Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana
With the release of Star Trek Beyond, the latest instalment in the rebooted ‘Chris Pine’ timeline (though is it truly a reboot if the old cast still sort of exist in-universe?), we’re now three films and seven years in. No longer is this just a tacked-on addition to the franchise, but the main attraction where mainstream attention is concerned. Of course, there’s still the devoted core of Trekkies (myself and my dad included), but the majority of those who’ll pour into the cinema to watch Beyond are unlikely to have seen The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager (or Enterprise), or any of the related 10 films that came before the Star Trek in 2009. I doubt many are even aware that a new series, helpfully also titled just Star Trek, is on its way next year.
People often enjoy comparing and contrasting the two franchises with ‘Star’ in the name, Trek & Wars, but to me that feels like the big difference. Most people who went to see The Force Awakens hadn’t just seen Episodes 4, 5 and 6 (and the prequel trilogy as well) but were diehard fans. And the film itself echoed that – it was a proper Star Wars film, just upgraded in sensibilities and VFX to draw in the rare cinema-goer who wasn’t already sold.
But in contrast, the three new Star Trek films have got less Trek-y with every movie. They’ve all had echoes of the past, sure – the 2009 reboot couldn’t help but riff on its ancestry, Into Darkness just redid the Original Series episode ‘Space Seen’ and The Wrath of Khan, and Beyond is basically an extended version of a typical Next Generation standalone episode – but they’ve always been configured to appeal to mass audiences rather than actual fans.Beyond isn’t a bad film per se, it just feels a bit hollowed out. And there’s a reason for that. The original script as written by Roberto Orci (who was also slated to make his directorial debut on the film) alongside co-writers Patrick McKay and John D. Payne was snubbed for being, in the words of Simon Pegg, ‘too Star Trek-y’. Justin Lin replaced Orci in the director’s chair, while a new script (note: not a rewrite, but a blank slate) was penned by Pegg and Doug Jung, who were given 5 months to deliver in order to maintain the existing production schedule. Add in Pegg’s existing acting commitments to Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and of course Beyond itself as Scotty, and the rushed nature is obvious.
There’s certainly more charm to the film than in Into Darkness, though that perhaps owes more to the chemistry of the cast than the script, but the problems aren’t just that it doesn’t feel particularly like a Star Trek film, but also that there just isn’t a lot to it. Pegg noted that his task was to create a ‘Western, heist or thriller movie, and then populate it with Star Trek characters’, and as such, the plot feels somewhat unrelated to the characters who form a part of it. Early on, Kirk is told by Bones that after joining Starfleet to try and live up to his father (George), now he’s “wondering what it means to be Jim.” Yet this soul-searching concept never comes up again, and Kirk’s personality, like Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Bones, Scotty and everyone else in the Enterprise crew, remains the same as it was in 2009. In his case, that means being reckless, cocky and impulsive, but somehow getting away with it. It makes for decent by-the-books action sequences, but narratively it’s a non-starter. More importantly, there aren’t really any choices for him to have to make, but rather a series of unavoidable situations and decisions with only one actual option. There was solid character development in Star Trek (2009, that is), but since then, rather than continue to develop and take the characters away from their entrenched roles, the two sequels have dug in and just run in circles.The newcomers to the cast perform far better. Idris Elba’s villain, Krall, doesn’t appear much, and strikes the same note across the whole film, but his performance elevates the character by breathing some life into him. There’s a twist you’ll spot a mile off, but it still works well because of Elba. On the heroic side of things, Sofia Boutella shakes things up, in spite of her character’s existence being little more than a plot device.
Behind the camera, JJ Abram’s absence after directing the first two films is noticeable. On the plus, it means no more lens flare. There is some in Beyond, but nowhere near as much as if Abrams was in charge. Yet the trade-off in his replacement by Justin Lin is that we end up with fight sequences filmed with seemingly the express intention of disorientation. I’m someone who actually enjoys Paul Greengrass’ shaky cam affinity in the Bourne movies, but even for me, at times this was too much. It wasn’t that it was nauseating or anything like that, but simply that it was hard to establish the actual action in any one hand-to-hand fight, beyond it’s mere existence as a conflict. Like I said, perhaps that was the point, to avoid the need for complex fight choreography while still portraying the characters as skilled fighters, but just seeing the camera focus on someone’s back for a few seconds mid-fight can’t be right.
All in all, it doesn’t take Into Darkness’ wooden spoon for worst Trek film ever (it’s probably better than The Final Frontier too, let’s be honest), but all the same, Star Trek Beyond doesn’t come close to challenging the upper echelons of the franchise. There isn’t really a single element that lets the film down, but rather that no element truly elevates it, and, encumbered by indecision in production, Beyond ends up a rather middling affair.