After all, it's just a ride….

Star Trek – Beyond (2016)

beyond1Star Trek’s looking pretty spritely for its 50th anniversary. Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Wagon Train in space’ remains one of the cornerstones of genre lore, still perhaps encapsulating the widest fandom alongside the other Star branded product, and a new streaming service series from the hands of the deliciously perverted Hannibal show runner Bryan Fuller bodes well for a bright and harmonious future. So it seems apt that the studios have programmed the third instalment of their rebooted franchise to coincidence with a half century anniversary, following the modern action blockbuster refit in 2009, which in turn was followed up with the critically mauled but financially successful Into Darkness in 2013. This time around the crew of the USS Enterprise find themselves three years into their five-year mission, and a sense of space ennui has settled over Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine). His best friend Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) romance with the Communications Officer Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) seems to have withered on the vine of his emotional frigidity, while Lieutenant Commander McKoy (Karl Urban) remains his old self, as cantankerous as a cheated Cardassian crab. After a lightly comedic opening sequence involving an Ambassadorial delegation gone wrong the crew arrive at the Yorktown, a sprawling Federation starbase which appears to have been architecturally designed by the secret love child of Christopher Nolan and Ralph McQuarrie. After a few days R&R the crew are summoned to investigate a distress call from the only survivor of a vanished vessel, before being set upon by a phalanx of obliterating foreign devils in a rather spectacularly brutal attack sequence. With the Enterprise fatally wounded and its crew scattered across a hostile and convenient constellation clouded communication chasm – there’s no help coming from Starfleet – unless the survivors can reunite and muster a counterattack against their mysterious, violent foe. Generally speaking what follows is a welcome, colourful and exotic distraction to the existential numbing horrors of modern life, a Ferengi’s ransom more precious than most of this years blockbuster bores.

beyond2With franchise mastermind magpie J.J. Abrams seconded to another galaxy far, far away he’s handed the reigns to director Justin Lin of The Fast & Furious fame, a safe pair of hands who stages the film’s action sequence with a brisk, workmanlike efficiency. While the long mocked lens flares aesthetic has been abandoned Lin instead invests in an array of rather disorienting 360° camera tilts to suggest a galaxy with a warped sense of gravity, it’s quite an original effect which isn’t over-played, and it was good to see a little visual improvisation in such normally conservative product. These films tend to live or die on the banter between the iconic characters in their modern incarnations, and although some of the exchanges between Bones and Spock are risible they mostly spark off a sense of camaraderie and cheerful fun, and Simon Pegg as particular as screenwriter seems to have made his Chief Engineer Scotty character less of a Khyber tossing, tartan sporting caricature although he does still bark ‘lassie’ a few more times than necessary. Quite cleverly this cleaves into the structure of the film, as once scattered the plot pirouettes between the fortunes of three groups investigating and surviving on the alien world, a device which awards the film a propellant unified tempo until they triumphantly re-unite with a few new allies in tow. Does it feel like a successful, 3.5 star episodes of one of the TV series given a $150 million facelift? Yes it does, but given that some of the criticisms of the last film was that they keep disrupting continuity and offering poor sensor echoes of previous highlights, they seem to have given fans what they want and naturally they’re still not happy……

beyond4One particular plot development and device, concerning the inclusion of ‘classical music’ from a 24th century perspective really seems to sum up this film – if you go with it you should find Beyond an agreeable, colourful romp, if it causes you to nurse your head in your hands painfully muttering ‘but…but…why?….h-h-how?”’ then you’re probably better off teleporting away. The film also feels a little rushed, from the clearly unfinished CGI close-ups of Kirk and his motorcycle storming through some alien canyons, and on a script level with a lack of giving certain characters payoffs providing a suitable narrative closure. The new inclusions deserve a mention, firstly Sofia Boutella as the resourceful castaway scavenger Jaylah was a fun and confident character with her cool hologram special move which you just knew would be repurposed for Starfleet’s tactical instincts. The villain as usual is a bit of a rote evil dude 101, a rather bland alien interloper whose motives remain cloaked until a dramatically neutering late in the picture. Now I’m not going to tempt fate and get pilloried for my curious incomprehension at Idris Elba’s universal popularity – yes he was phenomenal as Stringer Bell in The Wire but this was over a decade ago now kiddies, so give me some ideas of what great stuff he’s been in since then I’m all vertically elongated ears*. Pacific Rim? Prometheus? RocknRolla? The Ghost Rider sequel? How about those charming Sky TV ads hmmm? On a more positive note I did like the nano-tech design of the villains offensive capabilities and tactics, and the attack on the Enterprise was as intensely brutal as blockbuster cinema gets these days, but they never seem to dwell on the hundreds of civilians and officers sucked into the indiscriminate maw of space now do they? Hundreds, maybe thousands killed, but no tears shed here. Also, a quick aside – I really liked the design of the Starfleet away team uniforms, does that make me sad for even noticing such details? Yeah, thought so…..

beyond3Leonard Nimoy’s passing is given a light yet vaguely moving nod through Zachary Quinto’s plotline and a short yet tasteful tribute.  In terms of pushing forward into the 21st century the revelation that Sulu is gay is given a discrete confirmation, or as someone mentioned on some podcast remarked about the scene in question ‘Huh? I just thought his niece and brother were coming to pick him up at the spaceport?’ which might make you chuckle if you’e seen the film – let’s just say that an evidently nervous Paramount don’t exactly trumpet their inclusive agenda. Seeing Anton Yeltsin get a few lines and moments as Chekov can’t help but throw you out of the picture somewhat given his horrific and tragic passing, I’m still not sure how they’re going to recast that role for the next inevitable instalment but he will be missed. My puny intellectual sensors couldn’t really detect any overwhelming political subtext or metaphors through the maelstrom of CGI fisticuffs, glimmering torpedo bursts or prismatic alien species. That’s fine, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, apart from the Federation antagonizing the natives as a supposedly belligerent, technologically advanced militaristic force, but then again they’ve been violating the prime directive with repeated excuses since the 1980’s. There remains a small but vocal opposition to these films from a certain sector of the community, the faithful fans who point out that they have perverted the ethos of the original series which championed the resolution of differences and conflict through logic, reason, diplomacy and intellectual rigour, rather than launching a blitzkrieg of blasters, disrupters and photon torpedoes in order to suppress any opposition. They have a point, an accurate point, but I’m not sure what star system they’re orbiting if they seriously think that a studios is gonna pony up $200 million dollars for another glacial contemplation like the 1979 original movie, and in any case since the early 1980’s this series has been all about the SFX, the action-beats, world-building and interaction of the characters. Star Trek – Beyond is a serviceable blockbuster, fleet, fast and colourful enough to paper over any cracks in its sub-tachyon generator core, and coming at this stage in the poorest blockbuster season of the century it’s Beyond mediocre, but not entirely sailing through the stars;

* I do think he’ll be good as Roland Deschain though, what with that slightly weary, dangerous and simmering charisma. If he asked me to join him on some epic, legendary dangerous odyssey across mid-world I’d probably shrug my shoulders and murmur ‘yeah….sure’……

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