Friday, July 22, 2016

The Star Trek We Need Right Now; the Official Black Owl review of Star Trek Beyond.

Short non-spoiler version: drop what you’re doing and go see it right now. Okay?  Thanks.

From here on out, spoilers abound; you have been warned!

I am one of those Trekkies who actually really loved Star Trek Into Darkness.  Not at first when I was kind of “well that was pretty good” about it, but as I rewatched and saw the themes opening up, and the multilayered character motivation and allegory come to into focus behind all the kinetic action, I have to say it really grew on me.  Given that, despite the vociferous hate from other fans, I was a little worried when the sequel pulled Bob Orci as writer, director, and seemingly whatever else he was doing.  Replacing him with Simon Pegg and Doug Jung I knew would likely give us a more “traditional” Trek film.  What I did not expect was a movie that perfectly conjoined the best of the new films (now referred to as the “Kelvin Timeline”) and the best of the Original Series.

What this means is still plenty of kinetic action (indeed, I think the film takes less breaths than STID did) while having a less complex subtext, and focusing not on the accusatory allegory but the example of a  better tomorrow.  OK, there’s still some allegory there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Let me get the couple of things that didn’t quite work for me out of the way, and then I can dig into the many, many things that did.

The plot itself is pretty pedestrian: a mean alien wants to drop a bioweapon on a big starbase and he exploits the Enterprise to do it.  Pretty straightforward, though Krall’s origin and motivation which left me a little cold initially make more sense as the grander theme of the film unfolds, so I’ll give it that.  Many of the action sequences seem a little too familiar.  Kirk hangs off things again; the Enterprise crash and running through spinning corridors as it spirals and pitches felt strongly like STID.  Just the Enterprise getting beat up for a final time gave me a little pause, but the sequence is so visceral, and much longer than one would think as to make me be willing to accept that.  Indeed, in the process, we get this kind of nod that the Enterprise is herself a character and we’re watching her death, and that’s something I needed for this to work.

There are a couple of places where I felt a few logic gaps: Why couldn’t Edison and his crew fix and launch the Franklin with years to work with when Scotty and Jaylah alone were able to make it work?  I never did quite get the idea how much of The Swarm was manned and how much was automated.  It seems to me there was no way Krall had 80,000 troops (40,000 Swarm ships, two people each) yet every time Spock and McCoy entered one, they found a manned one.  And rather than fighting with the big air fan to blow the bioweapon out into space at the end, why couldn’t they just beam it (and Krall) out into space?

None of these are problems that ruin the experience for me, and perhaps subsequent viewings (only two so far) will reveal some of those answers for me and I was just being dense.  I admit to having fought down a rather nasty stomach virus to see it, and my gurgling belly might have obscured some dialogue.*

Even if not, there’s so much great Trek here, it really doesn’t matter.  We tend to forget a lot of the stories on TOS were fairly standard tales; it was the moral of the story and above all the characters that made TOS more than the sum of its parts.  This film does great things with those characters.  Everyone gets a moment to shine, and some are so deliriously perfect (looking at you Karl Urban) as to make your head spin. 

I found Chris Pine’s Kirk particularly interesting here; he is NOT the Kirk of the Prime Universe, but seems to in this case share the malaise we saw in Christopher Pike in “The Cage.”  That makes a lot of sense given this Kirk’s origin, that he might reflect Pike a little more; Pine delivers it wonderfully, and as Kirk breaks his existential ennui and emerges again ready to go boldly at the end, we buy every minute.  He gives a marvelous performance that never makes you doubt he is the Captain.

The newly introduced Jaylah character is a lot of fun.  Smart, capable, and not once sexualized.  I hope we get to see more of her in the future, or indeed, she might serve wonderfully as a spin off character if Paramount would ever bother to actually market or expand it’s film franchise (sorry, that’s a different rant).**

Again, as short as her presence in the movie is, the 1701 gives us some sleeker lines, and some painful moments that made my stomach hurt for her (maybe it was the virus): the severed nacelles, the cut throat, the helpless saucer burning in.  But, that moment when in her final motion she gets her revenge on Kalara, the alien who betrayed them all and led them into the trap in the nebula, that moment was special.  Kirk said she had a few tricks left, and indeed she did.

The trick of bringing in the real world death of Leonard Nimoy by making Prime Spock’s death organic to the arc for young Spock was inspired.  Not only does this film give us that acknowledgement, they manage to give us that image as a nod to all of the classic crew from “The Final Frontier” and I will admit, my eyes filled with tears both viewings.  Such a nice way to honor the originals, living or dead.  I hope they do as well honoring Anton Yelchin in the next one.

Other callouts to earlier Trek included a reference to Apollo from “Who Mourns for Adonis?”; actually seeing a universal translator work the way it would have to; and an again completely organic reintroduction of the Beastie  Boys’ song “Sabotage.”  Look, I don’t care if you like it or not, but I love the tie between Kirk and the Beasties.  No one batted an eye at “A Tale of Two Cities” or all the Shakespeare that shows up throughout TOS (and a nice Bard-drop in here as well!); 300 years from now, our culture will be as classic to them as Dickens.  I like that.  Also, the use of “Sabotage” is so utterly perfect on every level, thematically right through to the stunning visuals accompanying it.  I grinned like an idiot the whole sequence.

Speaking of the visuals, just wow.  From the Enterprise’s new warp effect and fascinating angles from which to shoot her, to the simply stunning concept, design, and appearance of Yorktown station, this movie just looks beautiful.  If someone doesn’t get an Oscar for effects or production design, there’s a real problem.  Yorktown alone could be the setting of a thousand sci fi stories.  Rumor has it they designed 50 new aliens for the 50th anniversary; it shows.

Here ends the basic movie review.  However, I have something I really want to talk about here.  I mentioned it took me subsequent viewings to appreciate Into Darkness more, and I found my second viewing of Beyond gave me the theme I didn’t really think was there the first time.  I could be wrong, maybe very little of this was intended by the writers, but I’m about to argue why Beyond—though a good but not the best Star Trek movie—may be the most important movie of the year.

The theme of unity and Humanity pulling together with the aliens of the Galaxy to form the Federation, and why that is a good thing is obvious.  Scotty’s grandmother’s aphorism about a twig in a bundle; the calls for unity; how team and family will win the day.  We see diversity in all those aliens, beings of all genders, and finally the subtle inserted husband for Hikaru Sulu which works so well.  The villain Krall argues against unity, feeling there must be strife and conflict in order to grow.  He can’t get over the wars he once fought on behalf of humanity and now has become a monster wielding ancient alien technology to bring darkness back into the Federation’s light.  I was initially a little “meh” about yet another rogue Starfleet Captain, but I began to think about the nature of this one.  A soldier who could not accept peace, was willing to employ the tools of others, but never join or enlist them, just to force others, to do his bidding.  He felt he had been wronged, and could not let go, and was scared of what an open future meant. 

That establishes him as the same type of bad guy as Admiral Marcus from STID.   STID is, let’s face it, a 9/11 movie.  It’s about a Democracy losing its way and employing the techniques of terrorists out of fear in the name of safety.  Beyond picks up with Kirk’s speech from the end of that and declares that we don’t have to feel that angst anymore, that we can—together—move on toward the future.

The United States has been in a state of angst over the events in 2001 for 15 years.  Can you name a blockbuster movie in the last decade that hasn’t dropped a building (or dozens, Zach Snyder) for effect?

Star Trek Beyond is declaring an end to the post-9/11 era.  It’s telling us it is time to stop being ruled by our fear and pain, and move forward.  The lighting in the movie goes from dark rooms and displays to the twilight greys on the Franklin, to a final confrontation in the light (yet the villain vanishes away in the darkness he cannot escape).  We are shown that unity is humanity’s strength as each member of the Enterprise crew brings their specific talent to the table to save the day; not homogenous, but together and celebrating their differences.  The movie talks about “adventure” and “fun” and getting past all the darkness to reach out because “there is nothing unknown; just that which is temporarily hidden.”

There’s even a scene where three aircraft are speeding toward buildings full of people, and our heroes in the USS Franklin physically interpose themselves in the path to keep it from happening.  This is not a movie where buildings fall to tap hidden fear.  This is a movie where heroes save the day, not with ease, but with cooperative will and unified just cause.

The movie is a romp, a joyride, one that does not ignore the dangers in the world, but tells us there’s a better way to confront them than with fear and darkness.  It’s the antithesis to all those dark, angst ridden blockbusters that have become so normalized.  This movie is happy, this movie takes us from the shadows to the light, this movie dares us to do better.

This is a movie that wants us to move past all our angst; and that’s exactly what I—what we all—needed right now.  With all the hate and vitriol in news and entertainment, Star Trek Beyond challenges us to be more and sets the example as to how.

As good as it is a Trek movie, Beyond is so much more important to who we are as a people right now, as TOS was a fairly entertaining space show in the 60’s that proved to be more than the sum of its parts when we needed it then. 

We need more like this; we need more movies that encourage us to go Beyond.

*Indeed! Subsequent viewings did point out to me that only Krall and two minions were actually beings (and for that matter the survivors of the Franklin) and all of the drones and their pilots were automated.  Makes me almost wonder if they had Ruk down there somewhere.

**Not even a novelization? Really?

All images property of Paramount Pictures, no infringement is intended.