Space folds into self as the Enterprise rides hyper waves in warp 5. Aboard the bridge a young and tired Captain Kirk muses on the repetitive nature of his own repeating narrative. If space is never ending and his job is to go where none have gone before, then isn’t his professional pursuit, by definition, never ending? The answer as it turns out is more complicated than a simple “no” and to decipher it the Enterprise must embark yet again on what seems to be one final mission — a desperate attempt to save not only a stranded starfleet crew isolated amongst the fog of an uncharted nebula but also Kirk himself.
Star Trek is a unique series because it takes time to ask those very questions. To not only explore the unknown but to wonder what the nature of that exploration means. Like many kids I grew up with both Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and like many families mine celebrated the constant moral and philosophical sophistry being presented on the screen. Half the fun of watching was thinking about the never ending possibilities of space not only in terms of the visuals – but also of the heart. To label Star Trek Beyond with that same name is like calling a 40oz of Miller’s High Life a quality drinking experience. It’s not, that’s how hobos drown their misery under a bridge.
For what it’s worth the film’s dramatic and introspective entrance is a valiant, if brief, attempt at recreating the bit of pixie dust that is William Shatner’s greatness. Beyond that everything “Star Trek” about the plot is jettisoned out the window, along with trekkie fandom’s high hopes and dreams. What takes its place is entertaining sure, but it lacks the series’ soul. The plot is as rinse and repeat as every other big budget action film. There is a “big” question followed by an unavoidable call to duty. There’s a call that leads Captain Kirk and his crew stranded in the grasp of an all-powerful unknown enemy that they are only able to narrowly avoid due to the last minute genius of a Vulcan inspired idea; Captain Kirk riding a motorcycle whilst being duplicated by a light refracting hologram machine. This is only one device in a long list throughout the running of Star Trek Beyond that somehow escapes all scientific explanation. One of the great hallmarks of the original series is its dedication to explaining what it uses on the screen. The original series sought to not only envision what technology might look like in a lunar age but to explain it and examine its inevitable effects on us all. And Beyond takes that legacy and drags it head first across the bathroom floor of a taco everyday buffet.
Every single piece of levity laden drama in this slow and churning sequel reeks of “been there done that.” It is the Star Trek film that cried wolf, I mean after two movies you would think that the new director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious) might give the audience something different. But instead the entire film is a masterbutory celebration of tired sci-fi tropes, shallow characters, and a plot so focused on Macguffins that it completely forgets to actually do anything interesting with them. The the entire plot literally rests on the back of a bio weapon that will supposedly kill everything in the universe. Except that it is never explained how it will do this, nor in what time frame, or manner. It is a Macguffin that doesn’t even properly serve its function because no one in the audience has any idea why they should be afraid of it. Where that lands us is in a film with no suspense. Star Trek Beyond is a lot like that uncle who always has health problems and who thinks he is dying but everyone knows he isn’t.
What struck me most about this train wreck of a Star Trek film is how utterly void it was of consideration for its source material. The now classic television series was not a space opera in format. There were no flashy space battles or drawn out action scenes. The original series often chose to focus on its characters with personal politics, moral dilemmas, and fleshed out backstories. The show was not just inventing new races to blow up, destroy, or vilify, it wanted to explore the unlimited possibilities available in the universe. Star Trek Beyond does the exact opposite by focusing almost entirely on tricking its viewers into forgetting about all those lazy props called characters. One of the newest additions to the crew, Jaylah, the ghost faced girl who has been plastered across all the movie posters and media, has less than thirty seconds of dialogue devoted to her character. We learn that her family was murdered, that she is stranded, and that she is good with technology. That is it. In every other way, shape, and form, she is no different from a human except her face is pasty white and has black marks on it. And she is one of the more dynamic characters in the film. The rest are either forgotten entirely or used as cheap call girls paid to show up every now and then to shell out nostalgic one liners or, if the situation calls for it, slob down on emo Kirk before he throws them off into the dark sidelines of the story.
The entire opening act of the film, from weary and doubtful crew, to emergency distress call and impossible mission, is predictable and boring. It is almost as if director Lin borrowed all the space opera juice J. J. Abrams was drinking while making Star Wars and made musky, ill advised, Star Trek flavored Sangria with the dregs. I mean, Spoiler Warning, in the big final conflict the Enterprise crew actually defeats the enemy genius enemy WITH a Beastie Boys song. Like the actual sound waves of the song blow up all the enemy ships. That is the big mind numbing twist. Where is the thought provoking drama? Where are the moral quandaries, political debates, fuck, where are the lightsabers? As it reads now this film doesn’t even really want to be a Star Trek movie, it wants to be some sort of slapstick romp in space.
The Silver Lining
Now, up until this point I have said that this is a terrible Star Trek movie and it is, it is just the worst. That said, it isn’t a bad movie if you properly set your expectations. To go back to the High Life analogy above, even mild vomit flavored beer can be fun if you grab a roll of duct tape and play a game of Edward 40 Hands. The action is fun, the visuals are great, and everyone loves the Beastie Boys, although using them as a weapon is somewhat dubious. The only overly offensive things about this film the title and lore being used for its skeleton. This film is not a Star Trek film, it is space opera – it’s just a somewhat mediocre space opera.
Every single waking moment on the screen is filled with witty banter, auditory or visual destruction, good looking actors and actresses, and a fun (if a bit stale) villain. Don’t get me wrong, a few tabs in and there is a lot to enjoy here. In a way, these adaptations have become their own kind of thing. It’s kind of like writer Simon Pegg was playing a game of “what if” and he imagined a world where all of the visual effects the show might have wanted to use were real. And to his credit he has a fantastic imagination. One of the best parts of the movie was the beehive inspired swarm of enemy drone ships. There was a terrifying grace to how they dismembered ships and performed boarding maneuvers. That and he is excellent at writing banter. I mean if there is one thing in these films that really feels like Star Trek it is how the characters talk. The doctor is as sarcastic and hyperbolic as you expect him to be and Spock can be every bit as striking as the original. The problem is that other than a few nostalgia driven places the film looks very different from the series it was based on much like the equally terrible second film and the passable first. The characters are there, along with the world that was built over decades, but what seems to be missing for me is the point. Star Trek Beyond is okay at is being a action flick, but that is all it’s good at. There are no deep and ponderous questions being explored about the nature of space. And that is a damn shame given how central that approach was in the originals.
In the end, if I was asked whether or not I enjoyed it I think I would kind of shrug in response. These movies as a trilogy are simply torn between wanting being a fun sci-fi action film and the inevitable expectations many fans have going in. Most people tell me to simply “enjoy” the movies for what they are and I suppose if I did that I would hate them a whole lot less but a part of me just can’t do it. I grew up with the series as a kid, I remember episodes like “The Doomsday Machine” and “Space Seed” so my expectations are slanted towards something with a bit more substance. There is so much potential with Star Trek , there have been moments where this film and all the others have come oh so close to recapturing the magic. Only at every single juncture they seem to fall short of that expectation. Star Trek Beyond feels like a stranger in familiar skin, and that’s a damn shame given all they had to work with.
NitWitty Score: A messy hair day for Captain James T. Kirk