Monday, 25 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond: A step forward for the rebooted franchise

I am not a Star Trek fan. I've watched a smattering of episodes from the various TV shows, and watched a few of the movies, and that is about as far as it goes.

I enjoyed JJ Abrams' first Star Trek film, but Into Darkness was just a poorly constructed story with more lens flares than brain cells. While the characters were still engaging, the script was all over the place and it was not nearly as clever as it should have been. I don't know much about Star Trek, but I know enough to recognize that the whole point is the idea of resolving conflicts without blowing stuff up. That, and exploring. And Kirk boning anything with a pulse.

This one had three things going for it which made it one of my 'must-sees' for this year.

Firstly, Abrams, not the strongest storyteller around, would not be back to direct. His replacement was Justin Lin, who is responsible for giving the Fast and Furious movies something they've never had: a sense of fun.

And finally, Sofia Boutella, one of the highlights of Kingsman: The Secret Service last year, was in it.

The story is pretty typical Trek. The Enterprise goes on a rescue mission to an undiscovered planet hidden behind a nebula. The ship is ambushed and destroyed by a mysterious warlord called Krall (Idris Elba).

The crew are scattered across the planet -- Sulu, Uhura and the bulk of nameless red and gold shirts have been captured and imprisoned at Krall's base; Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) by the wreck of the Enterprise; meanwhile odd couple McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are forced to help each other out.

Scotty (co-writer Simon Pegg) is rescued by a mysterious alien Jaylah (Boutella), who may have the key to getting the crew off-planet.

Unlike its predecessors, Beyond feels like a one-shot, self-contained story. There are a few callbacks to the previous movies (all centered around Leonard Nimoy's Spock), but you could slot this in with the other Trek movies and it would not feel out of place.

The key cast get plenty to do, which gives this movie an emotional centre lacking from the previous reboots.

Chris Pine's Kirk has not had much character building in the previous movies, but the script here is based on him figuring out his reasons for sticking with Starfleet. It's a good arc that echoes his father's sacrifice at the beginning of Star Trek 09, and finally allows Pine to step out of the Shat's shadow.

The interplay between Urban's Bones and Quinto's Spock is a delight. Their chalk-and-cheese dynamic is the comic highlight of the movie, but also builds into a quietly moving resolution.

Of course with such a large ensemble, some people get short shrift -- Jon Chu and Anton Yelchin are fine, but fade into the background a bit.

Of the new characters, Boutella's Jaylah gets the most to do -- she plays an alien scavenger who's family were massacred by Krall's minions. It's a cool character -- Jaylah has used archaic Federation tech to construct a Home Alone-style series of traps and camouflage that has allowed her to survive alongside her enemy.

Jaylah's not the backbone of the movie (that's Kirk), but she does have some nice moments which tie into Kirk's arc. They could have fleshed out her story a bit more, but that's nitpicking. No spoilers, but the way her character ends up, it would be nice to see her turn up in the next movie.

Sadly, the villain remains as anonymous as most traditional Star Trek villains. Idris Elba's Krall is merely functional. While he has a potentially interesting grievance, we don't hear about it until the movie is almost over. It's not a fatal flaw, but it means the final showdown does lack a certain punch.

As far as the direction goes, Justin Lin does a terrific job. There's a few moments of overly frenetic action which are confusing, but he has a better handle on how to play out dramatic beats than his predecessor. Where Abrams is obsessed with zipping from one scene to the next in an ADD rush that feels like an extension of his TV background, Lin lets everything play out naturally. The opening sequences, showing the routine on board the ship, is pretty languid and is a nice contrast to the action.

While he knows his way around the bells and whistles, Lin seems to have a better handle on the characters, and tracking their stories. It will be interesting to see where his career goes next, Trek 4 or otherwise.

Ultimately it is the character beats which linger more than the traditional action and plot turns, and make Beyond the most emotionally resonant of this new batch of Trek movies. In that respect, it is a considerable success.

Definitely worth checking out.

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