Friday, July 22, 2016

Beyond Reproach?

It's "lucky thirteen" for Star Trek movies this weekend as Star Trek Beyond, the third film of the rebooted franchise, warps into theaters. I went in hoping that I'd modulated my expectations correctly; man did that first trailer look terrible, but I certainly didn't want to hate it.

For the most part, the movie is successful. Bringing in Justin Lin, director of four Fast and Furious movies, did not suddenly wrench Star Trek in a wildly inappropriate direction. It simply meant that the you got some rock solid action sequences that were well executed and fun to watch. And the script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, did a good job making the action flow organically, not too tacked on just to jolt the audience.

This film also does a great job of taking its substantial budget and showing it all on the screen. There are some truly spectacular visuals, from epic space battles to the most plausibly alien planet I think the Star Trek franchise has probably ever had. It's a visual treat.

The "core three" characters -- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- are in all in top form. They get their hero moments, and their personalities are all dialed in perfectly. (This is something the reboots have always shined at, the sense that the movies are doing right by the classic characters.) In particular, the banter between Spock and McCoy this time out is a real pleasure to watch, and goes deeper at times than just good laughs.

As you'd expect in a script written by Simon Pegg, Scotty gets a good role this time out too. He has more to do, including plenty of interaction with the movie's best new character, a badass alien survivalist named Jaylah (performed solidly by guest star Sofia Boutella). Another place you feel the contribution of Pegg is in the movie's sillier moments. This one feels lighter overall than probably any Trek movie since number 4, The Voyage Home (the whale movie). And in most cases, that lightness works.

But there are a few missteps. There are two or three major moments in the plot that are direct re-treads of things we've seen in earlier Star Trek films -- and not even just from the earlier films, but sometimes from the rebooted installments. The big Act One Moment, in particular, has been seen twice before in Trek movies, an apparently go-to method for stirring the audience's feelings. Because of that "been there, done that" feeling, combined with the simple fact that we haven't spent the time with this incarnation of Trek that we did with the original crew or The Next Generation, it just doesn't hit you anywhere near as hard as the movie seems to think it will.

And fun though it is, the movie has a pretty jarring optics problem in the second act. Keeping seven "main characters" (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov) all engaged in one two-hour story isn't an easy thing to do, so it's expected that some characters are going to sit on the sidelines to some extent. (I mean, did any of the Next Generation movies ever do anything interesting with Beverly Crusher?) But here, two of the characters are taken out of the action for at least half the film in a particularly marginalizing way. And which two characters is it? You'd better believe it's not the five straight white men. Uhura and Sulu -- not only the two racial minorities, but the woman and the gay man -- have to sit out the majority of this movie. It helps the overall picture a bit to have the aforementioned Jaylah in the mix, and that the villain Krall is played with relish by Idris Elba (albeit unrecognizable beneath some cool makeup). But really... I have to wag my finger at everyone on this.

(Side note: I didn't think it a spoiler to comment that Sulu is revealed as gay in this movie, as the fact has been widely reported in the last few weeks -- along with George Takei's reaction to it. I haven't posted about it myself, as I wanted to wait to see how it was handled in context. I'll probably have a separate post on that coming next week.)

Star Trek Beyond is a definite improvement over Star Trek Into Darkness. They took on a new story this time, thank goodness, and it was fun and entertaining. Still, this falls well short of the first reboot film. I'd put it near the back of the pack of "good Trek films," though well ahead of the pack of "bad Trek films." I'd call it a B... perhaps a B+ on a more charitable day.

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