Film

What Is 'Star Trek Beyond' Trying to Accomplish?

Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek Beyond

Can the rebooted film franchise keep what is special about Star Trek, but boldly go where no director has gone before?


Star Trek Beyond

Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
Release date: 2016-11-01
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the classic television series Star Trek, which teased audiences’ imagination with creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of humanity’s future. As discussed in the Blu-ray extra “To Live Long and Prosper”, the series and its many spinoffs must feel relevant to our world and time, which gave Star Trek Beyond the opportunity to illustrate how the venerable series’ vision of a future utopia can mesh with our increasingly violent, fragmented world. In some ways this anniversary-year film succeeds in reminding fans who grew up with classic Star Trek, as well as viewers new to the film franchise, just what is best about the original, but it also fails to deliver on so many promising ideas that could have made Star Trek Beyond not only a truly great film for Star Trek’s 50th year but a bold new direction for, dare fans hope, the next 50 years.

Celebrating Its Origins

During Captain James T. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) log entry early in the film, he notes that the Enterprise crew is in their third year of a five-year mission. His adventures, he adds, are beginning to feel “episodic”. So, too, does Star Trek Beyond seem more like an extended episode in a long-running series rather than a special adventure meriting its own film. In one way, this “extended episode” is a plus. Fans familiar with the characters and lines from the classic series are rewarded numerous times throughout the film, without an obvious exaggerated wink to indicate to those unfamiliar with the original that a phrase or situation is an insider moment.

Star Trek Beyond never truly answers Kirk’s question, via his log entry, “What are we trying to accomplish?”
For example, Kirk returns from a botched diplomatic mission in which he has been attacked by small but vicious warriors who don't like the peace present he brings them on behalf of another species. As he steps off the transporter, he mournfully comments that he has ripped another shirt. Viewers familiar with the '60s series likely recall William Shatner’s Kirk frequently tearing a shirt during combat or sometimes appearing shirtless. Similarly, Pine’s Kirk washes up after his ordeal, giving audiences another shirtless Kirk on display. However, the new twist is that this Captain has identical golden shirts hanging in his closet, answering the question of just where the original Kirk got replacement uniforms during an exploratory mission into uncharted space.

Other characters speak lines directly taken from the original series. When Dr. Leonard McCoy, better known as Bones (Karl Urban), complains to his Captain about being dragged into a dangerous mission, he says, “Damn it, Jim. I’m a doctor, not a ...” his words fading as the transporter sends him away. Throughout the classic series, DeForest Kelley’s Bones added new nouns to complete that statement. He also raised an eyebrow while uttering “In a pig’s eye” when he didn't believe what Spock or Kirk told him. Urban’s McCoy does the same. The characters may share dialogue, but in this film Urban finally makes Bones his own and not an imitation of Kelley's character.

What would Star Trek then or now, be without Spock’s “Fascinating” punctuating a new discovery? Whether said by Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto, the line will always summarize the Vulcan’s openness to discovering something new. More obscurely, Chekov (Anton Yelchin) is overheard telling a crew member that scotch “was invented by a little old lady in Russia”, only a slight variation from Walter Koenig’s Chekov being more geographically specific with a reference to Leningrad.

In Star Trek Beyond, the Enterprise is destroyed yet again, but this time by obliterating the starship with bad guy Krall’s (Idris Elba) massive hive of technologically created bees. In another, much later familiar scene, the Enterprise is lovingly reconstructed so that Kirk and company may continue exploring new worlds and new civilizations. Such familiarity is welcome, especially in such an important anniversary year, and it, not the plot, is a highlight of Star Trek Beyond.

In addition to familiarity with classic Star Trek, the film’s casting may seem familiar to fans of producer J. J. Abrams’ previous projects. Long-time friend Greg Grunberg has appeared in the Abrams’ television series Felicity, Alias and Lost for example, as well as films such as Mission Impossible III. His two brief scenes on Yorktown, a metropolis encased in a snow globe of a starbase, add Star Trek Beyond to his resume of roles in Abrams’ productions.

The Enterprise Family

Roddenberry’s vision of infinite diversity in infinite combinations and the power of unity as part of that utopian future is another strength of this film. In the classic series, humans Kirk and Bones plus Vulcan Spock represent these ideals as they form a triumvirate, often depicted by the three forming a triangle while standing within a camera shot. Kirk, as Captain, requires the balancing influences of the emotionally more volatile Bones and the cool logic of Spock. In Star Trek Beyond, the triumvirate is well established through individual scenes between Bones and Kirk sharing a purloined bottle of scotch from Chekov’s locker, Bones and Spock further bonding during dangerous situations, or the three interacting when an injured Spock is tended by both Bones and Kirk. The triumvirate is also emphasized within a shot typical of the television series, all three characters once again being framed in a triangular formation.

This friendship, however, is not the only example of family. Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) have an on-again/off-again romantic relationship that often requires mediation but is based on mutual concern. Upon finding another surviving crew member on the planet on which they are stranded, Chekov joyfully hugs Scotty (Simon Pegg, who, along with Doug Yung, briefly playing Sulu’s partner, wrote the script). A final scene involves the crew toasting Kirk on his birthday and socializing while they await the recreation of their home starship. These scenes, as well as dialogue underscoring the idea of a crew being a family in which no one gets left behind, remind audiences of Star Trek’s greatest strong point: its characters.

Plot Problems

The basic plot is simple. Krall needs the missing piece of a doomsday weapon in order to destroy first Yorktown and then everything else. He disagrees with the Federation’s peaceful philosophy and wants a return to the principle that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Kirk, believing he's leading a rescue mission to an unknown world in order to save another Captain’s crew, is unaware that he is falling into Krall’s clutches. Conflict ensues. When his ship is destroyed and his crew, many of them captured by Krall, are stranded on Krall’s planet Kirk, assisted by friends Chekov, Bones, Spock, and Scotty, in addition to new character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), must find a way to save them, Starbase Yorktown, and the rest of the universe.

Although Kirk as a character has been well established in the Abrams-rebooted film franchise, an opportunity to develop him further and make him more than a scrappy fighter, sexual adventurer, or loyal leader has been lost in Star Trek Beyond. Early in the film, Kirk reluctantly commemorates his birthday by drinking scotch with Bones and recalls that he has lived a year longer than his father, a heroic starship captain who sacrificed himself to save his crew, including his about-to-give-birth wife. The son questions whether he should remain a Captain or seek the less adventurous position of Admiral on Yorktown. Such a personal dilemma could have been explored in greater depth, even within an action film, rather than glossing over Kirk’s crisis and assuming that he is happiest when he is Captain of the Enterprise.

At times, fans of the franchise may wish that Star Trek Beyond didn't jump into the third year of its long-term mission. The classic television series covered only the first three years of the five-year mission before its cancellation. Therefore, it was able to gradually develop the relationships that viewers grew to love. Star Trek Beyond relies on audiences' understanding that the friendships have already matured. A case in point is the outwardly prickly but mutually appreciative Bones-Spock friendship, which was not developed in the first film introducing the characters or the second film, which focused far more on the Spock-Kirk friendship. Thus, when Spock and Bones are faced with a likely deadly confrontation with Krall’s minions and Spock tells his companion that “I always assumed my respect for you was clear,” the emotional payoff of that statement is lessened because audiences have not seen very much of their relationship.

Similarly, Sulu’s (John Cho) backstory is assumed in this film, without even a hint of his family in previous films. Despite the admirable “reveal” that Sulu’s life partner is male and the couple are raising a daughter, which, the director acknowledges, is no big deal and should not be unduly emphasized in the film, many fans may wish either that a new gay character had been added or that an on-screen kiss had been included. After all, Sulu is returning from a long separation and is being welcomed home by his family -- a little more husbandly affection would have been appropriate.

Another lost opportunity, one reflecting the continuing relevance of Star Trek’s '60s-era optimism, despite that decade’s many tragedies, is the question whether unity truly is strength or whether individual conflict/combat is needed to create strength. Krall firmly believes the latter. He seeks to destroy the Federation because it promotes peace and tries to eliminate conflict on an interplanetary scale, which is anathema to his Darwinian belief in survival of the fittest. Kirk and crew represent the Federation’s opposing view that peaceful co-existence should be encouraged. If these competing arguments had become a more important focus instead of the typical premise that a bad guy threatens the Enterprise crew and potentially the entire universe and must be stopped through special effects and fight sequences, then this film might have shown audiences what is beyond the first 50 years. It might have even provided a looking-back-from-the-future promise that humanity survives its current global conflicts because of the Federation’s premise of peaceful co-existence and served as a role model, much as the original series often did.

Classic Star Trek took on controversial themes (e.g., the Cold War, the first interracial kiss on national television). Star Trek Beyond never truly answers Kirk’s question, via his log entry, “What we’re trying to accomplish?” Other than the cynical answer “fast-paced entertainment”, that question about where the franchise is trying to accomplish is also never answered. Such a response would have been a fitting tribute not only to where the franchise has been but a possible bold new direction where it might head.

A New Species and a Kick-ass Character

Despite these plot issues, Star Trek Beyond successfully introduces a new species and expands the Star Trek canon, even if it doesn't name the species or their home world. Although Jaylah, an escaped victim of Krall, is initially reluctant to help Kirk rescue his crew, she is a strong, admirable character. Among her accomplishments are her engineering skills that allow her to renovate and holographically cloak her old starship of a home and her willingness to share that technology with Kirk so that he can create a diversion allowing the rescue of his crew. She also is an accomplished warrior and a lover of “classical music” such as Public Enemy and Beastie Boys. Jaylah is a fascinating addition to the Trekverse, and she, like Uhura (who, although Spock attempts to save her, is definitely not a damsel in distress), makes the film a little less male-centric. The next film would do well to add characters such as Jaylah but also deal with their personal or professional issues in more detail and provide a little more backstory to get them started.

The Blu-ray Extras

Star Trek Beyond is a good, if imperfect film and an entertaining way to spend a few hours. The disc set includes the film and extras on Blu-ray, only the film on the DVD, and a digital download. Among the 11 extras that provide more than an hour of additional viewing, a few stand out among the expected scenes cut from the film or gag reel of fluffed lines.

“Beyond the Darkness” includes commentary by Abrams on the selection of new scriptwriters Pegg and Yung and director Justin Lin, the film’s “deconstruction” of the crew into pairs that provide insights into characters and relationships, and Lin’s point of view about Star Trek and the elements he wanted to emphasize in the film. “To Live Long and Prosper” pays tribute to 50 years of Star Trek, with very brief clips from the films starring the classic crew through the more recent Star Trek: Into Darkness. It also compares the current film franchise with the classic television series.

The most touching extra is “For Leonard and Anton”, recognizing the loss of Star Trek family members Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Whereas the Nimoy tribute includes numerous clips of his portrayal of Spock and the current cast’s memories of working with him, the shorter remembrance of Yelchin is surprisingly upbeat, with behind-the-scenes clips of him joking with cast mates. Such tributes are necessary to this film’s collection of extras and offer fans a fitting way to say goodbye to beloved actors and characters.

Although Star Trek Beyond may not be the ideal anniversary present to fans, it's a film worth seeing not for the action scenes or special effects, but for the celebration of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, Uhura, and the rest of the Enterprise crew, red shirts included. May Star Trek continue to live long and prosper, but more important, may it go where no one has gone before.

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