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Star Trek Beyond - poster
Star Trek: Beyond

I didn't really know what to expect from this movie. I was pleased that Abrams wasn't directing anymore, and that Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman weren't writing it. Simon Pegg writing seemed like good news. Justin Lin of Fast and Furious fame directing seemed questionable. The casting of a villain was also disappointing, as it seemed to set the stage for yet another dumb action movie. I watched the trailers, but I tried to avoid larger spoilers and speculation. I didn't want to go into the movie with a bias the way I did with Into Darknes because of all the speculation about Benedict Cumberbatch's character (would he be Khan? Would he not be Khan?).

I was really hoping for Simon Pegg to write a more pure science fiction story instead of a schlocky action movie, especially after the success and hype surrounding The Martian. "Beyond" sounds like a good title for a Star Trek movie. Maybe it would feature the crew of the Enterprise dealing with some kind of environmental challenge out in the unexplored frontiers of space? Maybe it would actually be about exploration and discovery? Maybe it would tell some timeless allegory for the human condition? I could only hope. The announcement of a villain sort of shattered that hope.

Star Trek Beyond - Krall
Yet another vengeful supervillain looking for a McGuffin doomsday weapon.

It doesn't help that the villain is really under-written, and that the plot revolves around the bad guy trying to get a McGuffin in order to activate a doomsday weapon. We've only sat through this plot a hundred times in sci-fi and comic book movies over the past decade. If his plan was to attack the space station anyway, then I don't know why he didn't just do it right from the start, while the Enterprise (and the McGuffin) were docked. Come to think of it, why is the Federation building massive, civilian space stations within eyesight of an ominous, unexplored nebula? Meh, I guess that's better than needing the Enterprise to warp back and forth between Earth and the Klingon homeworld in the span of a couple hours.

The movie also gets off on the wrong foot with its depressing and pessimistic tone. Everyone is depressed and burnt out from their extended mission, and they treat exploration and first contact like a chore. But again, at least the movie doesn't open with the Enterprise parked underneath the ocean while Kirk openly violates the Prime Directive.This opening scene also has more relevance than Into Darkness' cold start, since it's a set-up for the movie's entire plot and central conflict. It introduces us to the McGuffin, explains a little bit about it, and helps to explain why Kirk maybe doesn't feel suited to his role in Starfleet.

Star Trek Beyond - Starbase Yorktown
Starbase Yorktown makes for an intriguing set piece.

Things start to get interesting at Yoktown Starbase. The space station is a pretty fantastic set piece with its novel, M.C. Esher-inspired design. It doesn't seem very practical though. Anyway, here Kirk and McCoy share a depressing birthday drink, and we start to finally get some genuine character out of Kirk (as well as some actual conversation out of McCoy, rather than quippy one-liners). Kirk (and the movie's writers) finally start to come to terms with the possibility that Kirk's motivations for joining Starfleet make him, perhaps, not suitable for the job. He's coping with some degree of survivor's guilt, since he's now celebrated one more birthday than his father would have. The phrase "one year older" - which is already a phrase typically loaded with mortal meloncholy - takes on a parallel meaning. In the meantime, Spock is also dealing with his own forms of survivor's guilt. He and Uhura break up because Spock feels obligated to procreate with his own race in order to propagate the species. His mood is further undercut by learning that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy's classic character) has also died, and he is now faced with a glimpse of his own mortality. These themes of living longer than one should have continue to permeate the movie. The villain, the planet on which the primary action takes place, and the recovered U.S.S. Franklin are all things that should be long since deceased.

Kirk and McCoy share a birthday drink, as Kirk contemplates his purpose in Starfleet.

Finally, these characters seem to be growing and developing on their own terms, based on their own histories, rather than some obligatory sense of "destiny". They are all forced to confront the destinies that they were supposed to live up to, and decide whether or not those are even destinies worth pursuing. In a sense, Star Trek: Beyond even seems to be asking the audience whether these characters should really be trying to live up to the expectations placed on them. This all kind of gets shoved to the side for the bulk of the remainder of the movie in order to make room for a high-energy action movie, and little has changed by the end. Fortunately, the characters never degrade into the caricatures that they seemed like in the previous two movies. This time, they actually feel like genuine characters, and - more importantly - they start to feel like distinct characters who aren't shackled by reductive interpretations of the original characters. In fact, everything felt a little more subdued. The characters aren't spending the entire moving running around shouting. They have conversations. McCoy actually has things to say besides one-liners. There's a greater sense of genuine weight and seriousness to this film that doesn't feel forced or phony like in the last two movies.

My biggest disappointment is my purist fanboy complaint that the movie is a dumb action movie instead of even attempting to be a more thoughtful, conceptual science fiction film. There's still very little treking through the stars going on in this movie. I was hoping to see a movie about exploring space, the hazards that you encounter, the risks inherent in discovery, and the rewards that discovery brings. At the very least, I would have hoped for some kind of political conflict (akin to The Undiscovered Country) rather than yet another vengeful supervillain-of-the-week with a silly doomsday device. Every pretense of deeper philosophical, ethical, moral, or political meaning is quickly dropped to make room for another phaser fight. The title "Beyond" is loaded with so much promise that I feel is never delivered upon. Perhaps "Star Trek: One More Year" would have been a more appropriate title.

Apparently, the third movie is the one in which the Enterprise is doomed to be destroyed.

At the very least, I can give the writers credit for not just rehashing plots and characters from the original series. They blow up the Enterprise (just like the original third movie did), but at least there weren't plagiarized scenes stolen verbatim from the original movies without any understanding of why those scenes worked to begin with. Beyond makes nods to the original series and movies without hitting the audience's head with them. Unlike Into Darkness, almost all of these references and nostalgia moments (such as tributes to Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelly, and James Doohan) are actually pretty good, and the dialogue gags (such as Kirk complaining about their mission feeling "episodic" in his captain's log) really work. Even the opening and ending of this movie mirrored The Wrath of Khan, but this time with their own subtext and meaning that actually works with these characters and situations. Heck, I don't think there was a single Star Trek movie that wasn't alluded to in this film! And that's where this movie succeeds gloriously compared to Into Darkness and the first reboot movie: the writers feel like they get it and they care about the source material more than Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman did. Beyond lacks a good villain and its doomsday McGuffin revenge plot feels phoned-in. But almost all the other pieces really click. With a better villain, this Star Trek movie could have been one of the greats. It's at least better than any of the other summer "blockbusters" that have come out this year.

It's already been announced that a fourth movie will be made. So now can we start boldly going to strange new worlds where no one's gone before?

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