(For general information on my movie rating system, especially regarding adaptations, click here.)
THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE
J.J. Abrams and company have a real hard time delivering the goods. Picking up the goods? Yeah—they can really pick ’em up with style and pizazz and show them off and model them and sample them and get you all excited to buy the goods. But actually delivering them? All too often J.J. & Co. are like the service technician you are waiting for… interminably. A few cases in point:
- Alias: super-sexy spy show with an intriguing mystery surrounding the wicked legacy of a Renaissance-era madman. What happens? After five seasons, the show is formulaic to the point of absurdity, and the audience ultimately gains no real insight into the once-interesting back-story.
- Lost: super-intriguing drama/mystery about a passenger-plane crashed onto an uncharted island that is rife with supernatural occurrences and deep, philosophical inquiry into the nature of being, time, and fate. What happens? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s a David Lynch film stretched over six seasons. By the end, the audience knows less about the mystery than when the series began, and those viewers who haven’t already abandoned the show some are given the most unsatisfying television ending since Quantum Leap.
- Star Trek Into Darkness: After a really impressive debut with the 2009 reboot, the sophomore follow-up is little more than a hyped-up version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
- Star Wars: Episode VII: little more than a hyped-up version of Star Wars: Episode IV.
J.J. & Co. are the county-fair salesmen. They sell a tonic that promises to cure all diseases, and if you sit in for their pitch, you’ll actually believe them; that’s how good they are. But once you buy the tonic and get it home, you learn that it’s just sugar-water. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s actually kind of flavorful and sweet. But it’s not magic elixir, either. In this vein, they have now sold us Star Trek Beyond.
THINGS THAT DISTRACTED ME
- Cheap tricks. I bet you didn’t know that in the 24th Century, “classical” music will include such concertos as “Fight the Power” by those acolytes of Godwin, Public Enemy, as well as “Sabotage” in G Minor, by the Baroque-era Beastie Boys. That’s right. Now it isn’t the first time that a Star Trek film has used music contemporary to the audience. First Contact featured Steppenwolf‘s “Magic Carpet Ride,” to cite one example. It can be a harmless bit of comedic relief, but in the case of Beyond, “Sabotage” gets incorporated into a scene involving critical conflict resolution. Moreover, not only does the song corrupt the tone of the scene, but the resolution itself is but one of many examples of deus ex machina throughout the film. All in all, instead of following through with the natural and catastrophic consequences of the established conflicts, and instead of aiming for the profound emotional impact an epic space opera can potentially offer, the writers resorted to gimmicks and easy-fixes to purchase the crowd’s excitement. This is what I mean by “cheap tricks.” I’m surprised they didn’t just go ahead and feature Cheap Trick.
- Uninspiring Plot. In keeping with the cheap tricks and complete lack of risk-taking, the plot of Beyond was predictable and did not feel much different than the standard “alien-of-
the-week” format of the original series. (There was even a reference to the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais”). This “safe” approach to script-writing is disappointing on two counts. First, we’re left asking, “why?” …Why introduce a new alien-of-the-week for a quick, episodic plot, when we already have plenty of untold story? The Klingons were introduced in Darkness—that was exciting. Where are they now? Exactly when is the audience finally going to see the epic telling of the great war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire? Maybe this is just a personal wish, so let me address the second count. It used to be a big deal to have “the motion picture” version of something. It was an experience, and it was something that you couldn’t get or wished you’d had in the source material. The writers didn’t hold back. They wrote scripts that transformed the setting and the characters in profound and irreversible ways. They weren’t satisfied with simply appeasing the sponsors for one more installment and getting renewed in the fall. They wanted to impress the audience. In short, movies were powerful and grandiose. These days, special effects are so easy to come by for the movie studios that it’s more important than ever for the writing to carry the film. Unfortunately, it seems that too many films, including this one, are content with “adequate.” (And then two years later, they reject their own work and “reboot” it.)
- As an added insult, the screening leads off with a PSA from co-writer Simon Pegg, who last year alienated his entire fan base and all of geekdom with some rather thoughtless remarks (later apologized for). Now he’s thanking audiences for coming to see the film in the cinema—evidently the setting and format by which great films were meant to be experienced. Well, Mr. Pegg, I thank you for thanking me, and I suspect revenue from cinemas is indeed taking a big hit in recent years, but if movie studios continue to churn out mediocre productions, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to keep pace with the rampant inflation of ticket and concession prices.
- Emotionally Void. The end-product of everything I’ve stated so far is the ultimate weakness of Beyond, and is, in fact, the quality that kills any work of fiction. There is little or no emotional investment in the characters. Even three films in, the lead actors, with the possible exception of Chris Pines, continue to feel more like caricatures than characters. They are “playing Star Trek,” and it feels just as forced as the Star Wars prequel cast. The worst part about this is that there was a time when Abrams seemed to understand and respect that it was the character interaction, especially between Kirk and Spock, that actually made a Star Trek film authentic:
In an interview, Abrams said that he had never seen Star Trek: Nemesis because he felt the franchise had “disconnected” from the original series. For him, he said, Star Trek was about Kirk and Spock, and the other series were like “separate space adventure[s] with the name Star Trek”.
~~~From Wikipedia, citing a 2006 interview from Empire magazine.
Now it would seem J.J. & Co. are just as disconnected from this concept. Perhaps the movie should have been titled “Beyond Star Trek.” As for the villain, Krall, I figured out his back-story about half-way through and well in advance of what was supposed to be the “big reveal.” I’m sure it was all very sad and everything, but I just didn’t care. Ricardo Montalbán as Khan: THAT was a revenge story, and that was a character you could sympathize with. By contrast, Krall is a character that did not deserve Idris Elba’s chops.
THINGS THAT ABSORBED ME
- Stands on its own (mostly). Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek had the difficult task of distancing itself from the original canon without also alienating or completely rejecting that canon or the fans. To the surprise of many, J.J. & Co. succeeded in that. Although there was overlap with the original universe, it was necessary and essential to the plot. By contrast, in 2013’s Into Darkness, the team failed in that they didn’t even try to move away from the original universe and tell a new story. Not only was Leonard Nimoy’s Spock still needlessly injected into the plot, but the plot itself wasn’t much more than a “re-imagining” of Wrath of Khan. Now, with Beyond, the writing has finally left the nest and attempted to tell a story that is completely divorced from the happenings of the original canon. A few references to “the other side” still remain, both in-universe and in a more meta- sense (including a rather hard-to-explain photograph of William Shatner and crew from the Khan set—why do the same people look so different in an alternate reality?). However, nothing so distracting that the movie doesn’t deserve credit for being a new story.
- Homage to the original series. The flip-side to my remarks above is that, in some ways, the nods to the original series are welcome. Alien-of-the-week format isn’t inherently bad. In fact, this is something that I praised in my write-up of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. The main difference was that V-Ger was a much deeper and more thought-provoking character than Krall. And I will say, for Beyond, that 20th Century rap was not the only music present. At least one disaster scene was scored with a piece that was heavy on the brass and highly reminiscent of the incidental music used in the original series for fight scenes and other action sequences. It wasn’t ham-fisted; it was actually well done and pleasing to hear. It added a bit of nostalgia and respect for the source material without using it as a crutch.
All in all, Star Trek Beyond is exactly how I described it in a Tweet, immediately afterwards:
Good. Not great.
There’s no argument that this film is a phenomenal action and visual extravaganza. The special effects are great; the humor is decent; the plot is the plot. It certainly is better than what I was expecting when J.J. & Co. first started touting Justin Lin as the new director, and the film trailers felt like rock-videos. I was certain we were about to see Fast & Furious in Space. Fortunately, Beyond is not a Fast & Furious installment. Unfortunately, it’s not really a Star Trek installment, either.
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