Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to see some more star-trekking in the Star Trek films. I’d like to see Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew explore strange new worlds. They could even seek out new life and new civilisations. I’d go so far as to say that they could boldly go where no one has gone before, just as their forebears did in the 1960s television series and subsequent spinoffs.
The first two films in the rebooted franchise were fizzing with energy and lens-flaring pizzazz, but neither of them had the programme’s awe-inspiring sense that every extra-terrestrial encounter could bring puzzling ethical challenges and unorthodox perspectives in addition to green-skinned girlfriends for Kirk. The phaser-gun battles that JJ Abrams served up instead were all well and good, but if they are the franchise’s raison d’etre then it should have a different title. Star Wars, for instance.
Beyond makes you forget the revived villains and gratuitous underwear shots of the last film
The third instalment, Star Trek Beyond, brings back some of the TV series’ hope and wonder. In a witty opening scene, Kirk bumbles through a diplomatic expedition that goes comically wrong, and we’re then told, via his Captain’s Log, that the USS Enterprise is three years into its five-year outer-space mission. Poking affectionate fun at the series, we hear that Kirk is finding the mission “episodic”: there is nothing in his cupboard but a rack of identical, mustard-coloured sweatshirts. What’s so delightful about these scenes is that they pick up from where the 1960s’ Star Trek left off. They encourage you to forget the two recent films, with their revived villains, tortuous origin stories and gratuitous underwear shots. You can imagine that the reboot started with Star Trek Beyond instead.
This classic Trek spirit is still there when the Enterprise docks with a Federation space station called Yorktown, a floating Christmas-tree bauble that is so vast that it has its own skyscrapers. Its design is a touch too reminiscent of the metropolis in Guardians of the Galaxy, but, in these worrying times, it’s moving to see an optimistic vision of a future in which humans, aliens and holograms bustle along happily, side by side. The glimpse of Sulu (John Cho) with his husband is uplifting, too. The film’s director, Justin Lin, seems to be responding to the last film, Star Trek Into Darkness, by taking Star Trek out of darkness and into light.
However, he doesn’t let us forget that he also directed four Fast & Furious sequels, because, after these establishing scenes, fast and furious is exactly what Star Trek Beyond is. The crew’s Yorktown downtime is cut short when Kirk hears that another ship has been hijacked by a bony-faced alien warlord (an under-used Idris Elba) called Krall. The Enterprise blasts off in pursuit, but our heroes have barely made it through a rocky “unstable nebula” (the asteroid field from The Empire Strikes Back, basically) when they’re attacked by a swarm of Krall’s spiky metal space bees.
And then ... well, it’s not clear what happens after that. Lin cuts at frenetic speed between several different chaotic scenes in several different under-lit sections of the Enterprise, but it’s difficult to see how everything fits together. The confusion lingers for the rest of his noisy, hectic film. Watching Star Trek Beyond feels like fast-forwarding through a DVD while listening to the Best of the Beastie Boys at top volume: it’s exciting, but you can’t always tell what’s going on.
Set phasers for fun?
When the Enterprise crash lands on Krall’s planet – a planet with boringly Earth-like gravity, atmosphere and vegetation, of course – there is still some knockabout fun to be had. The screenplay is co-written by Simon Pegg, the Shaun of the Dead star who also plays Scotty, and he embraces and parodies buddy-movie clichés with his usual nerdy glee. The banter between Bones (Karl Urban) and a delirious Spock (Zachary Quinto) is particularly enjoyable. Think of it as Hot Fuzz in space.
Kirk and his crew might as well be office managers on a paintballing away-day
As amusing as it is to see a cast of beloved characters tease each other, though, Star Trek Beyond is essentially a film about some people running around a forest. They might as well be office managers on a paintballing away-day. Instead of unravelling the mysteries of the universe, the plot boils down to a small, simple commando raid in which Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) have to break Sulu and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) out of a prison camp in a quarry.
And instead of saving the day by exploiting some mind-bending logical paradox, as the original crew used to do, the current lot do it by shouting, again and again, that they might just be able to defeat Krall if they can re-route the proton zonkalizer through the dilithium quaxotron – or words to that effect. As for the tough new female character – a zebra-striped alien (Sofia Boutella) called Jaylah – the fact that Pegg named her after Jennifer Lawrence, ie J-Law, is the most intriguing thing about her.
Culminating in an aerial fist fight which is all too similar to the one at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, the film isn’t any more interested in philosophical quandaries or political issues than The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift was. It’s only in the very last scenes that the initial spine-tingling feeling of possibility returns, as the crew once again heads off into the unknown. But these scenes only deepen the impression that the film should have been more adventurous. Next time, let’s hope that Star Trek goes farther than Beyond.
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