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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Yup, two blog-exclusive reviews in a week! What is the world coming to? It's like it's 2015 or something...

I wasn't just going to let this one pass, though.

What it's about: Three years into their five-year mission, the crew of Starship Enterprise have settled into a rut of monotonous exploration and often aggravating diplomacy, with at east two of their senior staff contemplating a change in career. While enjoying a short break at the Federation's farthest and most technologically advanced outpost, Yorktown, they are called to suit up for what should be a routine rescue mission but turns out to be something that will challenge both their resolve and the very basis of the United Federation of Planets to which they have pledged their lives.  

What I thought: Though I remain one of the increasingly few fans of Star Trek Into Darkness, I have to admit that I had a real sense of trepidation about this, the third film in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise. Between the shift from JJ Abrams to Justin Lin in the director's chair; the worryingly short production time after a couple of years of tumultuous behind-the-scenes shenanigans and the general lack of hype that the film has received since its release in seemingly every other country in the world, things were not exactly looking up for the latest entry into this decidedly uneven but often quite wonderful franchise. It would be a true pity for the film that celebrates Star Trek's 50th anniversary to fail to live up to all that had gone before, let alone its own lofty title. And that's not even taking into account in the sad passing of Leonard Nimoy (original Spock) and the horribly tragic death of Anton Yelchin (current and very, very young Chekov) that bookended the making of the film.

Fortunately, despite some undeniable flaws and despite being, to my mind anyway, not quite as good as its two immediate predecessors, Star Trek Beyond is a terrifically entertaining romp, one of the best blockbusters of the year and a fitting tribute to both its two dearly departed stars and to Star Trek in general.

Star Trek Beyond's flaws are both obvious and almost universally recognized by everybody who has seen the film - which, again, seems to be every country in the world other than South Africa. First and foremost, though the always brilliant Idris Elba brings plenty of grit and gravitas to the role of Krall, the film's central bad guy, the character itself is wholly uninteresting until the film's final act brings a major twist to the character that turns him into what is ultimately the perfect villain for Star Trek's big 50th birthday. It's a great twist (if, perhaps, not without its plot holes) but it is one that leaves a vacuum at the heart of the film for far too long.

Along with the mostly weak villain, the film plays out like an extended and much better-produced version of an Original Series episode, which is mostly very much in its favour, but unfortunately also means that the film does occasionally feel slightly extended, with the middle section, in  particular, dragging more than it should and with one or two action scenes  clearly thrown in just to pad out the two-hour running time. A couple more twists along the way and replacing those redundant action scenes with more terrific character beats would undoubtedly have gone a long way to tightening things up a bit.

And yet, for all of the obviousness of its flaws, Star Trek Beyond largely transcends even its greatest sins by what its gets right. For a start, though Justin Lin has a much more hyperkinetic directing style than the more old-fashioned (if lens-flair heavy) JJ Abrams, he does as good a job with the quieter moments as with the film's best action scenes, Indeed, though the best action scenes are genuinely spectacular (the Enterprise destruction scene in the trailer isn't even the best one!), he impresses even more with the quieter scenes, which manage to have visual flair to them (and are, of course, accompanied by Michael Giacchino's refreshingly melodic and rousing score), while also getting some typically terrific work from his cast.

But, to be honest, for all the props that Lin clearly deserves for coming into an established series of films and applying his own personal touch while being respectful of what came before, this film really belongs to its cast and its writers. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung know these characters and know this world so, while Beyond fits in perfectly with this rebooted universe, they draw even more from classic Trek, making sure that both the whole cloth feels right to its very core and the smaller moments ring true.

This is, in effect, a Star Trek film that is very much about Star Trek itself with the central thesis questioning not only whether peaceful coexistence, rather than conflict, is really the ideal state for humanity and whether it's an ideal state for telling compelling stories. In an age where the most notable science fiction films, books and TV shows are dystopian by nature, is there a place for the idealized, peaceful future that Star Trek has peddled for 50 years now? It's exactly these sorts of themes that ensures that Star Trek Beyond has brains as well as plenty of brawn.

Of course, this being co-written by Simon Pegg, it's not just viscerally entertaining and smart, it's very, very witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny as well. Pegg himself gets plenty of laughs as Scotty but it's especially the pairing of Spock and Leonard "Bones" McCoy where much of the films laughs reside - and much of its heart.

The trio of Kirk, Spock and Bone have always been at the heart of the Original Series and it's always been the thing that prevented the more sophisticated later series from ever quite recapturing the magic of the original crew, and Star Trek Beyond finally redresses the balance of the last film by moving Bones back in line with the other two. The rest of the crew (and newcomer Sofia Boutella as "kick ass alien chick" Jaylah) get their moments to shine, the focus is rightly on Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and, perhaps more than anyone else, Karl Urban as their respective characters.

When I first heard that they were rebooting the original Star Trek series with new actors playing very familiar roles, I was absolutely certain that it would be a disaster as those roles were so iconic and so defined by the actors playing them. And yet, here we are, most of a decade later and these new, extremely talented younger actors have very much made these roles their own, without a single weak link in the bunch. If nothing else, Star Trek Beyond is just another chance to see this excellent cast, as some of the greatest sci-fi characters ever, riffing gleefully off one another.

And, of course, whatever the future might hold for this franchise, it's sadly the last chance to see Anton Yelchin as Chekov and, though his role here is not the biggest, there is a very touching tip of the hat to the "youngest member of the family" to go along with a similarly touching, and more plot-relevant, tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy (Yelchin died during post-production so there was still just enough time to put a little something in there towards the end of the film).        

For a series that had been very much down in the dumps before JJ Abrams and crew rebooted it, it's great to see that between this and the upcoming (and apparently quite different) Star Trek: Discovery TV show, there's still plenty of life left in the most hopeful science fiction franchise around.  

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