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The few shots that actually take place in space are nice.

I follow a few rules when I set out to review a movie. One of them is that I try to review the movie I’ve seen and not the movie I wish I’d seen. The big difference is that, when you go into something with expectations (sometimes very clear ones), you wind up missing the forest for the trees. On this hook can be hung a lot of unfair reactions and reviews for movies, either positive or negative. It’s a kind of easily avoidable bias and avoiding it raises the caliber of a review. Or at least that’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, that notion is why I’m going to get something out of the way before I dive into this review. I was hoping for a Star Trek movie that finally did something different than the plethora of action-adventure movies we already have, especially in the scifi genre. Star Wars is back, so why does Star Trek need to be so similar to it? Maybe because studios like to make money. I didn’t like this movie very much, and at least a little of that is because it consistently felt like wasted potential. But if you take away my expectation for a more wonder-driven, thoughtful third entry to this reboot franchise, what is left? Hopefully something more fair to the movie. You’ll have to let me know.

My argument is that the movie I saw (as opposed to the one I wished I’d seen) is as fundamentally flawed, shallow, and messy as the previous two. My disinterest in Wrath of Khan helped me appreciate Into Darkness more than the majority of the audience, but this time around I feel like if I were a fan of the Original Series, I’d have appreciated this movie more. It certainly panders to Original Series fans yet again, but asks way less of them (unlike Into Darkness and the ’09 movie). Because I don’t have much feel for what is meant by “it was like a movie length version of an OS episode”, I don’t have to consciously avoid the nostalgia-based bias that comes with that. For what it’s worth, I do think I’ll like this movie more as time goes on (much like ’09) where I like Into Darkness much less. 

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Pine gets lost in a movie that serves his character poorly when it remembers him at all.

Newcomer director Justin Lin should get credit for bringing back the ensemble feel that was one of the ’09 movie’s big strengths. However, it seems like no one, not even writers Simon Pegg and David Jung, know what to do with Kirk (Chris Pine). We rejoin the crew of the Enterprise as they enter the third of their five year mission. Kirk is starting to develop an existential crisis (yes, another one) as they dip back into the same well of “Kirk becoming Kirk” that drove the character in the previous two movies. Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is on the verge of breaking it off with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) so that he can go father some Vulcan children and help repopulate his fallen race. Most of the movie teams Spock with Bones (Karl Urban) who are consistently the best two actor/character combos in this franchise. Most of the movie forgets Uhura exists, trotting her out to exchange weird threats and weirder chemistry with a wet fart villain named Krall (Idris Elba, the wasting of whom is one of this movie’s greatest sins).

One of the bright spots, maybe the brightest, is when the Enterprise docks with Yorktown Starbase, an impressive space station where they go to refit for the next leg of their mission. Yorktown is heavily featured and contains the film’s one foray into the land of awe and philosophical meat. Yorktown very clearly stands for the Federation itself, a symbol of harmonic coexistence and multiculturalism. It’s beautiful and serene and just works. When they get to Yorktown, Kirk is offered a mission to an uncharted planet that might promise more action than his most recent diplomatic efforts (featured in a scene that echoes Into Darkness’s opening and feels repetitive as a result). This is the one bit of foreshadowing we get for how Kirk’s wafer-thin arc is going to play out. As Bones tells him, he’s still looking for meaning in his own life. Still.

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Because spaceships are boring or some shit, the Enterprise is destroyed yet again.

They barely get to the planet when weird insectoid ships destroy the ship and strand the crew on the surface. They are attacked by hulking aliens who shoot green shit from wrist-mounted weapons while capturing members of the crew. A few prominent members of the invasion force go helmet-less and we can see the same reptilian frill-headed alien design that is all over this movie. I shit you not, and admit this may be a nitpick, but even aliens that are supposed to be distinct species look like they were slapped together by the world’s laziest designer. That or Lin kept giving notes like “more head frills”. This goes way past the basic sameyness of Star Trek‘s “from the neck up” alien design in general. It ends up being pretty confusing given how long the movie takes to fully reveal what is actually going on.

Speaking of which, I feel like Beyond drew the wrong lessons from more successful movies. From its predecessors (though it pretends Into Darkness never happened) it retains the “mystery box” approach to plot reveals. We don’t find out who Krall really is until the final quarter of the film, far too late for the shallow ideological underpinnings of his plans to have any weight, and far too late for the movie to bother stopping and explaining why he changed his name, what’s up with the hand-wavey “drone army with mining equipment” (what’s with the Enterprise crew fighting miners all the time anyway?), and so on. It’s sort of clear that the reason Krall looks like an alien is that his thinly sketched “immortality tech” makes him take on the appearance of whatever species he’s draining, but this information is not clear and not executed for impact at all. It’s like they wanted to push past this element and on to something else and honestly a lot of this movie feels like that.

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Krall looks kind of cool I guess.

Krall’s motives are Marvel villain territory (magic doom artifact and all). He is exactly like Malekith from Thor: Dark World except this movie needs him to be more. He spouts off about struggle and frontiers but he’s really just mad at the Federation and thus becomes another old-world Federation terrorist (like Khan) who the Enterprise has to fight. Some are seeing more in this, but I think you need to have a specific kind of background (military probably) to infuse this character with the pathos that the movie doesn’t bother to explore. Given the way Yorktown sets up a clear side of a philosophical argument between cooperation and domination, it’s fair to expect the villain to “bring it” and present the other side, making the fight as ideological (and therefore meaningful) as it is physical. Alas, this is never a priority for the film and instead it relies on platitude phrases and faux-badass lines to give Krall menace or the conflict stakes.

Faring better is the crew’s new ally, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who is sassy, tough, and cool. Her backstory is exposited and her grudge match with one of Krall’s lieutenants is completely underserved, but Boutella rises above it with the character. She’s kinda like Drax the Destroyer, literalizing human concepts in a way that is funny and charming. So I guess they cribbed one good thing from the Marvel movies after all. Some expected Beyond to have a Guardians of the Galaxy tone, and it kind of does, but they didn’t leave much room for the heart and emotional punch that movie had. A good example is Jaylah’s “Han Solo” moment where she seems like she’s going to abandon the crew to fend for themselves. Instead of letting the moment stretch out til we almost think she won’t help (which would make it ever more impactful if she swung in for a rescue), she basically goes from “no no no” to “here’s the plan” in the time it takes to cut to the next scene. This is a mistake made pretty often by movies trying to replicate the wishy-washy heroism of Han Solo, and even Guardians of the Galaxy featured a quick version of it. What made it work there, however, was humour and sense of self-awareness and irony. In Beyond, it’s just a box to check on some list of cool movie tropes.

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Yorktown is awesome.

This review is probably going to represent a bit of a minority view. I went to see this movie with a bunch of friends. The Trekkies among us loved it, but understand the criticisms of the rest of us (which tended to be the same). This is anecdotal but serves to underline the reaction Beyond is getting online, which is generally positive especially among fans of all (or most) things Star Trek. Something about this movie that suggests to me that it’ll grow on me is that I actually agree with some of the positive points and most of the people who liked it a lot also agree with the criticisms. No one is getting overly polemical about this movie which is refreshing after Ghostbusters.

 The funny thing is, I liked some of Beyond‘s more cartoonish elements quite a bit. Some of that stuff did feel inventive and helped make up for the generally incomprehensible action. I was taken aback and then won over by the Sabotage scene. It’s so ridiculous and so perfectly orchestrated that it almost makes up for the bullshit fistfight that really closes the conflict of the movie. There’s a brief moment when the movie flirts with Krall/Edison having a change of heart, but instead he attacks Kirk and is brutally dispatched. When the movie trots into conventional action movie territory, it just fails every time. Most of the action is over-edited and impossible to follow… and I say this as someone who very very rarely makes this (popular) complaint. You won’t hear me bitching about “shaky cam” and I actually think the action in the Transformers movies is relatively clear. Even with the poor editing, the action wouldn’t have made much of a difference if the movie had bothered to spend more time on character development, which is sorely lacking. There are some fun scenes and callbacks and even one or two heartfelt moments, but none of it really amounts to much… which is probably why this feels like a TV episode to the people who liked it. A third movie in a flailing franchise should not feel like an episode of a 50 year old television series, is what I think. All that does is reinforce the smallness, tameness, and shallowness that characterizes Star Trek Beyond.

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