star Trek Beyond: The Makeup of Joel Harlow), and was able to get a better look at those beautiful makeup jobs that flashed by far too quickly on the big screen.
Harlow’s own step-daughter Ashley Edner played the shellfish-headed alien “Natalia” (seen with Chekov at Kirk’s birthday party).
* The new USS Enterprise 1701-A (the alternate timeline’s A).
Yes, it’s a borrowed ending from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), but dammit, it still works. While I nitpick on some of the newer ship’s details (those thick pylon supports…ugh), it makes for a happier 50th anniversary ending befitting a somewhat more optimistic Bad Robot Trek movie.
* Dedications to both Leonard Nimoy (1931) and Anton Yelchin (1989-2016).
Leonard Nimoy’s loss was a profound blow to me, as he was a childhood idol of mine. Anton Yelchin left us so tragically young. Each have a dedication in the movie’s closing credits. Fitting.
While I enjoyed STB, it is far from a perfect Star Trek film. In fact, I have some really big issues with it. They’re not quite the same caliber of spirit-crushing issues I had with STID, but they’re still issues nevertheless.
Things I didn’t like about “Star Trek Beyond”:
* Yet another vengeful villain; Captain Balthazar Edison/Krall (Idris Elba).
Once again, an amazing actor whom I admire very much, Idris Elba, is used less-than-ideally in this film. I first became aware of him in the 1998 vampire miniseries “Ultraviolet” and have followed him in movies/TV shows ever since. The backstory of his character is certainly interesting; a resentful, stranded starship captain finds a means to prolong his lifespan, but sacrifices his humanity in the process. In fact, Edison/Krall’s story is very reminiscent of the deranged “Captain Garth of Izar” (“Lord Garth!”) in TOS’ “Whom Gods Destroy.” But the execution is a bit lackluster, and once again, Edison’s story devolves into another ‘madman-with-superweapon-seeks-revenge’ story. Ugh. This tired Trek trope had become a cliche even before the Bad Robot team took over the Star Trek movies (Khan, Kruge, Soran, Shinzon, etc). In three Bad Robot Trek movies, that is literally the only type of villainy we’ve seen. First, there was the ‘particularly troubled’ Romulan Nero seeking revenge for the destruction of Romulus, then there was “Khan/John Harrison” seeking revenge against Starfleet’s Section 31 for forcing him into servitude while keeping his people hostage, and now… this.
Idris Elba’s Edison/Krall is certainly well acted. Edison’s best scenes are from an old ship’s video log, which chronicles the starship captain’s decaying mental state as he begins to realize that he and his shipmates have been left for dead on the surface of the planet Altamid. He has been abandoned, after a lifetime of service as a MACO (Starfleet’s version of a marine corps) and finally as captain of the first warp four vessel, the USS Franklin. This is supposed to be Edison’s motivation in a nutshell, but it just doesn’t feel like enough to justify his actions later in the film.
What’s also never made clear is exactly how Captain Edison seems to ‘forget’ his human origins in one century. Granted, he absorbed all kinds of foreign DNA in his efforts to artificially prolong the lifespans of he and his crew (via alien tech), but it just seems unlikely that he’d also be speaking an alien language as well (?). I don’t think acquiring new physical genetic traits would alter memory quite like that, but then again, I could be wrong. It’s just not made clear in the story exactly how any of this happened.
It’s also never explained why he never attempted to contact Starfleet himself, when it’s clear that he was able to monitor them for years while planning his attack on Starbase Yorktown. He was even able to snoop through Kirk’s logs about the missing piece of the alien superweapon he was trying to acquire. Wouldn’t the rescue of he and his stranded Franklin crew be of primary importance to him, even if he were bitter and resentful? He could’ve just as easily reached out and said, “Hey! We’re here, and we’re still alive!” Just saying…
* Kirk’s sudden wish to retire after only three years into the five-year mission (?).
This was the most puzzling nitpick of mine. Captain Kirk, the man who’d do damn near anything to get command of a starship (even practically stealing the Enterprise away from Captain Decker in TMP), suddenly wants to quit because things are getting too “episodic”? Since when? This just doesn’t feel like the same James T. Kirk we’ve seen in either the prime universe or the Kelvin timeline. It just seems out of character, and shoehorned into the story only for the purpose of giving the captain some added (unnecessary) melancholy.
On the plus side, the scenes of his command indecisiveness include a cameo from “The Expanse”’s Shohreh Aghdashloo as “Commodore Paris” (possibly an ancestor of “Star Trek: Voyager”’s Tom Paris?). Since becoming a fan of “The Expanse” after I first saw STB, I appreciate her cameo far more now than I did then.
* The on-again/off-again/on-again romance between Uhura and Spock.
I actually enjoyed the Spock/Uhura romance in ST09, but I was somewhat turned off by their sitcom-level bickering in STID. Early on in STB, we see the Enterprise docking at Starbase Yorktown and Uhura immediately breaks up with Spock. This comes out of nowhere, and is never fully explained. Later on, after he rescues her they’re an item again. But is it only because he rescued her? I don’t mean to sound unromantic, but Spock would go out of his way to rescue any fellow member of the Enterprise crew. That Uhura wore a necklace that made it easier to locate certainly helped (McCoy gets a killer-funny line, “You gave your girlfriend radioactive jewelry?”), but I would argue that Spock’s motivation would be the same.
At any rate, I like the “Spockura” (or “Uhurock”?) pairing in principle, though I just wish that it were better written, or at least given a stronger bond somehow.
Summing it up.
“Star Trek Beyond” is an fun, enjoyable, admittedly flawed 50th anniversary gift to Star Trek. While making a few of the same mistakes as the previous two Bad Robot movies (vengeance-seeking villains with superweapons), it also has more of the original series’ optimism and a lot more of its heart as well.
This was the first Bad Robot Star Trek movie where the crew really began to feel like a family for the first time. In my personal head canon, I wish that this movie were the second Bad Robot Trek film instead of the third, as it makes “Star Trek Into Darkness” feel even more redundant and useless.
I’ve heard rumors of a fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie in the works. Rumor has it that Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction” “Jackie Brown”) is working on the screenplay. He’s an atypical choice if the rumor is true. I love his earlier films, but I don’t quite see him as a good fit for a Star Trek movie (though he is a Trek fan). Then again, I felt similarly towards Justin Lin, and I gladly ate my words with a slice of humble pie later on. Being a Trekkie, I’m an eternal optimist (or sadist, depending on whether others enjoy these movies as much I do) so I’m always open for another.
If a hypothetical next Trek movie is as entertaining as “Star Trek Beyond”? I’d certainly beam on down to my local cinema to see it.