Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trek Watch: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

No big secret to anyone with whom I talk Star Trek, but I hated Star Trek: Into Darkness.  That's not a term I use lightly.  Generally, I "didn't like" a movie, it "wasn't aimed at me", "wasn't my cup of tea" or I might have believed "it sucked".  But, nope, I hated Into Darkness.

The movie, which could and should have been about the launch of the Enterprise and establishing the universe around the characters set up in the first movie (which, in many ways, was a glorified version of Space Camp), didn't just feel like a betrayal to the spirit and (pardon the pun) enterprise of the Star Trek universe I've enjoyed as both an avid enthusiast and sometimes occasional fan, depending on which incarnation of Trek we're discussing.  Into Darkness felt like it was picking the bones of a better, much-loved franchise to tell a lousy story and try to steal some of the gravitas along the way rather than creating anything of its own or lending anything new and not doing anything compelling with what bit of novelty it did contain.

With this third installment, Paramount does a yeoman's job of righting the ship and getting it back on course.  I won't try to oversell the movie - it's far from a perfect film (but name the Citizen Kane of Star Trek movies, I dare you), but for the first time in three movies, it feels like Trek.  And, man, that is actually terribly important.  Not only does this installment understand the universe of Trek better than its forebears, it does that thing of spiffying it up and adds some new bits along the way.

I hadn't actually planned to see the movie.  The first trailer I saw alongside The Force Awakens was so cringe-inducing and tone deaf (and, as it turns out, a bad representation of the actual film), that I just laughed it off and decided I'd get back to Star Trek at some other point with some other relaunch after the public wrote off this series for good.

The Star Trek reboot, in my opinion, was a failure.

But along came the review consensus at Rotten Tomatoes, with a low 90th percent in the first few days (84% as of this writing) saying the movie wasn't the space-faring trainwreck it looked to be.  Then, trusted sources such as Stuart seemed to be endorsing the movie.  Thus, I picked up some tickets and Jamie, Juan and I caught the Sunday evening show.

If you sit back and look at Star Trek Beyond (2016), it's kind of funny - This movie is literally about course correcting and making up for the sins of the prior two films.  Which was, of course, ironically what JJ Abrams was doing for Star Wars with The Force Awakens.  And from that, I think we can all spend years in Zen meditation pondering man's beautiful imperfection and folly.

Making a movie about fixing a movie may be a sin in and of itself, but lord knows that as a reader of DC Comics I'm familiar with in-story editorial decisions as plot point, and, the good news is that the net result is a movie that works as an adventure that provides the mission statement for the Star Trek film franchise going forward, at least in part by embracing the past rather than simply cannibalizing it.

The movie begins by daring to ask the question the original series never really pondered: "what, exactly, does it mean to be in deep space for five years?  How is that a mission?  And aren't there consequences for crew and commander?"  The answers echo back some of the issues with Abrams take on the Star Trek universe and characters as he mucked about with motivation for longstanding figures.  Who is a James Tiberius Kirk who joined Starfleet and became a Captain of a vessel just to see if he could fill his father's shoes?  How does that set up Kirk, who becomes a Captain through some iffy scripting in these movies, to care a wit about a five year mission, his ship and crew?

While I was willing to give the first of the reboot movies some space to get the characters assembled - even a partial re-watch I did the other evening was a reminder of how shakily assembled that first reboot movie feels.  The story doesn't ring true in so many ways - from the villain's entire scheme to the insubordinate Kirk somehow put in charge of the Enterprise and the hundreds of lives therein - that both from a critical standpoint or a Trek fan's standpoint, I just can't get that excited about the movie anymore, if I ever was (and I think I gave it a lot of latitude when it was first released).

In this third movie, the series remembers that the crew are meant to be more than familiar set-pieces to stare wide-eyed at the antics of Kirk and Spock, that they're specific, lived-in characters which purpose and motivation and personality, and while it's not as well worn as Shakespeare, the characters can be played in new ways while retaining their significance and place in the tale.

Even our villain, a seemingly yet another in a long line of made-up aliens with a rage-boner for either the Federation or Kirk, has a motivation that's both true to the long history of Star Trek's episodic adventures and - lo and behold - in the reveal has something to say about the ill fate of someone in Kirk's position.  It's a pretty nice little package of a story.

What the movie also does is restore the notion of Roddenberry's vision and provides mission statements for the hopefully continuing series.  While perhaps swinging the themes like a cudgel, it's a delight to hear the members of Starfleet speaking of the power of unity, diversity and trust in one another as a virtue and strength (something seemingly horrendously out of fashion in 2016).  And, of course, the power of hope when all seems lost.

Exploration is the mission of the Enterprise that brought me to Star Trek via re-runs on KBVO in the fall of 1984, but it was the idea that the Federation worked between different peoples and species with a common goal toward exploration and knowledge - not for exploitation of new planets and species - that was the hope for the Star Trek future.  That's what propelled mankind to walk among the stars not as gods, but with humility and awe.  It's what a lot of us have internalized as our personal vision for a better tomorrow.

With Abrams and his patented lensflare no longer part of the aesthetic, this new Trek had some breathtaking moments, from an elegant and novel view of the Enterprise at warp to loving shots of the Enterprise that give depth and scale to the ship in heretofore unseen ways (you can really see inside the windows).  Ship and hardware design continues on the same path of utilitarian futurism that I've always liked in Trek, and the escape pod/ life raft concept worked very well.

There's a certain thread of Starfleet uniforms past and present that shows up in the movie, so it's fun to see Kirk in his dress grays that echo the uniforms of Star Trek The Motion Picture, for example.  Phasers look like phasers, and communicators look suspiciously like the toys they had for sale at Target circa the first film.

Almost none of that compares to the sheer wow factor of the brilliantly visualized Yorktown Space Station/ City.  Holy cow.  I mean, you read descriptions of these cities in space bending in on themselves everywhere from Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama to Chris Roberson's Further: Beyond the Threshold, but to actually see a movie take that on successfully is something else.

And, of course, we must talk ship design.  I've not been a huge fan of the reboot Enterprise, which I always thought looked like an Enterprise given nigh-lady-like curves, but it was fair enough.  If you want to give the ship the CarTOONS treatment, that's just something I'll live with.   So, I'm glad for a chance to (a) see the Franklin, a ship echoing the design from the Enterprise TV show, and (b) the chance to see a new direction for the Enterprise in the wake of the damage done to the ship in the film's first reel.

The action in the movie is hard hitting and exciting, a product of filmmaker Justin Lin, responsible for the Fast and the Furious mega franchise.  Our heroes still aren't soldiers, but they are adventurers and risk takers, and a lot of that plays out very well, even if I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Sulu's buccaneering approach to threats (still, he's a steely eyed missile man with John Cho's sly performance).

Ship to ship and hand to hand combat are all pretty fantastic in the film, but a few plot elements you kind of have to infer (who is piloting those villainous alien vessels now?).  And you really have to buy into some serious Trek jibber-jabber for one of the most audaciously daring and absolutely-should-not-have-worked-but-there-it-is-and-yeah-that-works scenes I've ever seen in a movie to make any sense.

The movie does make call-backs to the original series in very literal terms, from a picture of the original crew circa Star Trek V, I think, to throw-away bits to the fans of the TV series (mentions of glowing hands).  I've seen complaints that the movie looks too much to the past, but I have to shrug off those criticisms as those who didn't quite get where Trek had gone wrong, that it is still very much looking toward the future.  This may be our filmic Yorktown, a known spaceport where we can reburish the ship, re-orient ourselves, and take a breath before the next adventure.  It can be a little familiar, but we can exit this movie at Warp 10 and head into all new adventures with this solid base beneath us.

It's an imperfect movie.  There are some stunningly clunky bits as well (who parks a motorcycle in their kitchen.  I mean, honestly.), and not everything they try sticks the landing.  But I thought some karmic wheel had turned and I was - as an adult - only going to be able to like Star Trek or Star Wars, but never what was coming out at the same time.

Star Trek Beyond may not have invigorated me exactly as much as seeing Han and Leia show up again did, but it also hasn't been 30 years since I'd seen Trek I've enjoyed.  Here's to what's to come with a bold new direction and a new crew taking us into unexplored tomorrows.

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