Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016)
In our age of endless remakes, reboots and sequels, what makes any particular film fit seamlessly into the continuum of a well-established series? What makes Marvel superheroes uniquely Marvel? What makes today’s Bond belong to the pantheon of previous Bonds? What makes James T. Kirk special, whether played by William Shatner or Chris Pine? Why ask the questions, if a movie is a movie is a movie and all that matters is whether it is successful on its own terms? If that were true, however, then perhaps we would see a greater variety of original, non-derivative work, while today’s balance is firmly in favor of pre-awareness. So surely we gravitate towards stories that revisit older stories in a context more appropriate to our time. And yet, if the modern take were not, in some way, tied to the past, then there would be no point to a franchise. We go to see Bond because it’s exciting to the see the latest iteration of a well-worn character. It’s a tricky balance, however. Remain too faithful to the source, and current audiences may be bored; change the material too much, and there’s no connection to speak of. In the theater, there is a long tradition of modern updates of classic plays, but the cinema is a younger art form, and we’re still figuring out how best to manage its eternal recurrence.
All of this is by way of introduction to the latest entry in the new – updated and improved! – Star Trek universe: Star Trek Beyond. This is the third movie (the first came out in 2009 and the second in 2013) featuring the current crop of actors: Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as Kirk, Zachary Quinto (Margin Call) as Spock, Karl Urban (Dredd) as McCoy, Simon Pegg (The World’s End) – who also co-wrote the script – as Scotty, John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Sulu, Zoe Saldana (Infinitely Polar Bear) as Uhura and the late Anton Yelchin (Green Room) as Chekov. Even though many of them are now older than were the actors in the original TV series during its first run, the series still feels as if intended as prequel. Then again, since director J.J. Abrams decided, in his reboot, to insert a destructive plot element that completely negated any and all story lines from every single episode and movie that had previously been made, none of that matters. It’s not only a brand new version of the characters, but a complete wiping of the cinematic slate. Which is one way, I suppose, to address the questions I asked, earlier. While I fervently disagree with Abrams’s 2009 script choice, maybe it’s time to move on.
In any case, we have a new director: Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6). Whatever I thought of the changes wrought by Abrams in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, I still found the films more than competent as adventure thrillers, and Lin, here, proves a worthy replacement, crafting a high-octane, adrenaline-fueled sci-fi confection that may just be the best action film of the summer, so far (until Jason Bourne comes out next week, anyway). Yes, the entire enterprise of the USS Enterprise – traveling into unknown space where, for some reason, all aliens have evolved to be bipedal humanoids, with the only differences from our own species being those of color and facial shape – seems as silly as ever, but if one can suspend one’s evolutionary disbelief, there is much fun to be had in this particular yarn.
As the film opens, the Enterprise makes its way to a space station after a failed diplomatic mission. There, a distress call from a stricken Starfleet ship sends them off on another mission to uncharted territory, where they come under attack from a superior adversary, named Krall, played by the ever-reliable Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Marooned and imprisoned on a hostile planet, our intrepid heroes must do what they always do, which is to overcome adversity through pluck and courage. Fortunately, they have help from a fellow refugee, Jaylah – played by the very game Sofia Boutella, who wowed us as the deadly Gazelle in Kingsmen: The Secret Service – and soon find a way to fight back against Krall. As it so often does, the fate of Starfleet (and, by default, of the known universe) comes down to a personal battle between Kirk and his foe. In this sense, fans of the series – even me! – will not be disappointed. Well-acted and -executed, Star Trek Beyond may still bother me for the same reason as did its predecessors (the destruction of Vulcan remains inexcusable), but it’s a damn fine effort, otherwise, and a great summer movie.
So what makes this a modern take on an old story? Well, even more than in the 1960s, Uhura is very much an independent woman. Sulu is also revealed to be gay (something not entirely pleasing to the man who incarnated the role, George Takei, though he is gay, himself). Perhaps the best update, however, is the final reading of the famous “Space: The Final Frontier” monologue, which is now no longer a monologue, but spoken by the entire main cast. They’re a wonderful multicultural team, representative of the world as it is and should be. Star Trek was always, from the beginning, pushing a utopian idealism, and these particular tweaks to the characters are a welcome addition.