Tuesday, July 26, 2016

If "the summer's best swarm of CGI" doesn't sound like a pullquote, it's because it shouldn't


Hey, let's fans just be thankful that the Star Trek brand can't actually be killed—I mean, if it could be, six bad movies in a row would probably have done it, and they never would've even made the seventh.

Directed by Justin Lin
Written by Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne
With Chris Pine (James T. Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Nyota Uhura), Simon Pegg (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Sofia Boutella (Jayla), and Idris Elba (Krall)

Spoiler alert: mild

Here's something worth mentioning: in 2009, Michael Giacchino did something that I might've thought was impossible—he created an orchestral score for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek that was at least as good as anything in the whole Star Trek film franchise, a franchise that had at least three wonderful and iconic orchestral scores already.  But here's the really amazing part—he did it without directly quoting any of them, limiting himself to an enjoyably overwrought renovation of the TV show's already somewhat-overwrought theme song, and he only used that as a footnote, in the closing credits.

Beyond shall remind you of Giacchino's achievement from its opening frame onward, for he scored this one also, operating in the same mode as both Trek '09 and its follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness.  It shall go on reminding you for two solid hours.  Unfortunately, it's all quite enough to make you wish the three Trek movies Giacchino scored were vastly better than they actually are.  Because then maybe the man would've been inspired to do something for his third nuTrek film that isn't just "Enterprising Young Men" repeated, over and over, in several different registers, till it loses every iota of the vast meaning and wonderment that it once so effortlessly conveyed.  Because Jesus Christ, is Giacchino ever resting upon his laurels here.

Obviously, in another context, it probably wouldn't actually matter; for if this third outing with Chris Pine and the boys were better—that is, if it earned any of that awe, which Giacchino's score now mechanically attempts to force upon you—then you probably wouldn't need to forgive it in the first place, since you wouldn't have noticed that it was a problem, anyway.  Hell, it might've been what Giacchino did the first time, for all I remember.

The new Star Trek franchise retains a perverse power to fascinate, however, despite being what you'd call "bad."  Yes, it's true that each film in the series manages to be bad in the exact same way; every one of them is a middling mid-80s Star Wars rip-off crammed into a vaguely Trek-shaped package.  But each film in the series also manages to be bad in a completely different way, too.  For example: Trek '09 has perhaps the most mechanically-deficient screenplay ever applied to a major motion picture.  Virtually every other minute of its runtime offers some fresh new hell, whether it be yet another all-devouring plot hole, or whether it be the film punching you in the face—one more time—with its deliriously broken conceptual core.  Then, in 2013, came Into Darkness, and things got even worse: Trek '09 might have been written by morons, but it was not exactly written for morons, and this isn't a distinction you can make with Into Darkness.  Oh, no: that film remains our cinema's single most abject expression of The Fan Fiction Blockbuster—a shrieking, cobbled-together monstrosity that recapitulates The Wrath of Khan, but only as a sequence of psychotically-disconnected murals, each of them lovingly painted by Abrams and his screenwriters with somewhere close to two hundred million dollars' worth of their own stinking feces.

And now we have Beyond, and it's bad in yet a third way: gone are (most of) the hard-to-tolerate plot holes; gone too are the absolutely impossible-to-tolerate ambitions to rebuild Nick Meyer's super-classic out of a kaleidoscope of shit.  What our new director Justin Lin has done instead is make a sleepy two-part episode of a nuTrek TV show that never existed, except in his and his screenwriters' imaginations.  Recognizing the dull screenplay's plodding sameness, however, Lin has elected to punch it up with a whole lot of increasingly-annoying action, as well as an understanding of how to shoot conversations in a 'Scope aspect ratio that rivals Abrams' own, and, of course, an Enterprise destruction scene which you'll find to be freighted with somewhere close to zero emotional heft, thanks to the lack of any pronounced affection you're likely to have for the new ship, alongside the fact that—in thirteen movies—the Enterprise has already been blown up three damned times, and the trick was only ever going to work the once.

Anyway, technically speaking, it's more like a two-and-a-half-part episode, since Beyond runs just a hair over two hours; and, indeed, one of the single worst things about this movie is that it's at least thirty minutes too long, despite Lin's wearying pace.  Indeed, the most obvious reason that it's thirty minutes too long is because every one of Lin's interminable setpieces is at least five minutes too long.  (Frankly, the last setpiece could've just been removed entirely, and I think everybody would've been happier—especially considering that all it really accomplishes is reminding you that, six years ago, the Disc Wars sequence from TRON: Legacy worked this exact same gravity gimmick, only one thousand times better.  Well, that's not true: it also reminds you that no one since Star Trek VI has managed to realize that, in a movie about battles between spaceships, you don't actually need to end your movie with desultory fisticuffs.  And yet that's exactly how six of the last seven Star Trek movies have ended.  Go fucking figure.)

The point is that Beyond is transparent in its origins: it was always "let's make another nuTrek movie, while anyone gives half a damn and we can still put the cast back together," and never "I have a great idea for a nuTrek movie that does something interesting with this new iteration of the Star Trek universe."

And yet, still better than Voyager.

So, the story: Beyond opens up in the midst of the Enterprise's first five year mission of exploration, which in Star Trekese means "dicking around quasi-randomly"; and our good Captain Kirk has developed a certain degree of ennui regarding his orders to know all that is knowable.  (Meanwhile, Beyond at least has the decency to get its objectively worst line out of the way quickly, when Kirk suggests in a captain's log that his life has become "episodic.")  But forget about that nonsense; here's some other nonsense.  It's the plot, which kicks in quickly, and then keeps kicking until your backside is black-and-blue.

A survivor of a space disaster arrives at a new Federation starbase around the same time the Enterprise has, and Kirk is sent to investigate.  The Enterprise thus warps out to the nebula where the disaster occurred; and, in the finest Trek tradition, nobody involved in writing or visualizing this film cared in the slightest what a nebula is or looks like.  In fact, it's without a doubt the all-time stupidest depiction of a nebula in the whole Trek canon.  So let's give the film all the credit it's richly earned.  It's won a fiercely-competitive contest, and its prize is a pointy hat and our disrespect.

It turns out to be a trap, of course: the survivor neglected to mention that it wasn't an accident, it was an attack, and the Enterprise is felled by unknown enemies over an uncharted planet.  Though our principal cast is split up into small groups, they do all manage to survive, especially Scotty, who befriends a potential ally in the form of Jayla.  It turns out that the attack was undertaken by a menacing figure by the name of Krall, who's after a maguffin that Kirk happened to have obtained during the prologue.  Explosions and a few twists ensue for another hour and thirty minutes.  Some of them are enjoyable.  Most of them are run into the ground by Lin's direction; the rest, by the general impression you get of the screenplay's dull template-filling.

Now, let's be clear: I am not one of those people who can't like nuTrek because it's "not Star Trek."  Star Trek can be a lot of things, and bitchin' space opera with little on its mind but cool 'splosions can be one of them: Deep Space Nine went to that well plenty of times, and it's arguably the best of the five series for exactly that reason.  Of course, DS9 (in addition to its deep mythology and twisty politics) also had characters whom its writers both loved and understood.  The closest Beyond gets to human (or even humanoid) is clumsily imposing that dumbassed big three-oh arc upon Baby Kirk, who has gotten everything he wanted, and now apparently finds it all quite pointless and dull.  And, frankly, it's hard to overcome just how ridiculously un-Kirklike this sentiment is; but since it's such an awful idea on so many other levels, the mere lack of fidelity to the concept of "Captain Kirk" isn't even the worst thing about it.

There was some reason to hope that Lin, a distinguished veteran of those hyper-episodic Fast and Furious films, might still be a good fit for this Trek, despite all the (nominal) differences in tone and subject matter; if nothing else, those movies did demonstrate a real aptitude at juggling a ridiculously large ensemble cast.  Not so much here: Beyond barely manages beyond the Big Three of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and whenever it does, it's relatively clear that it's because Simon Pegg, who stars as Scotty, also helped write the script.  Or maybe it's because Pegg is the sole member of the cast who can still put on a feature-length impression with any enthusiasm.  As for the rest of them, it appears that the novelty of pretending to be other actors for weeks on end might've finally started to wear off.  So behold Uhura, pushed by the previous films as the new third wheel in the Kirk-Spock dyad, now reduced to around eight lines of dialogue; witness the denouement of the public scuffle over Sulu's sexual reorientation manifest itself as a single shot which I (literally) blinked and missed; and see Anton Yelchin, pushed into a slightly more-privileged place (possibly in the editing room, after his death), riding the starship to actor heaven on the strength of Chekov's wobbly wubble-yous.

On the other side of that divide, we've got the "new" folks (new is a relative term): Sofia Boutella, spouting broken English as Scotty's wary ally (do you think Zoe Saldana got annoyed, that this was basically her character from Avatar, with all the lack of depth that implies, but replacing the noticeable Cameronian heart with a whole lot of higher-tech trappings?); and, yes, we also have poor Idris Elba as our villain, straining under some heavy yet disappointingly-unremarkable makeup, playing his character precisely as written—that is, as a collection of growled-out lines about being Generically Evil—until the moment the film at last decides to twist out a more concrete (but still fairly boneheaded) motivation for him, which alters his lousy, check-cashing performance only in the sense that now he's not wearing as much makeup.

The only thing keeping the movie afloat is the occasional flash of humor, which somehow bubbles through.  Sometimes it's forced in at phaser-point; but at least it's something to distract you from the numbing, swarming CGI of the spaceship action, which I am compelled to admit does eventually come together in the end, with a pointed musical reference to Trek '09, which worked (for me, anyway) on the level of abstract shapes and very un-absract sound, even if it's almost without a doubt the most contrived damned thing I'll see in a movie this year.  Well, in any event, I appreciated that the most glaring, brutal reference to Star Trek Past at least comes from this universe, this time around.  Ironically, it's also the one stupid action sequence in the whole stupid movie that I'd call "too short."

Okay, that's not quite the only thing: some of the production design can be intensely wonderful.  But that's got to be the least surprising thing about it.  The nuTrek series has always had ecstatically good production design, even when the scripts were handing its designers terrible concepts to visualize.  It's even less surprising in this third outing, for Beyond was designed by Tom Sanders, one the most reliably brilliant PDs of our age.  So, yes, the film's fitfully bewildering, especially in its opening hour, with the ridiculous Escheresque of the Federation starbase (it is wholly unTrek, but amazing nevertheless) and the lurid appearance of the Enterprise's halls under Red Alert.

But here's the thing: I don't know exactly how backhanded a compliment it must be, to say that my favorite part of the whole movie was the way a sequence of red lights cascaded down some white hallways.  And yet it can't be a very good sign.

Score:  5/10


  1. I was really happy to see McCoy reemphasized. He was always my guy, and I was pissed when he got shafted because Uhura was a twofer. I suppose since they made Kirk so young and brash, they felt they didn't need another character to act as the counterpoint to Spock, because Kirk was that in and of himself.

    Your point about fistfights in starship battles is interesting. I had never thought about it before, but you're absolutely right. Sure, they threw down in III after the space surprise attack, but it wasn't until Generations that it became required, as they didn't have one in I, II, V or VI.

    1. It hit me like a diamond bullet. And I know a big part of the reason was Patrick Stewart wanted ACTION. See also: the dune buggy chase in Nemesis and the endless stretches of REBEL COMMANDO ACTION in Insurrection. In absolute fairness to nuTrek, fisticuffs tend to play a lot better in their milieu, possibly because the performers aren't in their seventies and eighties.

      (Also, the fistfight in The Search For Spock is amazing, and rest assured I've got nothing bad to say about that.)

  2. I've never seen any episode of the original show. Uhura can't possibly be as useless as she is in this new continuity, right?

    1. Um. PASS!

      (To answer seriously: yes, and by a wider margin than you'd likely believe.)