STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)
Directed by Justin Lin
Paramount, 122 minutes, PG-13 (Gratuitous abuse of a Beastie Boys song)
Allow me to commit Star Fleet heresy: a truly good "Star Trek" reboot will only happen when producer J. J. Abrams is given the boot. Abrams doesn't get it. He's so mired in the action film mentality that he thinks that "Star Trek" is still the Western in space of Gene Roddenberry's early days. He's not the director of Star Trek Beyond, but his fingerprints are all over it. There is first, the decision to let Justin Lin direct the film—a man whose resume consists almost entirely of television work. There is, second, an emphasis on having things blow up over having an intelligible script. There is, third, the comic book sensibilities embedded within the film—right down to having the same Spock in two different time periods. This bit of BS sleight of hand is another reason to dump Abrams. He lifted the very idea of Spock Prime from DC Comics and that's what he does–endlessly recycles other people's ideas.
I'm a Baby Boomer. I adore "Star Trek." But if you really want to appeal to Millennials, "The Next Generation" would have been a better franchise to reboot than the original series--its ideals resonate better. Abrams's Original Series reboots are like dead satellites: space junk. In Star Trek Beyond Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are exhausted after three years in space, with Kirk suffering an existential crisis–an idea lifted from the 1979 reboot film, by the way. The Enterprise crew's R & R at Starbase Yorktown is interrupted when they are called upon to navigate through a tricky nebula and rescue a group of Federation aliens forced to abandon their ship. Or so it seems. They've actually been lured into a trap set by a monstrous alien named Krall (Indris Elba), who has built a bee-like swarm of robots that take down every ship within his planet's orbit. He then enslaves the crews–those he doesn't randomly kill. If only he had the Abronath–an ancient bioweapon–he could expand into Federation space. By golly, guess who has it, thinking it just an interesting artifact?
The Enterprise is destroyed—a visual feast for f/x lovers–and the surviving crew (mostly those not wearing red shirts) are either captured by Krall, or land on the planet. Of course Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) are thrown together and, of course, Kirk is at large, with Chekov in tow (Anton Yelchin, who was killed in an accident right after the film wrapped). And, of course, someone–Uhura (Zoe Soldana) in this case–gets to lecture the bully on how the Federation stands for all that is good. The only surprise is that Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a kickass alien gal with very cool face markings, a cloaking device, and a nifty energy sword. (Wonder where they got those ideas?) From there it's a battle to rescue the crew, get off the planet, warn the Yorktown that the bees are coming, and defeat Krall. It mostly ends well, something I'll tell you, because Simon Pegg's script doesn't make much sense. Even when we can follow it, there are holes large enough for Jupiter to squeeze through. Why, for instance, did Krall wait so long to attack the Federation given that he possessed interplanetary transport for which he didn't actually need the Abronath? How can he have had all that technology, yet never detect Jaylah's movements, or not notice that a starship took off from the planet's surface?
Here's what the film does right: relationships. The banter between characters is crisp and gives them depth. Urban is amazing as McCoy, Pine has his Shatner swagger down pat, and Quinto's slightly more human Spock is engaging, as his non-Vulcan crush on Uhuru—and who wouldn't have a crush on Zoe Saldana? It was a nice touch to show Sulu as gay, just as George Takei, the original character, is gay in real life. Maybe now the series writers can tone down all that subsurface homoerotic tension between Kirk and Spock that's more embarrassing than politically correct. Ditto all the early 21st century cultural references.
The crux of the matter is this: the Star Trek films have made money under the Abrams regime, but they have been crap artistically. They tend to open big and then burn out like a Perseid. Abrams is the king of sequels. In addition to Star Trek, he is the guiding spirit behind Mission Impossible and Star Wars. None of those projects has been more than eye candy. Have we gone down the commercial rabbit hole so deeply that we simply don't care about content any more? How about a Next Generation reboot with someone else on the bridge? Make it so.