Friday, July 29, 2016
Star Trek Beyond: Deep in Space, a Crew Bands Together
Star Trek Beyond—directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, taking the reins from J.J. Abrams (who has since migrated to a different galaxy)—doesn't entirely solve this paradox, but it does thread the needle about as well as a big-budget three-quel can. Light and lively, with a refreshing focus on character and a blessed scarcity of mind-numbing spectacle, it's a satisfying continuation, one that cannily plays up the franchise's strengths (interpersonal dynamics, cheeky comedy) while minimizing its weaknesses (lack of stakes, weightless space battles). It may be just another episode in the adventures of the Enterprise crew, but it's a damn good episode.
Oddly enough, it starts out bumpy. (In an era where most franchise fare hooks viewers early only to lumber toward a clanging finish, Beyond inverts the formula; it actually gets better as it goes along.) After a pointless prologue that exists for no reason other than to serve up a (very funny) sight gag, Beyond finds Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine, comfortable) and the gang on a perilous reconnaissance mission in the deep-space nebula. Or something like that. The details don't much matter, not once the Enterprise is attacked by a throng of tiny vessels that, in one of the movie's best images, swarm Kirk's mother ship like an angry horde. These insect-like ships are doing the bidding of a seething malcontent named Krall, though he may as well be called The Poor Sap Following Benedict Cumberbatch.
Into Darkness, Cumberbatch gave a deliciously malevolent performance, one dripping in remorseless intellect and haughty disdain. It's inevitable that Beyond's bad guy fails to measure up, but the downgrade here is alarmingly steep. Krall's blandness is less the fault of the actor playing him (Idris Elba, buried under layers of alien makeup) than of screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, who fail to give their glowering heavy any dimension. (Making matters worse is that Krall's pet move, in which he absorbs the life force of his captives, recalls the vampiric tactics of En Sabah Nur, Oscar Isaac's limp baddie from the recent X-Men: Apocalypse). In any event, Krall is searching for an artifact in Kirk's possession called the Abronath—a MacGuffin that will allow him to murder a lot of people—hence his army's aforementioned onslaught.
Krall's cardboard-cutout excuse for a character is disappointing, but the real problem with Beyond's opening act is the assault on the Enterprise itself. Lin's Fast & Furious movies aren't my thing, but in them he displayed a knack for playfulness, fusing gearhead machismo with giddily absurd CGI stunts. Here, the early action scenes are far too dark, and I mean that literally; it's often difficult to perceive the shape of the sets and the movements of the actors. (I should note that I saw Beyond in 2-D; I shudder to think of the deleterious effect that 3-D glasses and their attendant dimming would have on the picture.) Characters hide in hallways and dart from room to room, but Lin fails to properly telegraph their actions. When we should be holding our breath and thinking, "What's going to happen?" we're instead left squinting and asking ourselves, "What's happening?"
dammit man, he's good), the ship's beleaguered doctor who's as quick with a quip as a stitch. Finally, there's Scotty (Pegg, doing his comic-relief thing) and Jaylah. Who the heck is Jaylah? Only the Star Trek universe's best new character. Played with pep by Sofia Boutella (the blade-footed henchwoman from Kingsman), she's a silver-haired warrior with fast fists, a sharp tongue, and a fondness for American pop music.
At one point, defying Krall's nihilism, Uhura insists, "There is strength in unity." Yeah, yeah, whatever. Except, there's something oddly touching about the spirit of camaraderie that binds the Enterprise crew, something that transcends trite platitudes. That's because, rather than just having his characters announce the movie's themes before making things go ka-blam, Lin deftly weaves those themes into the larger narrative. There's an extended sequence in which the crew attempt to resuscitate a derelict ship, and while they may be spouting pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, there's a sense of true collaboration that's exciting to witness. (This unified approach to problem-solving is what animated Ridley Scott's The Martian.)
Of course, these kinetic displays of cinematic flair are subject to limited stakes; we know that the studio will never allow a major character to die and thereby rob it of potential profits. Hell, we even know how the movie will end, because all Star Trek movies end the same way: with someone reciting Gene Roddenberry's famous mission statement for the Enterprise, which is destined to boldly go where no one has gone before. Yet even here, Star Trek Beyond demonstrates its capacity to thrive within its commercial restrictions. Rather than assigning the closing lines to a single character, Lin spreads the voiceover across his cast, an obvious but surprisingly poignant gesture that taps into the film's heartfelt belief in solidarity. They may just be space nerds searching for aliens, and they may just be cogs in a relentless Hollywood machine. But dammit man, they're in it together.