So, ‘Star Trek: Beyond’, the film that was almost suffocated at birth by the Jovian-magnitude mediocrity of its own marketing campaign, which consisted of a trailer that was more damaging to public mental health than an outbreak of airborne CJD, followed by a cringe-worthy apology by Simon Pegg that made you just want to wrap him up in a duvet and give him hot food and clean clothes.
First of all: forget about the motorbike. It’s not that big a part of the film, and it’s used in a relatively sensible, creative and, dare I say it, “Star Trekky” fashion. It doesn’t just make vroom-vroom and shoot the pew-pews and it’s far less offensive than, for instance, the “Argo” of ‘Nemesis’ fame.
Speaking of “Star Trekkiness”, ‘Beyond’ is the “Star Trekkiest” Star Trek film since ‘Insurrection’. Sadly, ‘Insurrection’ was also a big smelly puddle of wankscrement, so I’ll go as far as to say that ‘Star Trek: Beyond’ is the Star Trekkiest Non-Wank Star Trek Film since ‘Undiscovered Country’ or ‘First Contact’ – take your pick based on preference. I know ‘Generations’ was pretty Star Trekky, but it was Star Trekky in a bad way, a kind of non-sciencey stupid-space-magic Doctor-Who kind of a way, so I prefer to just ignore it.
‘Beyond’ manages to present a vision of the future that’s actually optimistic, with advanced technology and peaceful coexistence and openly gay people, rather than the vision of the future from ‘Into Darkness’ which was actually just a vision of 1950’s America but somehow with more hatred of women. ‘Beyond’ features female admirals, female character development and even women wearing clothes and not removing them – it’s as though the future will actually be egalitarian, rather than a crypto-fascist state run by middle-aged white men who pat themselves on the back for being “enlightened”.
Speaking of ‘Into Darkness’ and how much it ruins everything, ‘Beyond’ now fully enshrines the proud tradition of enabling fans to simply ignore the shittiest parts of the Star Trek franchise. Just as ‘The Final Frontier’ can be completely omitted when watching the original films in order, so too can ‘Into Darkness’, because nothing that happens in it is referenced or even relevant to the events of ‘Beyond’. No discussion of Kirk’s functional immortality, Carole “Attractive-And-Screams-A-Lot” Marcus, or the fact that Starfleet is made up entirely of munitions-grade arseholes. The only thing you now need to watch from ‘Into Darkness’ is the first ten minutes and twelve seconds, which should cover the excellent opening scene right up to the point that the “Star Trek” title appears, and right before the stupid “Into Darkness” subtitle fades in stupidly below it. Ten minutes, twelve seconds – I timed it.
Indeed, ‘Beyond’ feels very much like an apology to the fans for the capital crimes that ‘Into Darkness’ committed against the franchise. Hell, ‘Beyond’ actually styles itself as the spiritual successor to ‘Wrath of Khan’, the very same film that ‘Into Darkness’ tried and epically, fucking catastrophically failed to emulate.
All of the characters are back doing what they should be. Kirk now feels like a capable leader rather than a dribbling idiot. Spock is back to being a resolute source of rationality, rather than an unstable sociopath with a history of violence. Scotty is more than just comic relief, Chekov is a valuable all-rounder, McCoy acts as a capable Second Officer and shows off his medical capabilities without resorting to dangerous, non-consensual and completely sporadic experimentation on living subjects. Hell, Sulu is the actual fucking pilot this time, rather than a cardboard cut-out that Kirk places in the captain’s chair whenever he needs a cigarette break. And they even gave Uhura stuff to do that wasn’t completely stupid and pointless.
To go further, I’m going to have to get specific, and specific about spoilers. If you want to avoid the spoilers, come back here after you’ve seen the film…
Is It Actually Any Good?
The first thing that stands out in ‘Beyond’ is Simon Pegg’s influence. The script is filled with self-awareness, geeky references to the franchise and enjoyable dialogue. It’s refreshing and is pretty much exactly what was needed to cleanse the palette of the knuckle-dragging blockheadedness of the previous installment.
The second thing that stands out is that ‘Beyond’ is very much a sequel to the 2009 reboot film. As mentioned earlier, there is absolutely no fucking reason to even consider ‘Into Darkness’ a Trek film anymore. The themes of ‘Beyond’ tie in directly to the themes established in 2009 – specifically, Kirk’s absent father and the destruction of Spock’s homeworld.
‘Beyond’ parallels elements of ‘Wrath of Khan’ pretty wonderfully, setting up Kirk’s journey during a quiet birthday celebration with McCoy. Kirk starts this film lost, almost depressed, unsure of his purpose, living in the shadow of his dead father – where in WoK the older Kirk was living in the shadow of his own reputation and old age. The set-up mirrors the classic film in exactly the right way, toasting “perfect eyesight and good hair” – a Simon-Peggian nod to the same scene in Khan, where McCoy gifts a pair of spectacles to a hairpieced Shatner.
This little scene exemplifies the real strength of ‘Beyond’, which is the characters. Throughout the film, we see the cast being proactive, tenacious, solving their problems with ingenuity and co-operation, and they all feel like an actual team working together. When the crew was faced with catastrophe in ‘Into Darkness’, they waddled around the sets flailing their arms like Kermit the Frog before solving their issues with punching, explosions and violence. ‘Beyond’ still has plenty of action but it’s always framed around a desire to save others from danger and prevent disaster, rather than brutally murdering the latest bad guy of the week. Gone are scenes such as Spock hitting someone with a rusty piece of metal like a drunk football hooligan on fucking mephedrone, or Uhura manically ranting about her relationship issues during a firefight like the worst Hollywood female stereotypes.
On the subject of relationships, this film manages to get them right by not really showing any. Uhura and Spock continue their troubled relationship predominantly off-screen and in a mostly sensible fashion that actually makes them both seem fairly normal, and there’s no other silliness to do with romance throughout. I was worried that the ‘Jaylah’ character would end up being a standard love interest for Kirk, but they avoid that misstep successfully throughout.
And on the subject of missteps, you’ve always got to be careful when it comes to blowing up the Enterprise, but ‘Beyond’ arguably has the best Enterprise-demolition scene of the franchise. Compared to ‘Search for Spock’, in which the ship goes down mostly as an afterthought, and ‘Generations’, where she mostly gets done in by idiocy and a pair of cartoon villains, the demise of the flagship in ‘Beyond’ manages to be painful, almost wrenching, as she is slowly torn apart by a vicious swarm of enemy vessels. It’s an emotionally significant sequence for both the characters and the audience, and it’s really a shame that it was revealed in the trailers, as I feel it would’ve had even more impact on me if I hadn’t known it was coming.
The film is filled with traditional Trek solutions to problems – even, yes, the bit where the Beastie Boys save the day. The crew pulling technobabble out of their arses to beat an otherwise-unbeatable villain is precisely the most Star Trek thing you can put in a film besides rubber ears and nacelles. Of course, in the older series they’d have used bloody Bizet or Da Ponte or some other pretentious fucking sequence of vowels instead of a New York hardcore punk band, but ‘Sabotage’ actually works well in the sequence, especially for a younger audience.
Indeed, when bullshit technobabble is employed throughout the film, it always results in at least some exciting visuals, and that was not always the case in other Star Trek productions, where a made-up problem would be solved with some made-up “science” resulting in some dweeb in pyjamas tapping a few glowy buttons and then suddenly the peril is gone. Looking at you, ‘Voyager’, you sloppy monument to mediocrity.
The final element that I really liked in ‘Beyond’ is Spock’s storyline. Reflecting Kirk’s lack of direction, Spock faces a choice between two destinies, incompatible with one another. It’s mostly a side-plot, but it acts as a very touching tribute to Leonard Nimoy, and uses the presence of the old Spock from the previous timeline exactly the way it should – to inform the character of the new Spock, and frame his development and his arc.
The most positive thing I can say about the film is that it was enjoyable. It wasn’t offensive, I don’t feel, to existing fans, and it was generally lively and exciting enough to simply be good fun. Of course, the same could be said of ‘Into Darkness’, that suppurating open wound on the franchise, but ‘Into Darkness’ mixed its stupid storylines with a hubristic attempt to invoke ‘Wrath of Khan’ and a toxic obnoxiousness that left a bad taste in the throat. But ‘Beyond’ seems genuinely to be a good film, and certainly the best of the ‘Reboot’ timeline films so far.
Nah, But Seriously, It Was Crap, Wasn’t It?
Well, no, not really. I mean, okay, there are some crap bits, it’s a Star Trek film, that’s congenital, like my obesity. But there’s no major fuck-ups that I picked up on.
But let’s get picky, eh?
First off, the special effects are pretty much spectacular, except for the odd moment where they suddenly look shit. Almost like they ran out of time and money, so contracted specific shots out to a cadre of six-year-olds equipped with Microsoft Paint. And I hate to call a Star Trek production out on its visuals, I really do, but ‘First Contact’ got it pretty much bang-spot-on twenty years ago, and it’s only ‘Insurrection’ that has dropped the ball since then.
Secondly, whilst I must laud the inclusion of women in this film, Uhura basically gets the sexy lampshade treatment. She’s fairly pro-active, but in a very inconsequential way, and primarily serves as an exposition device. I feel for the writers on this one, because they gave Uhura three qualities in the first film: Being Attractive, Being A Language Nerd, and Being Spock’s Girlfriend. The first one is always active, like my liver, but the second one only has so many applications. As communications officer, even the original Uhura was a relatively minor part of things, because… I mean, she only pipes up when they’re being hailed and then returns to her slumber. And as for being Spock’s girlfriend, well, that’s pretty much the definition of a “shitty female role”, especially when the filmmakers intentionally dodge the draft on romantic subplots.
The weakest part of the film as a whole, for me, was the villain. He was suitably threatening, but he is essentially a ‘Nero-clone’ – an angry villain intent on destruction, but with minimal motivation at first, elevated to “tenuous” motivation following some forced exposition. Idris Elba does a fantastic job, obviously, and the character manages to mirror Kirk’s arc throughout the film, adequately crystallising his personal dilemma. But Captain Skull or whatever the fuck he calls himself is no fucking Khan. He’s no fucking V’Ger probe.
And, actually, that’s kind of fine. Weak villains are almost a staple of the series, and the focus is and always should be on the obstacles they present to the crew. This is best exemplified by ‘The Voyage Home’, where there isn’t even a sentient villain, or by ‘Darmok’, where the villain is LANGUAGE ITSELF. These stories are about “people overcoming”, and ‘Beyond’ certainly captures the essence of that.
So, if you haven’t seen ‘Star Trek: Beyond’ yet, you really should. If nothing else, if this film does well they may end up making more like it, rather than spray-shitting a load of Star Trek references onto a rejected ‘Die Hard’ sequel script like they did with ‘Into Darkness’.
Just bear in mind that it’s extraodinarily silly. I mean, Star Trek has always been silly, but the special effects these days really amp up the silliness to the point that there’s no way of getting past it. I enjoy the ridiculousness of it all, though – it’s almost refreshing, in an era of cinema where Superman is a violent murderer and Robin Hood is a boring arsehole. Embrace the silly. Revel in it. Because the closest you’re going to a quality silly film will be the next surreal fantasy that Tim Burton cookie-cutters out of Depp and Bonham-Carter.