Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

In hindsight, I should have had more faith in Justin Lin. He did, after all, direct three of the best episodes from Community's first season. If you don't think that's a sufficient litmus test for Trek, you haven't seen enough Community.

Of course, he's better known as the guy who directed half of The Fast and The Furious franchise, but I've yet to see any of those. I've heard there's a lot of relationship building and cooperation. If so, it was a good call.

Because that's what makes this movie such a success. I like the first two installments of the new Trek series, but they were extremely focused on Kirk and Spock. The other characters got cameos and moments to shine, but structurally they were closer to buddy cop movies than anything with a team dynamic.

This one shuffles the deck, putting the entire bridge crew in play and letting them team up in interesting configurations. One of my biggest complaints of the first two films was that McCoy, one of the three most significant characters of the original series, had been almost completely sidelined. This oversight is finally corrected - he's paired up with Spock this time, who actually may have drawn the short straw in Beyond. Spock's still given some great lines and moments, but this definitely wasn't his movie. He's a member of the crew, not the co-star, which buys them time to let everyone else prove their worth, both on their own and as part of a whole.

If, like me, you've been wanting to see Uhura be more effective, you're going to pretty happy with her scenes. Same goes for Sulu, who has some great moments. And there's no surprise that Scotty gets some screen time: he co-wrote the movie, after all. They also bring in a great new character in Jayla, who I suspect will be appearing in future installments, as well as a fascinating one-off villain in Krall.

You've likely heard Beyond is more evocative of the original show than its predecessors. I'd describe that as partially true. My assumption is that's based on the movie's emphasis on teamwork, which is built into the core of Beyond. There's a bit of social commentary, but I'd argue that Into Darkness's message about drone warfare and militarization checked that box more fervently (whether or not that was a good thing is a separate issue).

Along with its focus on teamwork, Beyond also brings Starfleet closer to the one we know from the old days: the bleak, vaguely dystopian elements have been scrubbed away, returning us to a brighter tomorrow.

Visually, though, it's almost more reminiscent of the Next Gen movies. I suspect I'm not alone in cringing a bit at the trailers because of those associations. But this didn't turn out to be a bad thing - the brighter palette gave the cast and crew a chance to have fun, an element Into Darkness could have used a little more of.

None of this is to say that Beyond was all sunshine and roses. The body count climbs through the roof, and there's plenty of suspense, along with the humor and action. One of my few complaints is actually in this area: there were one or two more deaths than I'd have liked. A couple bit parts with more potential were snuffed out before their time - I suspect you'll know what I mean when you see the movie.

There were some other elements that could have used some work. Lin's proven his ability to work with a small group, but he could use some work on armies. Both the Enterprise's crew and Krall's minions seem to swell and shrink in size in bizarre ways. By my rough estimate, Krall must have tens of thousands at his command in space, but they just kind of vanish when the action moves planet-side. Are they all just hanging out inside their fighters for that time?

In addition, he's not quite on par with Abrams when it comes to setting up grand shots in space. But then Abrams could take lessons from Lin when it comes to capturing character dynamics, and that's more important in Trek, anyway.

I went into this deeply skeptical the franchise would be able to continue past this movie. After all, it was launched as sort of a Star Trek/Wars hybrid, only to see its auteur pulled away to create the Star Wars movie he wanted to make in the first place. But between an inspired script, excellent direction, and great acting, I'm cautiously optimistic this might pull in the fans it needs to continue its mission.

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