Movie Pondering: Star Trek Beyond

This is not a review because I’m not a reviewer and don’t understand filmmaking. I don’t know about cinematic techniques, personnel histories, or prior to looking them up what a key grip or a gaffer do. I know now, but I do hate leaving a thing un-looked-up when I find out I don’t know it.

Anyway the point is, don’t expect Ebert levels of informed analysis here. Do, on the other hand, expect SPOILERS, because I intend to talk freely about the movie. If you haven’t seen it, and if SPOILERS bother you, best stop here.


I have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised by Star Trek Beyond (I wanted to put a colon in that title because it looks as though it needs one, but IMDB informs me that’s what the movie used to be called. Now it’s colon-less).

After watching 2009’s reboot movie Star Trek, and its sequel Into Darkness, I felt ambivalent. On the one hand, the graphics were great. There were a couple of little tips of the hat to what the Star Trek franchise used to be – particularly from Into Darkness – by there was still the nagging thought that This Wasn’t Quite Star Trek.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a terrible sucker for anything Star Trek. This is to the extent that I not only enjoy the show, but it also informs a lot of my political and philosophical viewpoints as well. On the other hand, apart from a couple of words I’ve picked up along the way I don’t speak Klingon (one of those words is “qa’pla”, which doesn’t count anyway because it constitutes around 47% of all Klingon dialogue), I don’t go to conventions and wear pointed ears, and I don’t assume the cast are their characters.

So having established my slightly hipsterish and snobby “I’m a huge fan but I’m not, you know, like those fans” credentials, here’s what I thought of Star Trek Beyond:

For the first time in the reboot movie series, it’s actually Star Trek. Proper Star Trek.

I mean, sure, there’s still a shit-tonne of explosions, phaser fire and running. But there’s something about the characters now – maybe the cast are settling fully into their characters; maybe it’s just something about this particular movie’s plot…? I don’t honestly know. But whereas in the previous two movies I’ve been torn on the new actors’ portrayals of established characters, in this one they just seemed to click into place.

Related image
All right: this is a shot from 2009’s Star Trek, not Beyond. But never mind.

It’s not that any of them were doing a bad job, I should make that clear. They all clearly knew who they were supposed to be, and did a good job. Perhaps it was direction that distracted me in some cases; or perhaps it was simply that they were working with slightly sub-Star Trek material. Some character gelled more than others: I saw the Kelly’s McCoy in Karl Urban’s version; likewise Zachary Quinto’s Spock — though in neither case was there a great physical resemblance to the original actor. But the mannerisms and, in Urban’s case particularly, the speech, there were some very clear echoes.

Less so, I thought, for Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Zoe Saldana as Uhura, and particularly for Chris Pine as Kirk. In none of these cases, I repeat, was there anything wrong with the performance. Quite the opposite: they were all good, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them. But they didn’t quite ring as ‘the same people’.

This isn’t just me being unimaginative, I hope, or unadaptable. It’s just that the whole premise of the new movies is that they’re the same people in a divergent timeline. (Personally I’d have preferred the same people in the same timeline, but so be it. If you can’t start your movie with an entire planet being exploded, you’re not doing modern Hollywood properly.)

This time, though, something’s happened. I started to see TOS-era William Shatner’s mannerisms in Chris Pine’s performance, in the way he spoke especially — and I don’t mean the exaggerated comedy parodies of Shatner, incidentally, but an actual, faithful portrayal of the character of Kirk. I don’t mean to imply there was any less intent or effort on Mr Pine’s part for the first couple of movies, but the character just didn’t click so well with me in those.

Actually I think a lot of this may be down to the overall mood of the movies. Star Trek showed us a new cast trying to fit into some very famous shoes in a story universe that was at once very familiar and very, very different, and going through a narrative that, if I’m honest, just didn’t ring true for me. The premise of Star Trek was that at some point in the 24th Century a supernova destroyed Romulus. Nero, the captain of a ridiculously overpowered and elaborate Romulan mining ship, manages to get himself flung back to the 23rd Century where, in seeking revenge against Ambassador Spock for his failure to prevent Romulus’ future destruction, Nero smashes Vulcan with a mind-bogglingly powerful weapon of mass destruction that his mining ship just happened to be packing. The rest of the movie follows the newly minted Classic Crew as they chase him down and finally vanquish him.

But the problem for me was the absolute irrationality of Nero’s motivation in Star Trek. He understood what had happened. He knew where — when — he’d ended up. And, apparently, he had to hang around in the past for twenty-odd years waiting for Spock to turn up. Now, Nero had been driven wild with rage and grief — I get that much. But am I really to believe that in twenty years, not a single one of his crew, however loyal they may be, would have mentioned to him that, actually, he could save his people? All he needed to do was present his massive future ship to the Federation and the Romulan Empire as proof, and explain that in a hundred years’ time there was going to be a supernova and yadda yadda. As satisfying as the revenge motive might be, surely someone would prefer to restore the loved ones whose death seeded the desire for revenge in the first place?

I just couldn’t buy into Nero’s rationale, and as a result I didn’t find him a very compelling bad guy. He just came over as someone who didn’t think beyond his nose. And to sacrifice Vulcan to a bad guy that flimsy seemed arbitrary at best.

As for Into Darkness, there were things I loved about it. Benedict Cumberbatch did an initially perplexing but ultimately really quite compelling Khan Noonien Singh — his cold, almost reptilian character a total contrast to Ricardo Montalban’s fiery and passionate original. And I’m sure it was nothing at all to do with who was playing the new version. I also loved the look of the new Klingons, and I wish they’d stuck with that — again, quite reptilian and predatory — look for Discovery, rather than adding a layer of Vogon over the top of them. The numerous homages to The Wrath of Khan worked ish-well; but again, Into Darkness just shot itself a few too many times. A portable transporter that could beam a human being from Earth to Kronos in one shot? The narrative problems that caused for the future of Starfleet were insurmountable. Fortunately, by the third movie the technology seems to have been entirely forgotten about and humanity is limited once again to going everywhere on slow old starships.

There were a few bits of Beyond that struck similar nerves for me. The sheer size of Starbase Yorktown — undeniably beautiful though it was as a setting — seriously challenged my suspension of disbelief.

As cool as the starbase was — and I loved the idea of docking ships passing under the city’s waterways — it was just too big. I mean, maybe I could envisage something of that scale being built by some highly advanced future civilisation, like the race that built the Dyson Sphere seen in TNG episode Relics oh my gods I am a trekkie; but in the 23rd Century? In Kirk’s time? No. Can’t buy into it.

But damn, it was pretty, though.

With Beyond, for some reason, it just worked. It wasn’t quite the original Trek, but it was a lot more Trek than Trek’s been of late. The visuals worked much better this time round, and there was, I thought, much more TOS-style incidental music this time. There was also at least a little more of what Trek needs a lot of in order to not be Star Wars*, and that’s dialogue, as opposed to pew pew lazors and esplodes. Not that these things aren’t fun and exciting — but as my old Nanar used to say, too much ‘esplodes gets the broth all over the damn kitchen.

I have no idea what I’m talking about now, so I’ll stop.

I liked Star Trek Beyond. More plzkthx.


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