||"I've never done anything sci-fi, but when we got together, Simon, Doug and I, we were very aware of that. And it comes with a responsibility, because it's there, and you have to be conscious of it. Great sci-fi, great Trek is always an allegory for something that's happening to us as a society. On every level, on every scene, we're conscious that we're exploring those things. Sometimes they're so subtle that you might not notice it, but hopefully you'll feel something."
Director Justin Lin on his first foray into science fiction*
Fifty years... One of my fondest childhood memories is competing with my father guessing which star speck would turn out to be the thundering Enterprise in the original series credit sequence. We also put bets on the numbered pods of Thunderbird Two but while Thunderbirds has its own CG/Practical effects TV makeover courtesy of Weta in New Zealand, Trek has always proved itself capable of drawing the crowds to the bigger screen. While entertaining in their own right, there were many aspects of the first two in what will become known as the Bad Robot Trek series (named after Abrams' company but strangely apt) which felt not so much Trek but more yet another entry in the generic Hollywood action mode with some genre familiar character names but then he was probably studio strong-armed into doing that I suspect or hyper aware just how much he had to deliver action that played globally. In response to an ad-lib question, co-writer and co-star of the second sequel Simon Pegg, made an offhand remark about the film needing to be less 'Star Treky' to attract newbies and the big Avengers audiences. He retracted that quote in further interviews as fans of the whole franchise desperately want more of what made Trek, well Trek and early reports are that this is what Beyond has delivered... Hmm. Fifty years is a milestone of sorts but is as arbitrary as any other. What does strike me, timing wise is that the world is further from creator Gene Roddenberry's dream for the future of mankind than it ever has been in all those five decades. Fear of diversity seems to be lumbering back into the mainstream (with Brexit and Trump et al) and I'm writing this on the day that began with a cast member of Ghostbusters hounded on Twitter in acts of horribly racist, barbaric cowardice. We need the ethos of Trek today more than ever but then remembering Werner Herzog's pronouncement that "Movies don't change anything," it would nice if something of Roddenberry's inclusive utopian dream rubbed off on some of us.
So, Beyond... Which character (and it's a trick question) got more fan mail than any other during the run of the original series? I'll help you out. The most popular living character was of course Spock but even Leonard Nimoy's postbag was bested by sacks of mail from all those consumed with curiosity about the good ship Enterprise NCC 1701. The Enterprise was our home in deep space from where the human (and some selected alien) species could dip a toe (or a tentacle) into the infinite, metaphorical waters of distant stars and it became the greatest literal vehicle for storytelling ever devised with only the Tardis coming close. And within a very short time in Beyond, that ship has been ripped apart and drifts in pieces with the saucer section – in a replay from Star Trek Generations with steamrollered pine trees too – crashing to the ground on a convenient 'M' Class planet. The words Star Trek and Enterprise are almost synonymous but I guess Paramount needed a broader canvas to showcase the obligatory action scenes so they had our wonderful home from home utterly ripped apart (hardly a spoiler, it's in the trailer). When the dying Enterprise enters the atmosphere in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and standing safe from a great distance, Kirk asks "Bones, what have I done?" McCoy answers "You've turned death into a fighting chance to live." And I really cared. Kirk sacrificed the one thing that meant more to him than anything (see TOS episode, season one, episode twenty-four This Side of Paradise) for the slimmest chance to save his friend. Now, that's Star Trek! In Beyond, the destruction of the Enterprise is on the whim of an insane character looking for a MacGuffin (a plot device that is important to the characters but not to us). More on that Yawny McYawnface plot contrivance later.
Now there is an argument that at fifty years on, this is the one Trek movie for which the filmmakers can blatantly steal from the original series and call it 'respect' or 'homage', which they do with some frequency. That's almost acceptable given the arbitrary anniversary and every time a beloved line from the original series pops up, a true fan gets a tingle of recognition. Even the most tangential aspects get a nod, Kirk's ripped shirts, anyone? A TV series has days of viewing time to set up and develop its characters so you emerge from seeing the seventy-nine episodes (I shudder to think how many repeats I've seen) with the characters of the main three very well established and being broadly familiar with the personalities of the secondary characters, as long as they'd had enough lines and action. So in Beyond, it was intended to split the main crew up and play on unfamiliar dynamics which have their roots in the original series. So we all know that Kirk loves Spock and Spock loves Kirk. We've had that play out in the first two reboots and uncounted slash fanfic. Let's take McCoy and Spock, by far the most entertaining of the pairings and have Spock injured so that communication is all the more important. The banter is classic Spock/McCoy with the latter pretending to fail to understand the former while the former, harbouring a deep but withheld respect for the latter. If you are a fan of the original series, this bickering will seem cosily familiar and yet unnourishing, like chocolate when you're hungry. The fifty-year old-plus fans have been here before. Dress it up in 2016 finery and it all still comes down to character except we haven't gone seventy-nine hours plus repeats with the alternate timeline Kirk etc. In fact, dress it up how you like, Trek can be boiled down to its essence with another four-letter word which some wise old bird called Harlan once said "...ain't nothing but sex misspelled." Leaving all the sexual interpretations aside, all the key moments of the original series were based on feelings of love, unity, friendship, camaraderie and courage. Favoured quotes? "Get two tractor beams..." "In a pig's eye," "It gives me emotional security..." My head is full of such Trek delights.
Given that wee unsated hunger dissatisfaction, the dialogue is crisp, humourous and engaging, and far beyond (sorry) all other aspects of the production in terms of entertainment and engagement. Everything else, we have simply seen time and time again. I don't know whether this is the inevitable consequence of making the best Chihuahua into a second rate Doberman. Star Trek as director Justin Lin has reiterated, is character. But modern Hollywood blockbusting is about action and if the two marry, it's not hard to see which one will be wearing the trousers in that relationship if I can use a coldly anachronistic and somewhat sexist metaphor. Star Trek doesn't make Avengers box office so Paramount's brief was 'emulate the billion dollar boys' club...' but Trek is made of more delicate tissue and get that flavour off by half a taste bud and the result can leave you with muddied, CG saturated, over produced, over designed and over-cut action which bears no real resemblance to Trek's core ethos. And the insertion of that very essence of Trek taints the one hundred per cent action heroics with alien, dare one say 'television' DNA. There is no such thing in any universe as a cake both owned and consumed, Schrödinger's Cake? If you're curious about Beyond, there's entertainment to be had and if you're a Trek fan you may enjoy the bantering but I'd advise you, if you're planning to see it, to stop reading now.
OK, from here in, all bets are off.
And this is truly from the heart, someone who has loved most iterations of the Star Trek brand from The Man Trap to Abram's Kahn Reboot. I couldn't get past the Star Trek: Enterprise opening titles and the George W. Bush lookalike. So I'm well Trek-versed and so far from enjoying taking pot shots at the latest installment but these things have to be said and I'm certain the filmmakers know all of these niggles but were forced to acquiesce to the studio's 'action film' demands. Firstly, in defence of all the world-class filmmakers, storytellers, technicians, actors and visual effects battalions that laboured day and night, Star Trek Beyond is probably precisely what the studio ordered and it's been delivered with verve, spectacle, talent and gusto. If the most original idea in the film is still just a subplot holdover from two films ago (Spock's relationship with Uhura) and a motorcycle (huh?), then you wonder what held the Paramount brass in such cowardly abeyance? Here you have the most iconic ship and crew in the known pop-cultural universe and what do you have these brilliant, creative people do to squeeze the juice from such an opportunity? Remake, homage and mirror image almost every science fiction and Trek cliché from here to eternity (if only they'd travelled there!) In interviews, Pegg almost defiantly says and I'm paraphrasing "We have an original bad guy not a Trek retread." That would be cool if it were not for six things. The villain is a humanoid lizard faced antagonist (seen that before). He's not what he seems (and that). His hordes of anonymous soldiers fire green laser guns (seen that too). He's after the key to ultimate power (my jaw starts getting Axminster burns now). He wants to kill everybody (oh, please)... The evil thing that kills every one is a swirly mess of CG digital pokery which visually has been done to death (sorry) and finally (number seven if we are counting) what a fecking waste of Idris Elba. The best mainstream films with the best box office are invariably the vision of a single determined storyteller which comes out of nowhere and hits a seam of gold nobody knew existed. Filmmaking by committee almost promises to serve up variations of what's gone before and that's dull. But in studio terms there are never auteur executives... Even if Paramount trusted Lin to deliver, he still had to work with a script, vetted by the studio, with nothing original in it with the exception of an interspecies romance and a one hundred year old Harley wannabe.
From here on in, there are spoilers (in the sense of how much has been borrowed, perhaps not that many) but more importantly, from here are the reasons I think this is one of the very poorest entries in the series despite seeming to be everything fans may have wished for. Careful. In that sense it's very J.J. Abrams, Monsieur Recycle. It's like he's been elevated to the post of Bastion of Former Glories, (BFG, anyone?) taking the best of the past, wrapping it up in the twenty-first century, and regurgitating it into our laps as a preservation sop to nervous studio execs. Their attitude to originality in their own industry is not excitement and enthusiasm but more akin to a cartoon elephant's reaction to a mouse. Despite the fresh, new writers on this entry, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, the film pushes through cliché after cliché and because it looks amazing, expects us to swallow it with a goofy 'ready-to-love' grin on our collective faces. Well that's ironic for a start because this is one of the murkiest Hollywood films I've seen for ages. I cannot imagine how bad the 3D version would be. It can't be a coincidence that Independence Day Resurgence suffered from the same murky imagery.
The plot is simple – Kirk and co. are in deep space and have been for three years (that's profound space) but luckily out here in profound space, there's a starship pit-stop with millions of people and aliens living in an enormous and obscenely complex Escher painting with artificial gravity doing some whacky things with water. What? To boldly go where millions have been stationed for ages? Get a grip! Talk about over-designed. There's way too much to take in and so the real physical presence of the place (named The Yorktown in an extremely narrow nod to our own very inappropriate human history), is never established in any way we can get our collective heads around – so later hair-raising chases mean very little as we don't have time for the required lessons in geometry and gravity; except we know we're supposed to feel sorry for this place in case it's threatened. At this glorified service station, the Enterprise crew encounters an alien pilot who's desperate for her stranded shipmates to be rescued from a nearby planet. Kirk and co. boldly go and encounter something never seen before except in the Matrix sequels. Oh, and Jupiter Rising... and Ender's Game. It's a fleet of thousands of ships, each a piercing weapon that can carve up the Enterprise and deliver alien warriors despite hitting the hull at a speed and dead stop to liquidise any passengers. OK, so we lose the Enterprise. Again. The saucer section crash-lands displacing pine trees. Again. They may be winks to the past but to the past audiences, there's no surprise, no thrills and no caring. Say what you like about the original and Next Generation crews but we mostly cared.
The scourge of rat-a-tat editing is in full force here. When McCoy and Spock take over an alien craft, all that was going through my mind was Lin turning up every day in the cutting room and asking his editors (Greg, Dylan, Kelly and Steven) to just tweak that scene to move a little faster. Problem is that he asked them forty eight times and each complied. The result is a murky, screamingly fast cut scene of geography we are not familiar with and ships we haven't had time to take in. Humanoid figures fly out of airlocks with no sense of establishment. I literally had no clue what was going on during this scene and this infuriates me, ahem, beyond. And the very cliché I decried in the afore mentioned Independence Day sequel pops up again! Do one thing and the insurmountable enemy blows up en masse. It's so, so crushingly dull, like a Action Genre 'get-out-of-jail' card. And these narrative memes proliferate. It's like in TV Trek's fourth episode The Naked Time... Cinema has picked up a disease and because money has been made, we all think highly of this disease and don't understand that someone can be critical of it. Let's give it a name, 'creepix', a contraction of 'Creeping Pixels'. Computer generated imagery, when used sparingly and subtly can be an astonishment to behold (see Game of Thrones). But science fiction movies, in which everything in front of the lens has to be designed, built for real or via software is vulnerable to creepix where an essential reality is undercut because of the tools' ability to make 'real' anything than can be imagined. If I had a spare two hours to take a tour of the Yorktown I'm sure I'd be astonished. As it was, the whole exquisite but unbelievable construction whipped by in chase after chase in which sublime detail was blurred as well as my engagement with the drama. I have to stop now.
I said in my 2009 review of the reboot;
"This is not to say that we dismissed the new Trek out of hand. It was just that we had nothing to say because there was nothing to talk about that was new. Almost everything in the new Trek has borrowed (stolen if we're going for the jugular, paid homage to if we're feeling merciful) from old Trek. You may say justifiably "duh," but when you have the universe as your playground, rehashed ideas feel even more disappointing."
And it goes for this second sequel too. In spades.
I'll leave you with a genuine coincidence or a hasty recut made after the terrible news of Anton Yelchin's death, crushed by his rolling Jeep pinning him to a stone pillar at his home last month. A poignant moment is rendered even more heartbreaking as Kirk toasts his crew and then offers up a final toast to the dearly departed older Spock. "To absent friends," he says and we cut to a group shot, and right there is Yeltchin. Talk about a tragic double whammy.
Star Trek Beyond may please fans and good luck to them and to the movie itself. It's made with love and dedication. But the one franchise with the greatest opportunity for original storytelling has resorted to tried and tested and old, old ideas and narrative. And for that, I can only sigh.