Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In Theaters: STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lydia Wilson, Joe Taslim, Greg Grunberg, Deep Roy, Doug Jung, Melissa Roxburgh, Shea Whigham. (PG-13, 122 mins)

It didn't take long for opinion to turn on 2013's STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. Opening to glowing reviews and an 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes, anticipation was high considering that it was the worst-kept secret of that summer that Benedict Cumberbatch's character was going to be revealed as Khan, the most iconic villain in the TREK canon. Once the opening weekend passed, fans were discovering that they didn't really like the movie all that much. Yeah, there was the screenwriting involvement of the much-maligned Damon Lindelof and director J.J. Abrams' distractingly gratuitous use of Dutch angles and lens flare, but INTO DARKNESS focused on Michael Bay-type action with no feel at all for the characters, demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the beloved STAR TREK work so well. To his credit, Abrams listened to the fans. He stayed onboard as a producer and hired Justin Lin, the veteran of the third-through-the-sixth installments of the FAST & FURIOUS franchise, to direct. Lindelof was out, and INTO DARKNESS co-writer Roberto Orci's script, co-written with Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, was extensively reworked by co-star Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung. Whatever remains of the original script is minimal, as only Pegg and Jung are credited, and the end result at least extends an olive branch to those unhappy with INTO DARKNESS, now generally regarded as the worst film in the TREK franchise, toppling the longtime title holder, the William Shatner-directed STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989). It's still got plenty of the blurry, shaky-cam CGI action mandatory for today's mega-budget franchise blockbusters, but this is the closest the rebooted TREK has come to "getting" these characters, now that they're in the familiar places from which we've known them since the 1960s. Cult star and proud nerd Pegg is guilty of giving Scotty some of the showier elements of the story, but he and Jung exert an effort to make this a throwback TREK, at least as far as the characters are concerned, particularly Zachary Quinto's Spock ("Horse shit?") and Karl Urban's perpetually grumpy "Bones" McCoy, who gets a huge expletive cut off in mid-beam with "Dammit, Spock! I'm a doctor not a fu--."

STAR TREK: BEYOND opens with the Enterprise just past the midway hump in a five-year mission in deep space, stopping off for supplies and R&R at Yorktown, a high-tech base and utopian community. Kirk (Chris Pine) is offered a Vice Admiral position in the Federation, but another matter is more pressing: a mission to rescue a stranded ship on Altamid after an escape pod with one survivor, Kalara (Lydia Wilson), arrives at Yorktown. The rescue turns into an ambush, with Kalara forced to steer them right into a trap set by alien despot Krall (an unrecognizable Idris Elba), who's holding her crew hostage on Altamid. Krall wants an artifact acquired by Kirk on a recent mission and stored in the Enterprise's archives, and launches a full-on assault on the Starship, destroying the Enterprise and leaving Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) and the rest of the crew as hostages while other parties--Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin, who died in a freak car accident a month before the film's release), Spock and Bones, and Scotty--get out in escape pods and are temporarily split up. Scotty teams up with Jaylah (Sofia Boutelle), a lone alien warrior, who takes him to the wreckage of the Franklin, a long-abandoned, century-old, pre-Federation Starfleet vessel. Eventually, the other parties meet up and get the Franklin back in semi-working condition, overcoming various obstacles (Spock is severely injured at one point, and Kirk and Chekov are briefly suspended in ice), before hatching a plan to beam the hostages on to the Franklin and get it back to Yorktown.

Of course, this leads to an inevitable battle with Krall and there's more to his story and his reasons for needing the artifact and having an axe to grind with the Federation, though the heaviest lifting Elba seems to do is trying to talk with all the old-school rubber and latex on his face. STAR TREK: BEYOND is an entertaining entry in the series, rather predictable and offering very little in the way of surprises, but a definite improvement over the botched INTO DARKNESS. It manages to find a happy medium for those who need CGI histrionics and those who want the STAR TREK of old. Elba's Krall is a villain on about the same relatively generic level as Christopher Lloyd's Klingon commander Kruge in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, but he's having a good time. The cast clicks a lot better here than in the last film, especially the banter between Spock and Bones. Sulu and Chekov don't have a whole lot to do, with Yelchin primarily required to occasionally urgently yell "Kypteen!" at Kirk, followed by something about shields and "wessels." Pegg throws Scotty the biggest bones, with more dialogue than he had in the last two movies combined, and an obvious girlfriend in the badass Jaylah (Boutelle steals the movie). It's pretty middling as a STAR TREK movie, but it's enjoyable, and Pegg at least seems to understand its universe better than Orci, Lindelof, and probably even Abrams ever did, considering the dip in quality between the 2009 reboot and the 2013 INTO DARKNESS. There's also a touching tribute to original Spock Leonard Nimoy, who died in early 2015 when the film was in pre-production, and a late shout-out to the original cast that's sure to tug on some heartstrings (the film is dedicated to both Nimoy and Yelchin). Pegg even has some references to other sci-fi/horror movies, the biggest one being the very LIFEFORCE way that Krull feeds off his victims, who are left looking not unlike the dead left behind by Mathilda May's nude space vampire in that 1985 Tobe Hooper classic. Lin certainly brings a "2 TREK 2 FURIOUS" (© Marty McKee) vibe to STAR TREK: BEYOND, and seems to be following Abrams' instructions to keep the tilted Dutch angles, but that's just the way things have to be now (the same goes for the reasons that the final attack on Krall requires the crew blasting the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," which is actually worked into the plot). Speaking not as a Trekkie but as a curmudgeon, it's pretty good fun while it lasts, forgotten immediately after, but I'll still take that absolutely perfect and timeless triptych of STAR TREK II-IV any day of the week.

Anton Yelchin (1989-2016)

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