Bigger Budgets Boost 'Star Trek: Beyond,' But Small Screens Might Work Better
In The Fifty-Year Mission, Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman's massive new oral history of Star Trek, creator Gene Roddenberry recalls why NBC declined his initial pilot episode of the landmark series: "It was too cerebral ... it didn't end with a chase and a right cross to the jaw, the away all manly films were supposed to end." But the suits were intrigued enough to commission a second pilot, a highly irregular gesture. Roddenberry made sure his Mulligan shot — which unlike his first, featured a well-respected 34-year-old Canadian actor named William Shatner — concluded with a fistfight. Star Trek got picked up, and Roddenberry & Co. took care to season their liberal homilies and far-out concepts with sex, violence, (mostly intentional) humor, and rubber monsters ever after.
Want to guess how the new movie Star Trek Beyond ends?
The special effects are special-er, of course. Chris Pine (wearing Captain Kirk's gold tunic for the third time) and Idris Elba (wearing enough prosthetic makeup to obscure that he's the best-looking human ever cast in Star Trek—no offense, Mr. Montalbán) are punching it out in microgravity high above Yorktown, an artificial planet of gleaming skyscrapers. This kind of spectacle would've been beyond the means of the original cast of Trekkers even during their big-screen second act circa 1979-1991. As with every entry in the franchise since J.J. Abrams (who remains on board as a producer) got his hands on it, the production values are tip-top.
The performances, too. For three movies now Pine, Zachary Quinto (as the conflicted half-Vulcan, half-human Spock), Karl Urban (as cranky surgeon "Bones" McCoy), and the rest of the merry Enterprise crew have threaded the needle of evoking their famous forebears without simply offering impressions. They're all beautifully simpatico with one another. It seems significant that their names appear in the credits alphabetically rather than by order of fame or screen time. The ensemble is the star.
So what's not to love? Well, the story is a little thin. You can see that the goal was a Skyfall-style cocktail of modernity and tradition for the series' 50th anniversary. (Then again, the character relationships and production design were more interesting than the plot in Skyfall, too.) This want of invention is surprising, given that the script is by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, a marvelous comedic actor who plays Enterprise chief engineer Scotty in the new films. Pegg established his geek credentials early, playing a wannabe comic book artist in Spaced, a culty British sitcom that he co-wrote. Fifteen years on, he's a regular in the Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises (both TV exports from 1966, oddly), he was in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and he's currently shooting Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One. That list of credits is the comic-book nerd equivalent of an EGOT, or something. Jung, meanwhile, has a cameo in Star Trek Beyond as Enterprise helmsman Sulu's husband.
Anyway, the plot they've cooked up finds the crew three years into their Five-Year Mission. Kirk confides in his Captain's Log that his posting has started to feel routine—the word he uses is episodic, wink-wink. A distress call lures the Enterprise into an ambush, and soon the crew find themselves scattered on a planet teeming with hostiles. Krall (Elba), their leader, is fond of bloviating about how strife makes us strong, and thus the harmony-preserving United Federation Planets is an abomination. It's a terrifying timely stump speech, and I wish Star Trek Beyond offered a more inspiring antidote to it, in the form the clumsy-but-noble moralizing that has always defined Trek at its best.
Director Justin Lin is best known for making installments 3-6 in the hugely popular Fast and the Furious series. Beyond's climactic action sequence is as chaotic and hard to follow (in IMAX 3D, anyway) as the ones in the Furious movies, but Lin has a great handle on the camaraderie and fellowship among the crew. He does give us one bravura set piece, the layer-by-layer dissection and eventual "sinking" of the Enterprise. (Don't yell at me; this plot point is in the trailer, which is maybe why the destruction of the ship isn't quite the sobering affair it was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock 32 summers ago. Yes, I'm sure that's the only reason.) The vast budgetary advantages the 21st century Treks pictures have enjoyed over their usually penny-pinching forebears is most apparent in these exterior shots. It's thrilling when the "camera" swoops around the Enterprise in these digitally-animated sequences from angles previously unseen. In space, of course, there is no up or down, though it is possible to roll down the windows of your starship and blast 300-year-old Beastie Boys songs, somehow.
Mostly, it's just fun to spend time with these actors again. Pine's Kirk is still a risk-loving swashbuckler, but his swagger is now tempered by a maturity appropriate to an officer who is no longer green. His green-blooded best-pal Spock — one of the last survivors of the Vulcan species — wonders whether remaining in Starfleet is the best way to serve his people. He's also haunted by the future-past of that other Spock. The Trek features have said their goodbyes to Leonard Nimoy more than once and more than twice. But the final farewell the beloved actor, who died last year at 83, gets here is truly classy. (Anton Yelchin, who was only 27 when he died in earlier this summer, is honored with a simple on-screen dedication.)
This is still the sugary, less fibrous version of Star Trek. And as rewarding as it is to see this material tricked out with the kind of space-bling that Roddenberry could afford in 1979's moribund Star Trek: The Motion Picture and then never again, it's long been clear that Star Trek's eggheaded civilization-seeking imperatives are better served by television than by big-budget movies. That's OK: Showrunner Bryan Fuller's new Star Trek project—the franchise's sixth small-screen iteration—launches in January.
We're fortunate that these versions can coexist, like two Spocks in a timeline. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, Roddenberry said. The later Trek spinoffs were more evolved, but frankly I always missed the fistfights of the Original Series. "I ripped my shirt again," Pine murmurs early in Beyond. May those advanced 23rd-century textiles never get any stronger.
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