STAR TREK BEYOND (Movie Review)

STAR TREK BEYOND
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief language)
Released: July 22, 2016
Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Set phasers on meh.

For better or for worse the Star Trek reboot has, with its third installment, solidified itself as a far less ambitious ongoing mission than the original one that set out a half century ago.

Focused squarely on adventure and little else, this alternate Enterprise universe has no interest in contemplating the human condition, implementing a love of actual science into its fiction, paralleling contemporary issues, or being awed by the boundless possibilities of intergalactic exploration. Paying lip service at best to these once-classic Star Trek virtues, this incarnation continues to have a thrilling take on the franchise’s surface level spectacle; what it lacks are the noble intangibles.

The less attached you are to the Original Cast era the more likely you are to enjoy Star Trek Beyond, a rip-roaring yarn with little on its mind. Even so, when it tries to add emotional depth to its big budget firepower, this cast still relies on a sentimentality established by a previous generation that itself has yet to earn, and its best effort addition to that mix is (yawn) Kirk’s daddy issues.

As a story, Star Trek Beyond is less interested in saga building and instead plays out mostly as a self-contained feature length episode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially as it’s a clear course-correction from the mixed response Star Trek Into Darkness received for its Khan redux overreach (an ingenuity I enjoyed, but oh well). Here, Kirk and the gang get stranded on a distant planet (aren’t they all?) ruled by a maniacal overlord hell-bent on enslaving as many Starfleet officers as possible.

The problem is that there’s nothing distinctive about this simplified reset. The screenplay (co-written by Scotty actor Simon Pegg) crafts a decent enough voyage as these things go, but it’s not particularly a Star Trek one. The story feels as if it easily could’ve been lifted from an old sci-fi spec script pulled off the shelf and tweaked to fit the Federation template, complete with a bland villain whose motives take too long to define (and when they finally are, they couldn’t be more rote). There’s a layer that acknowledges the passing of Leonard Nimoy in a clever way, but beyond that this Star Trek is as generic as its pointless “Beyond” moniker.

Perhaps most noteworthy is how different these characters are (again, for better and for worse) from their original interpretations. For the second tier players below the Kirk/Spock/Bones trio, they continue to benefit from the modern sensibility that has less patience for marginalizing supporting characters as token diversity. They even get to pitch in with the classic “Space, the final frontier…” mandate. Kirk and Spock, however, are decidedly different in less appealing ways.

This reboot dips into the half-human well of Spock’s emotions too often (a carryover from the previous movies, to be fair), thus minimizing the meaningful heart tugs they’re actually going for. As Bones, Karl Urban can officially be labeled as an unfortunate miscast; though having his moments, Urban merely imitates DeForest Kelley’s crankiness but lacks the sincere charm that came along with it. For Kirk, this installment finds him bored by what he sees as the monotony of the job. Expressing an actual exasperation for being the captain of a starship, this Kirk’s personal crisis is in direct contrast to the original Kirk’s core identity (and endless passion) rooted in sitting in that Captain’s chair.

It’s rather telling, really, how each Kirk is a distinct representation of its time (in our culture, not their stardates). The old Kirk had the wide-eyed wonder of the mid 20th Century space race; the new Kirk has a Millennial angst. This unappealing spin is no fault of Chris Pine, whose talent is being shortchanged, quite frankly. The Kirk charisma and swagger is still there, along with a serious conviction and courage when the proverbial soup gets thick; plus, you couldn’t ask for a better actor to fill such impossible boots. I just wish he had Shatner’s writers (from the TOC movies specifically).

Look, I have no objection to this group of creatives plotting their own course and making this mythology their own. It’s what they should do, and it’s an allowance we as an audience must grant them. In some respects they should take that notion even further, as the bulk of this reboot’s reinterpretations feel uninspired, even cliché. And that’s the problem with where this new Trek is headed; not that it’s changing some things, but that the changes aren’t all that interesting, or fresh.

The litmus test for Star Trek Beyond is simple: this series could end now and nobody would miss it. That’s sad, not only given the franchise’s 50 year legacy but for Chris Pine in particular. There’s more talent and potential in his take on Kirk than the current guardians of the movie franchise apparently have ambition for.

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