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Friday, July 22, 2016

Movie Review: #StarTrekBeyond

Star Trek Beyond deftly warps us to the final frontier.

Review by Matt Cummings

Just over one year ago, the Star Trek film franchise was in big trouble. Having endured deserved criticism for 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, fans learned that significant changes were happening behind the camera, as Robert Orci was unceremoniously dropped from the upcoming sequel. Fans worried that the 50th Anniversary of the franchise could be marred in mediocrity (see James Bond's SPECTRE), as word soon arrived that Paramount desired to make something "less Star Trek-y." Fortunately, Star Trek Beyond should alleviate most people's worries, as it deftly packages many classic Trek themes into an agreeable space adventure.

Three-plus years into their five-year mission, the crew of the USS Enterprise boldly explores the final frontier, while their Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) secretly harbors personal doubt. His approaching birthday will see him live longer than his father (who died aboard the USS Kelvin in the 2009 reboot), and thus Kirk is entertaining a promotion and desk job at the Yorktown space station. His science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also wondering if his future lies in helping to repopulate New Vulcan. But when The Enterprise is viciously destroyed by the powerful new enemy Krall (Idris Elba), the crew is scattered on a distant planet and must band together with the alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to defeat a threat greater than any they've faced before.

Star Trek Beyond skips the mistakes made by Into Darkness by focusing on what's made the franchise so memorable. Themes of friendship, loyalty, and unity still pervade the script by Simon Pegg (Chief Engineering Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung, but without the ho-hum fake-outs that plagued Into Darkness. Director Justin Lin also seems to get these characters, pitting them against the universe by blowing up the world around them to see how they react. He also keeps the story moving, again a credit to Pegg and Jung. Lin also grants us some beautifully-shot moments of The Enterprise, from a 'Warp Wave' seen in the trailers to incredible CGI of the ship's destruction and the spherical starbase Yorktown.

But it's also the performances of the core cast that are so rewarding: from Pine's troubled Kirk to Quinto's and Karl Urban's (Dr. Leonard McCoy) absolute command of their characters, we immediately reap rewards from the moment this one begins. There, Kirk is merely going through the paces, so set on being his father without really knowing who James Kirk is. As he and Bones exchange a great moment over liquor, we definitely feel them tapping into the heart of what's become known as The Original Series. It's not overly dramatic, but a real moment of reflection that might seem very familiar to two old friends. It's gold each time Spock and Bones open their mouths, from genuinely emotional exchanges about death to McCoy's quips as Spock tries to understand the human condition. But when the shooting starts, things move into high gear, as Quinto and Urban spend large sequences stranded together, attempting to make their way to Kirk.

A lot of Star Trek Beyond features these sorts of pair-offs, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) 'educating' Krall about the Federation's peaceful motives, and Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) learning about Jayla's secret base. Even Sulu (John Cho) has a very important moment here that powers him throughout the film by announcing his sexual preference. Given that the original Sulu (George Takei) is also gay, the moment feels entirely right and completely classy, proving that the Federation is truly inclusive, a realization that all human beings in our current time must understand. Boutella breathes new life into this universe as Jaylah, giving her and Scotty funny and poignant moments as she plots her revenge against Krall. I wasn't impressed with her depiction in the trailers, but in the film as a whole her performance is very soild.

If there's any issue to Beyond, it's that of its villain. Elba is quite good, but his reveal which no one saw coming in our test audience feels a tad manufactured. Because he's looking for an ancient bio-weapon that's sure to bring death to the Federation, Krall will stop at nothing to find it, which just happens to fall into his lap when he attacks the Enterprise. Sure, the way he traps the crew is interesting but the reason why he imprisons the crew isn't completely thought out. Elba is certainly not a hindrance here, but it's hard to award him a winner's badge beyond his sinister stance and voice-aided Darth Vader-ness. One more gripe: I really dislike how the Enterprise has become a punching bag throughout the JJ Abrams universe. In literally every film, the ship is smashed, pummeled, and eventually destroyed in some form, as if doing so makes its death each time all the more powerful. When the ship was first destroyed back in 1983's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, it nearly made national headlines. Keep doing that, and audiences will fail to appreciate its importance to Trek lore.

Overall, those issues are minor (perhaps another viewing will shore up my concerns), because Lin and the writing team treat this 50th Anniversary like a fine Romulan Ale. There's a touching moment as New Spock learns of Spock Prime's death, later pouring through his personal effects. Here, the two worlds of Star Trek intersect once again, making me wonder when Paramount will green-light a time travel sequel to right the wrongs committed by Nero in the 2009 reboot. Luckily, Yelchin's scenes were completed before his untimely death, but Lin certainly pays him tribute as the credits roll. Composer Michael Giacchino's score doesn't do much here, and is actually bereft of his amazing new theme for the franchise. In fact, there's no opening credits here at all.

While 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the undisputed powerhouse of the films, Star Trek Beyond makes a strong entry into my list. It's filled with the most levity and the most action of (perhaps) the entire series, but it balances that with excellent storytelling, interesting new characters, and a sense that our beloved crew is maturing right in front of us. If Star Trek prides itself on humans exploring the final frontier (and the world within ourselves), then count Beyond as a success at warp speed.

Star Trek Beyond is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence and has a runtime of 122 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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