Thursday, July 21, 2016

'Star Trek Beyond' Review

I saw a sneak preview of the new Star Trek Beyond (2016) last night, as part of a three-film marathon. At first, I came away liking it despite not feeling like there was much really there. But (and I’m sure I’m not the first critic to write this) I think upon reflection that Beyond is a good example of how sometimes less is more —after two films which had their moments but were ultimately far too hollow to sustain the weight of their ambitions. In its own very modest way, Beyond tries to understand how Trek works, not just how it looks, without compromising its own expectations as a blockbuster spectacle. And one can only hope that the next story builds on that to tell a story that really does boldly go beyond what Trek has done before. 

Perhaps that why this week’s news has left me less enthusiastic than I’d like to be. Not coincidentally, word circulated of a fourth Trek film this week featuring Chris Hemsworth reprising his role as Kirk’s (deceased) father from Star Trek (2009). Clearly, the news was designed to build further buzz for the release tomorrow of Star Trek Beyond (2016) by demonstrating the studio’s faith in their latest galaxy adventure. I cannot help but wonder if it also partly had to do with JJ Abrams (who announced it) reinserting himself into the news cycle despite having had little direct hands-on involvement in the newest film. 

More cynically, the idea of bringing Hemsworth back certainly suggests an attempt to cash in on the post-Avengers fame he’s enjoyed since the 2009 reboot (I cannot help but continued to be annoyed by the continual willingness to bring back dead characters in the new franchise despite the claim that Shatner will never return for that reason—to be clear, I don’t care either way if he does, but the public argument against is disingenuous and even insulting to fans).

And how will they do it? Time Travel can be a wonderfully effective device—see The Next Generation especially—but within the commercial demands and narrative limitations of the modern Hollywood blockbuster its limitless potential is too often reduced to mere plot convenience. I also wonder what bringing such a major star back into the mix will do to the delicate chemistry that's been established finally with the existing crew.

The main reason I’m ambivalent about going back to the story of George Kirk is because—in the wake of a generally aesthetically successful third film—I worry that the filmmakers are already leaning towards going back to their own old material instead of continuing to go forward, as they have with the newest film. First, some quick thoughts on rewatching the first two—my initial feelings about both Star Trek (here) and Into Darkness (2013) (here) remain mostly the same. The opening sequence of Star Trek, where George sacrifices himself for the crew and its family, is still the best ten minutes of either of the first two films (in that sense, its literally been all downhill from there, and so, as far as that goes, I understand the seduction of bringing George back beyond the obvious commercial motivations—though a powerful moment does not a great character make). 

First impressions really do make all the difference: I think the effectiveness of the first one's opening sequence--contrasted with the unrelenting stupidity of the second one's--both go a long way towards explaining the respective receptions of both films, despite the fact that in both cases the rest of the films are something of a mixed bag.

For example, watching the first two together for the first time, I finally noticed how much better Spock’s character is handled in Into Darkness, which might help explain my initially positive review of the film above, despite its trainwreck narrative and nonsensical fan service. The 2009 film tries too hard through all kinds of trauma to draw out Spock’s emotional side—to the point where he’s frankly an incoherent mess throughout much of it —because it’s afraid to deal with the complexities and subtleties of the character as he has historically existed. But in Into Darkness, the narrative is much more attentive to Spock’s personality, and much more delicate in handling his quirks (and his struggles) because it is deliberately working towards a clearly defined emotional conclusion between him and Kirk (that relationship being the main thing the movie does right). The occasional flashes of human emotion in Spock in the past were so effective precisely because they were so rare. There’s no question that Spock struggles with the human/Vulcan divide within, but it’s not the primary characteristic that defines him.

Its not mere industry hype to note that Star Trek Beyond definitely seems to understand the characters better than past films—because it is a film ultimately as much about the characters and their relationships as about the plot. But don’t get me wrong—Beyond is a satisfying safe film. If the first reboot attempted in its own way to replicate the iconic characters and sets, Beyond attempts to understand how they interact and how the classic stories were told. The story is not particularly as groundbreaking or original as some of the hype may lead viewers to believe, but it didn’t need to be. My only serious complaint on the story would be the inclusion of yet another megalomaniac villain bent on revenge—in that sense, the curse of Khan continues to plague the modern cinematic iteration of Trek. And the plot “twist” (which I won’t reveal here) still fits a pretty established pattern of trying to make certain things more complicated than we at first think. It’s shocking to me that the filmmakers cannot seem to think of anything else. 

But on the whole the movie does more right than wrong. I love the opening 20 minutes or so—for the first time, the Enterprise actually feels like a community, a robust family beyond just the core group of iconic characters, exploring the galaxy. The narrative makes good use of the Captain’s Log—which had fallen into neglect—to establish the crew’s personality and Kirk’s own personal ambivalences. Kirk’s boredom with the “episodic” (wink) nature of his job may come across as dismissive (and strange given his occupation), but it works to convey a side of the original series that was never addressed, but probably should have been. If anything, that part of the journey could have been developed more—but of course we have to move on to the next dramatic crisis as soon as possible (watching all three together, I really appreciated how much every single moment of character insight is almost always punctured by some completely random, completely unexpected immediate crisis—something’s always malfunctioning, someone’s always attacking, etc. etc. I think the reason these films don’t hold up as well during repeated viewings is because how much this superficially effective trick is used to cover up narrative problems the first time through, but it also steps on character development).

On that note, though, I love that they finally get Doctor McCoy right! Like Chekov (RIP Anton), the good doctor has too often been treated as a caricature, a punchline, instead of Kirk’s trusted confidante or Spock’s enduring foil. Halfway through Into Darkness, the narrative even acknowledges what a joke McCoy has become (“enough with the metaphors”) in what has always been a pretty tone deaf fan moment for me. As for other characters, I appreciate that Uhura is given opportunities to be more than Spock’s nagging girlfriend—Beyond handles what’s left of that relationship, which always felt like a betrayal of both characters’ original intentions, reasonably well under the circumstances.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise is that Star Trek Beyond is visually the most impressive ST film I’ve ever seen. To be more precise, it has a tremendously effective sense of space (no pun intended), diegetic space, which also led to some of the best action sequences Star Trek’s ever featured. Maybe it was the 3D which drew it out more, but the film has a visual depth and detail far surpassing its predecessors. There’s more care towards shot composition (perhaps again because of the 3D aesthetic) than the films before it, which seemed largely composed of close-ups, quick cuts and quickly moving cameras. It’s more colorful, with greater visual contrasts. Even little moments work, like the lighting cloud effect as the Enterprise crew literally sail into darkness (which felt like a TMP homage, but that’s probably a coincidence). 

For the first time, the Enterprise finally looks and feels like a massive ship in space—packed with layers of floors and compartments. The Yorktown space station is also a visual treat and a perfect example of the film’s commitment to scale (and provides a visually and conceptually satisfying climax, even as the plot itself is still pretty straightforward and familiar).

Finally, there’s much more of a thorough attempt to acknowledge Leonard Nimoy’s passing in the film than I expected—though it ultimately doesn’t seem to lead to much thematically (other than what I can only describe as a profound moment of cognitive dissonance at the end—some fans might love it, but--as a diehard fan of the original films--I wasn’t sure how to feel).

In short, for all its flaws, Beyond works well enough as a compromise between what made Trek "Trek" and the demands of the summer action blockbuster. It’s too soon to say it’s the better of the three, but that is my first impression. And, unlike the last two, I think it might actually reward repeat viewings