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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Expectations

Beware: SPOILERS follow for Star Trek Beyond

At their best, Star Trek stories explore how the human species might one day mature into a civilization worthy of the name. This idea is what drew me to the original series, and what has sustained my love of the various shows and films, to lesser or greater degrees, for nearly half a century now.

Star Trek Beyond, the third and latest film in the so-called "Kelvin timeline" spun off from the continuity of the original show and its sequels, isn't the best of Star Trek stories, but it is the best of the three Kelvin films. And considered on its own merits, it's a solid, if not classic, episode. If its reach exceeds its grasp, then I at least salute the efforts of director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Star Trek Beyond is, first and foremost, a summer action blockbuster, with all that genre entails, but this time around fans also get a half-decent story to go along with the whiz-bang setpieces.

The film's opening act welcomes the audience to year three of the five year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Captain Kirk and his crew have been exploring the universe for nearly 1,000 days now, and Kirk is starting to feel the vastness of the cosmos closing in on him. He's starting to wonder if he's taken on a task that can never be truly accomplished, and to make matters worse, in a couple of days he'll be older than his father ever was. We learn that Kirk may leave the Enterprise behind for a desk job.

We're shown this information via a number of well-used Star Trek tropes: the Captain's Log and a quiet conversation between Kirk and his number one confidante, Dr. McCoy. We also see that Spock and Uhura are having relationship troubles, and that some troubling news is serving as a catalyst for Spock to reconsider his life choices.

In the midst of this personal drama comes the chance to rest and recuperate at Starbase Yorktown. In perhaps my favourite sequence of the film, the Enterprise arrives at what looks like, as Dr. McCoy puts it, a giant snow globe in space. Cities, lakes, rivers, causeways, gardens and mass transit are stacked on wheels and spokes within a gravity-defying civilization of millions, a multicultural miasma of humans and alien species greater in scale and scope than anything we've seen in the Star Trek universe to this point. There's a gorgeous extended sequence of the Enterprise docking within this gigantic space city, flying into it via transparent tubes, visible to the denizens of Yorktown. It's a gorgeous piece of cinematic invention, and it truly makes the audience realize that the future humans depicted in Star Trek really are different than us; they can manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe, and with that knowledge they build wonders for the betterment not just of humanity, but for anyone around.

After this promising opening the film proceeds as summer blockbusters must, with a series of explosive action sequences. Fortunately, the action is well-choreographed and makes sense in the context of the story; aside from a couple of minor quibbles (and one major one), nothing feels forced. And through it all, we're treated to a lot of great character moments from all of the regulars and a very cool alien guest star.

The villain's motivations are murky at first, but the third-act reveal is interesting and even a little bold; I can't say more without spoiling the story. For once, instead of revenge, the villain is lashing out because of his own sense of loss and dislocation, and his actions make sense in his context - even if we and the protagonists must disagree with his chosen direction.

There's one moment in the film that had both my brother and I groaning, though much of the audience reacted positively. To be honest, I hated this sequence less than Sean, and there's one thing I do like about it quite a bit: essentially, Kirk and company use culture to fight the final ship-to-ship(s) battle. It's cheesy, but it came within a hair's breadth of being really cool - at least in my mind. Perhaps a different song might have made the difference...but I've said too much.

The film ends with a perfectly charming coda that turns Captain Kirk's birthday from something to be ignored to something to be celebrated - literally - and because of that we get a few minutes of the original series crew (millennium iteration) gathering and bonding in a way we never saw on the original show. And there is, of course, the promise of more adventure ahead.

If I sound effusive in my praise, it may be because Star Trek Into Darkness lowered my expectations to nearly zero. Make no mistake - this isn't a great film. But I think it's a pretty good one, and perhaps most importantly, it's sincere, and that's a quality I value very highly.

A digression: the film is dedicated to recently deceased young actor Anton Yelchin, who played Mr. Chekov in all three Kelvin timeline films. To my disappointment, Yelchin is underutilized in this film, though he is a consistent presence and has a couple of fun moments. I was hoping for more from Chekov this time around, both because that may have served as some comfort to Mr. Yelchin's parents and other loved ones, and because I've always had a fondness for Chekov all out of proportion to the character's prominence. In fact, in many ways he's my favourite of the original crew: he's eager, clever, dependable, but a little bit goofy and naive, as played by Yelchin and the character's original actor, Walter Koenig. I suppose I projected myself a little bit onto Chekov; I could never imagine myself as a Captain Kirk, but I could imagine myself as a Chekov, the dependable, affable guy who made sure the Kirk got what he or she needed to get the job done. To honour Yelchin, the film's producers say the role of Chekov won't be recast. I think that's the right decision, but it also means we've probably seen the last of the Chekov character for many, many years to come.

End of tangent. In summary, Star Trek Beyond is a reasonably smart summer action blockbuster with almost enough social commentary to make it feel like a good episode of the original series. Recommended for fans of clever action movies and Star Trek fans who can relax a little about the direction of these reboot films.

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