Sunday, July 24, 2016

Zaki's Review: Star Trek Beyond

As you know, I absolutely loved Paramount's Star Trek reboot in 2009. Loved it. As directed by J.J. Abrams, the film did the trick of rescuing the moribund Trek franchise from obsolescence by taking it back to its roots and adding a healthy dose of action movie swagger to the mix. And while I wasn't as enamored of the 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, I still looked forward to another Trek feature arriving shortly, as has been the case every couple of years since the 1980s, to wash away the taste of a bad movie with a good one. To, as Dr. McCoy might say, "turn death into a fighting chance to live."

Enter: Star Trek Beyond.

When it came to the latest big screen go-round, several contradictory ends needed to be met at the same time. First, it had to course-correct from the perception that Into Darkness, despite its critical and financial success, was a nadir for the franchise. It also had to mark Star Trek's fiftieth anniversary (the original show premiered on NBC in 1966) in a way that felt inclusive and appreciative of everything that's come before it, while also playing to the same non-Trek wider audiences that have made both of the "reboot" movies the biggest hits in the franchise's nearly forty years on the big screen.

Now, that might all seem like a no-win scenario to you, but as we've seen many times in the past, Star Trek has a little bit of experience navigating its way through those. And riding to the rescue this time are new director Justin Lin, and new screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, who've crafted not only one of the strongest entries in the thirteen-film Trek catalogue, but in a pop culture landscape that's ever more cluttered with competing franchises and shared universes, they've made about as compelling an argument as I can think of for the brand's continued viability five decades in.

As the story begins, we're three years into the fabled "five year mission" of the good ship Enterprise, with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew feeling boxed in by the endless monotony of cataloguing the unending void of deep space. While at a recharge-and-refuel stop at the way-station Yorktown, the Enterprise answers a distress call from requesting assistance deep within an unexplored nebula. Needless to say, this turns out to be a trap, and the resultant attack leaves not only the crew stranded on an unknown planet, but the fabled starship itself an unsalvageable wreck on its surface.

And so, Kirk must reconnect with Spock (Zachary Quinto), "Bones" (Karl Urban), Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldan), Lt. Sulu (John Cho), Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Engineer Scotty (Pegg), defeat the mysterious baddie Krall (Idris Elba), and figure out what his evil plan is. While Star Trek Beyond has a deceptively simple premise (and a typically undercooked villain, unfortunately, despite Elba's game efforts and an interesting twist), where it excels is in taking that premise and drafting it into service of a nearly pitch-perfect encapsulation of the enduring appeal of Star Trek in general, and its original crew in particular.

Like any good Trek should, Beyond excels by using its sci-fi framework to make some pointed observations about the particulars of the human condition. In this case, with a villain who calls into question the very mission of the Enterprise, forging alliances with new life, new civilizations. Pushing back against this central conceit, part of the franchise's DNA ever since William Shatner intoned it in each episode's opening narration back in '66, allows the story to engage in a vibrant polemical conversation that feels right at home with the kind of stuff Star Trek does best.

Speaking of nods to Trek's long history, Beyond is brimming with them, from practically the opening moment right through to the end. And not in a way that feels artificial and embarrassing (a la Into Darkness's karaoke reenactment of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) or pandering (as in last week's Ghostbusters reboot, which I otherwise enjoyed). Instead, Star Trek Beyond is laced with lines, asides, and visual gags that gently nudge our memories of the franchise without making anyone not in the know feel like they're missing something.

All due props to Pegg & Jung's script, and all due props to Justin Lin makes his entry into big budget sci-fi. As helmer of four Fast & Furious flicks, Lin had demonstrated comfort with action and spectacle, and was also comfortable balancing large ensembles. From the moment he was announced to direct, I was confident he'd bring both of those skill sets to bear for Trek, and I'm gratified to know I was right. Not only does Lin nail the big effects sequences, but we also get more spotlight moments for the secondary characters here than in any previous Trek, including the ones starring the original crew.

Three movies in, it's worth pointing out yet again just how perfect every single member of the cast is. This really shouldn't have worked. These iconic characters are about as wedded to their original actors as it's possible to be, and yet here we are with a perfect new Kirk, a perfect new Spock, a perfect new McCoy, etc. It should've have worked, but here we are. The new cast has taken ownership of the roles in a way that makes me hopeful that they'll have at least as long a run with it as their predecessors (which makes the recent, tragic passing of Anton Yelchin feel even more tragic than it already is).

Speaking of their predecessors, Beyond also weaves in a tribute to the late, lamented Leonard Nimoy, whose Spock-Prime was there to raise the curtain on the reboot in '09, that's poignant and perfect, and I defy any longtime fan not to feel something in their eye. While this is a continuation of both Abrams entries and builds on their foundation, it's also much more connected with the totality of Trek history. This feels like a tonal reset in ways both subtle and obvious. Whether the tweaked uniforms, closer in appearance to the TV series, or even Pine's new hairstyle that evokes '60s-era Shatner, there's a clear attempt to go back to that well.

But lest you take my comments to mean this film is entirely mired in the distant past of Star Trek's far future, quite the contrary. Rather, after a brief detour down some dark corridors last time, Star Trek Beyond is a welcome refresh that again grounds the series in the spirit of idealism and optimism that were at the forefront of creator Gene Roddenberry's thinking, and which have no expiration date. Before this one even came out, Paramount had already announced that they were in active development on the fourth installment, and if what we get in Beyond is any indication of what to expect moving forward, I can't wait to boldly go. A

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