Reviews

'Star Trek Beyond' Treks Towards Planet Hollywood

Justin Lin helms creates a popcorn-friendly Fast and Furious Star Trek with Roddenberry's original vision jettisoned in the escape pods.


Star Trek Beyond

Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana & Simon Pegg
Studio: Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot
Release Date: 22 July 2016 (USA)

I took the San Diego trolley away from Comic-Con toward the Fashion Valley Shopping Center. I bought my ticket to Star Trek. I put on my 3D glasses. It was July and I was entertained. I didn’t yawn. I finished my popcorn. I reacted to the tender moments of friendship and empathy. I cheered as heroes triumphed over bad guys.

Unfortunately, I also took a lot of mental notes that made the film less enjoyable for me. I’m a hard core Trekkie (one not afraid of the “ie” fandom designation). While Star Trek Beyond was entertaining enough, it wasn’t the return to the real Star Trek universe I had hoped for.

Star Trek is more than a ship named Enterprise. It's more than characters named Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty. Star Trek is more than insider winks and nods, more than cryptic allusions to previous stories. Although the Star Trek Beyond team understood this better than previous Abrams outings, the heart of Star Trek, the driven human quest to explore, to accept diversity and embrace wonder, still remains challenged in this latest venture.

Star Trek Beyond does get the relationships between the crew. The ribbing and camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty is spot on (but Uhura is underused). Perhaps the constraints of a two-hour movie every few years means making choices. The writers choose character over message. Years of Star Trek, however, prove time and again that character and heart not only can co-exist, in the Star Trek universe they must.

But it isn’t just that Lin and team miss the heart of Star Trek, it's that they get it wrong. Even in the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation, a sense of intergalactic inclusiveness pervades. Sure, there are plenty of leaders capable of slipping through the reigns of psychological testing, but the unhinged xenophobe Captain Edison of Star Trek Beyond would have had a first officer and crew to contend with before he transformed into an intergalactic pirate by sucking life and DNA from every species he encountered and conquered.

That he manages to either absorb his crew’s life, or likewise integrate them via the transformation device he uses, strains credibility in the Star Trek universe, even if places such as Waco and Jonestown exist in real history.

No Star Trek canon ever suggests a devotion like that of the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple Agricultural Projects. Throughout the history of Star Trek, the leadership characters, which viewers know and love, find themselves challenged by their crew when they no longer represent the oaths and duties they have sworn to uphold (and equally supportive of their leader’s insubordination when the rules constrain doing what is right).

Perhaps our world has become a dark place and there is no space for Roddenberry’s naive vision of human cooperation and globalization. No room for a vision of central government and efficiently distributed wealth. If we think about it, Roddenberry’s time was even darker than ours. World War II, The Holocaust, and the Korean conflict were recent memories still full of sting. Vietnam was building up and the Cold War drove the fragmentation of Europe and nuclear weapon build-ups. Star Trek was created in a time of great social upheaval and experimentation. The domestic issues around sex and race and equality we face today were first publicly confronted while Star Trek was on the air.

If you look at the last two films, they leverage a pessimistic threat that isn’t from outside the United Federation of Planets, but from within it. The naiveté of not paying attention to threats from within undermines the Federation as an institution. The original Star Trek rarely hinted at internal conflict, save for technological issues facilitated by madness. Internal threats were typically individual, not systemic.

Star Trek (2009) offered an external threat in the form of Nero, a Borg-supplied Romulan singing “vengeance is mine”. The failures of logic in that movie -- as good as it was to see the gold, blue and red shirts flying again on the USS Enterprise -- transported it into the nearly inconsequential, save for the resetting of the Universe as a platform for the new franchise.

In Star Trek Into Darkness Admiral Marcus was a xenophobe who commandeers vestiges of history, and seemingly a crap load of Federation credits, to fund a secret fleet and army. He also plans to unleash members of Kahn Noonien Singh’s eugenically engineered crew from the 1990s to bring back the fighting spirit to an institution that has become complacent.

In later years, Star Trek movies did deal with internal Federation issues. Most notably, Star Trek VI, which circles around a plot to assassinate Klingon and Federation leaders in order to avoid ushering in an era of peace between the two species. As good as that movie was for its Shakespearian quotes and well-acted bravado, it too edged away from Roddenberry’s vision, perhaps acting as an inspiration for the current film.Spoilers ahead.

In Star Trek Beyond the threat comes again from within, this time from a Starfleet captain who is pissed off because he was given a nice cushy exploration job when what he really wanted to do was keep killing the bad guys -- and so he transferred his hate to his former employer and made them, The Federation and Starfleet, the bad guys. Krall is Captain Edison, and Captain Edison goes Postal. Edison is Star Trek VI’s Captain Kirk unable to control himself after the defeat of Chang at Khitomer. Yet, even as Kirk cringes at the idea of Klingons becoming allies, he never allows his dislike to descend into sociopathy.

Beyond its heart, Star Trek Beyond also contains some gapping plot conveniences that you can drive a starship through. The biggest being Edison’s failure to remember where his own ship crashed (Kirk found his in a matter of minutes, but then he did always admonish his crew to remember where they parked). The whole transformation into a long-lived alien isn’t really explained, nor are his abilities to command the technology he discovered upon crashing. It’s kind of like we are watching a movie that was penned in part by Captain Edison through the fog of his forgetfulness.

If hardcore Trekkies let go of the Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon Star Trek, Star Trek Beyond becomes an adventure movie shot against the backdrop of the Star Trek universe. The rules have changed, not just because of a temporal reboot that took place in 2009, but because the audience’s ability to meander through philosophical exploration, and engaging with individual growth spurred through challenge, no longer seems to be what the studio believes puts butts in cinema seats. Justin Lin delivers the kind of visual thrills and harrowing stunts his fans expect. Yes, in some places, this film very much feels like Fast and Furious Star Trek, and for a mid-summer movie, that’s probably just fine for most people.

I won’t suggest how Lin and team could have made Star Trek Beyond better beside saying that even if they tend toward disregarding some tenets of the Star Trek universe, they should better adhere to the principals of physics and very knowingly violate them rather than lean toward a fantasy inspired disregard for physics altogether.

At the end of the film, I dutifully recycled my 3D glasses (which didn’t add much, nor did they detract) and tossed my popcorn and soda containers into the trash bins, and hit the trolley back for the event horizon of Comic-Con.

For Star Trek devotees, perhaps Star Trek: Discovery will return the entirety of the Star Trek vision when it premieres on CBS All Access in January. Since (spoiler) time travel doesn’t actually exist, we’ll just have to wait and see. Live long and prosper.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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