August is invariably a quiet time for Taking The Short View in terms of items to review, the TV schedules having been swept clear of new material and left devoid of anything anything much worth reviewing, especially in a summer dominated by the Olympics. While I could have used all this sudden free time to go to the cinema instead, I increasingly find it difficult to find anything worth getting excited about in this age of big-spectacle but empty-headed superhero blockbusters.
However, there are always exceptions. Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve had a steadfast tradition of going to see the latest movies in three franchises in particular the minute they come out in the cinemas: James Bond, Star Wars and Star Trek. It was the turn of the latter to premier a new instalment this month and sure enough I maintained my tradition and saw it shortly after it came out. Which was, of course, some weeks ago now.
Why the delay in posting a review? I could say that an unexpected spike in work in the meantime has thwarted my attempts to write up a review, and there would be some truth in that, but it would only be part of it. The wider answer is that after seeing the film I just couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to write anything, and that admission probably speaks as eloquently as to my feelings about Star Trek Beyond as any words that follow.
First up, let’s be clear: Star Trek Beyond is by no means a bad film. It’s perfectly fine. It was enjoyable and diverting for as long as I was watching, although a lot of the action sequences seemed to drag on forever with diminishing returns. The problem was that I’d pretty much forgotten about the whole thing the minute that I stepped out of the cinema. Thereafter, every time I intended to sit down to type out a review I somehow got distracted by other things (the archery competition in Rio would suddenly becoming particularly compelling, for example) and weeks went by quite happily without the universe needing my thoughts on the latest Star Trek film.
Well, time to bite the bullet and get it out of the way, so here goes.
The problem for me is that since 2009 the current line of Star Trek films bear little resemblance to the Star Trek films (and TV programmes) that I grew up loving. I give credit to JJ Abrams for injecting new life into a franchise that had become stalled and moribund by that point, but by his own admission Abrams was never a great fan of the series to start with and would have much preferred to be directing Star Wars instead. He tried to move the sensibility of the one toward the other, and despite my personal reservations he did so surprisingly well all things considered. But then Abrams got a call from his first love and went off to play in a galaxy far, far away – with, in my opinion, a quantum level of success higher than he achieved with Star Trek simply because his sensibility was so much more in tune with the original spirit and ethos of Star Wars than it ever was for Star Trek, which had previously been the more worthy and wordy series before Abrams got his hands on it.
Abram’s departure certainly left a gaping void at the centre of the Star Trek cinematic franchise which has been hard to fill. Fast and Furious director Justin Lin has now taken over on the directorial side, while actor Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) assumes the writing reins along with Doug Jung. Lin focuses on maintaining the visually stunning, hyperkinetic visual style that Abrams made his trademark, while Pegg goes in the other direction and tries to bring something of the original Star Trek series’ spirit back in what is the franchise’s 50th anniversary year.
Of the two, Pegg is the more successful. He is an über fan and knows the characters inside out, and peppers the film with some great exchanges and in-joke references for the fans to pick up on. Indeed quite the best thing about Star Trek Beyond is that it gives all of the returning cast something to do in a proper ensemble piece, rather than the previous two films which had been predominantly Kirk/Spock two-handers with everyone else little more than background extras. Chris Pine’s Kirk is still centre stage but this time he’s paired up with Scotty (Pegg) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) after the Enterprise is ambushed while on a rescue mission deep within a nebula, the crew scattered across the surface of nearby planetoid Altamid and left running for their lives.
Spock meanwhile is seriously injured and has only Dr McCoy for support. This is Pegg’s best script call, since the spiky relationship between the logical Vulcan and the irascible medic was always one of the highlights of the original show, and Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban have always been the best actors in the new cast in terms of reviving the spirit of their TV characters. Urban in particular has been my stand-out favourite of the 21st century cast making his sidelining in Star Trek Into Darkness a particular shame, so it’s great to see him get much more screen time here.
There’s less for John Cho (as Sulu) and Zoe Saldana (Uhuru) to do but they both nonetheless get their moments and in differing ways both have to save the day at various points. There’s perhaps a little but too much time spent trying and only half-succeeding to develop the film’s main guest character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a victim of a previous ambush now also stranded on Altamid, and the film sadly all-but wastes the considerable talents of Idris Elba beneath layers of prosthetics that leaves him little more than generic alien number one until late in the film when the script attempts a twist that has been insufficiently set-up in advance to have the desired effect. It clearly wants to have the same impact as the surprise with Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison in the previous film, but it leaves it too late to put the pieces in place and when the big reveal comes the best I could come up with in response was “Oh. Okay. That it?”
Without that, the film becomes unmoored when it comes to the plotting which ends up with a lot of rushing around, chasing and hiding and fighting back. Everything is purely reactive, which at least allows Lin to indulge in a lot of action sequences. There’s some genuinely eye-popping stuff here, my favourite being the truly inspired sight of Kirk’s ship ‘swimming’ through a city submerged deep under the surface of a canal. However the film also reuses and recycles ideas a little too much for its good: the swarming insect-like alien ships get old fast, while the loss of gravity which sees Kirk and company running on the Enterprise walls and ceilings during the original ambush has great initial impact but which is then lessened by multiple repeats of the same idea during the rest of the film.
While he’s able to get within touching distance of Abrams in terms of pure visual spectacle, Lin is not able to match his predecessor when it comes to maintaining narrative clarity and cohesion at the same time. A lot of the action sequences descend into mindless motion that will leave you unsure exactly what is happening at any given time, what the characters are trying to do and what happens to them; Abrams by contrast is always able to keep you completely in the loop no matter how many kitchen sinks he’s throwing into the on-screen mayhem at the same time. It’s a rare ability – Abrams might be alone in his generation of filmmakers bf being able to truly pull it off – and so it’s unfair to criticise Lin for not being a match, but it certainly hurt the film as far as I was concerned. Instead of being involving, the action sequences became alienating: they’re there to watch and goggle at albeit at the cost of failing to sweep you into the story and involve you with the characters and their plight. It doesn’t help that in the screening I went to many of these sequences were very murky and dimly-lit so that even the visual appeal of the CGI action faltered.
With the direction going one way and the script trying to go another, ultimately this felt like a watered-down imitation of Abrams’ best. As a result it reminded me I was never terribly sold on this reinvention of the franchise in the first place. Nice little tributes to the late Leonard Nimoy, which included a photograph of the original Star Trek stars on the bridge of the Enterprise in their last film outing together, tipped me further into that corner and left me wishing I was watching those guys, in those films, rather than this odd mishmash of a reimagining. Pegg’s attempt to invoke the original show’s spirit – there’s some nice dialogue about being stronger together and how the Federation is a force for good which one couldn’t resist contemplating in the wake of the Brexit vote – only left me feeling even more melancholy, which was compounded by the sight of Yelchin having a great time and giving his best performance as Chekov only weeks after the 27-year-old actor had been tragically killed in a freak car accident.
Whatever it was, there was something in the air that sucked away my enthusiasm for Star Trek Beyond, much as I tried to like it. If I’m honest, I’m much more excited to see what Bryan Fuller does with the new Star Trek Discovery TV series than to see any more outings set in the Abrams-instigated pocket universe cul-de-sac. If there is another Star Trek film (and the movie industry being the endless parade of sequels it is these days, there’s guaranteed to be another) then perhaps next time I won’t even bother see it in the cinema but will wait instead for the Blu-ray release like I do with most everything else these days. I wouldn’t even see that as my breaking a 40-year-old tradition, since the reality is that the Star Trek movies moved on and left me behind long before I decided to give up on them.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Star Trek Beyond is currently on theatrical release in the UK.