The sense of fun feels manufactured in the future – that’s what I’ve learned from director Justin Lin’s STAR TREK BEYOND. After everything we went through with director J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DORKNESS DARKNESS, it’s a relief that Lin’s film attempts to do things slightly differently. It’s an admirable notion, but it’s that much more disappointing when it fails to entertain and engage.
The plot is straight-forward and simple – one of the few small blessings. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise – comprised of Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (John Cho) – is sent out by the Federation into the dangerous, uncharted Nebula region on a rescue mission. However, it’s a trap (DUH!) set by villainous alien Krall (Idris Elba), who’s on a galactic search for the Abronath, a MacGuffin that Kirk has hidden. In the wrong hands, the device will lead to massive destruction.
Look, I can appreciate the story the filmmakers were trying to tell, but they bungle it at every turn. The product lacks a lasting punch and discernible strength to the ideas it posits. Kirk and Krall are supposed to be two sides of the same coin – Krall succumbing to the dark side and Kirk clinging onto the light. However, that’s not fully realized. Show me that movie! Fan service is handled ham-handedly and in small doses. Though it’s not the first time it’s happened on screen, the scene where the Enterprise breaks apart should play like the Titanic sinking, yet here we feel nothing emotionally. Screenwriters Pegg and Doug Jung smartly set out to explore what happens to these crew members, a surrogate family of sorts, when the thing physically connecting them is taken away. The crew splinters and relationships are forged (like the playfully antagonistic friendship between Spock and Bones). However, the rest of the cast is bound to come together because they always have the mission in mind. So, again, there’s no question the inevitable will occur. Abandoned are Kirk and Spock’s personal struggles as to what career paths to take. Kirk is allegedly abandoning emotional baggage from the past in order to move on, but these steps don’t feel cinematically satisfying at all. This is used only as a bookend device. It’s completely pushed out of the way in favor of the action-heavy second act. Music choices – like Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” and The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (which was used in 2009’s STAR TREK) – are so on the nose, it’s painful to hear. Nevertheless, the theme song, “Sledgehammer” sung by Rihanna and co-written by Sia, packs the emotional punch I wanted from the hour and 58 minutes prior. Plus, there’s a moment in the denouement that will make your eyes roll out of your head.
Aesthetically speaking, BEYOND is the franchise’s ugliest entry yet. CG is underwhelming and borders on amateur during a few sequences (like when Kirk and Jaylah motorbike to the quarry on what I’m calling ‘Planet Color Correction’). It’s beyond disorienting to track most of the pursuits around any of the bases or ships. I think the best all-too-brief sequence in the film is when Kirk is sliding down the outside of the Enterprise’s saucer shooting at Krall’s soldiers. The fight sequences are even worse, filled with generic shaky-cam medium shots that hide the talent of the stunt coordinator. It’s difficult to even understand exactly how Krall gets his power. The filmmakers can’t commit to how that energy affects him physically – beyond the fact that it corrupts him mentally. There’s a line about how he’s “starting to feel like myself again” after absorbing power, but the makeup design tells a confusingly different tale in that scene. Anytime they show “the bees” (NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES!) – the swarming, pointy spaceships piloted by Krall’s marauders – they look like visual noise, pixelating the imagery rather than adding to the cool factor.
Listen, this isn’t for the cast’s lack of trying to make it good. New addition Sofia Boutella, who plays vengeful badass Jaylah, is a “strong female character” despite never having a “movie star making” moment allotted to her. It’s a waste. Her quest to battle Krall’s henchman Manas (Joe Taslim) is mostly lip service, and her fight with him is ultimately unsatisfying. Urban is this film’s MVP, getting to deliver the screenplay’s best one-liners. Bones is endearing, but then again, he consistently is in this series. Sulu’s subtly handled backstory is a lovely thing and Cho plays it perfectly.
In terms of tone, BEYOND plays more like a self-contained episode of the original series – but a stretched out one, clocking in at around two hours. While I would rather the film not be any longer, their time was not used wisely.
2 out of 5
STAR TREK BEYOND opens on July 22.