“Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Ennui..” Or so it seems at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond. Three years into her five year deep space mission to explore new life etc, Chris Pine as Enterprise’s Captain Jim Kirk is beginning to feel things, in one of many meta jokes, are getting “episodic.”
We need to talk about Kelvin
It’s no small mercy that Beyond is better than Into Darkness. “But at what cost? Your ship?” to meta-lly go again, as Sarek said in Star Trek The Search For Spock. That’s the Kelvin re-boot all over, never enough of its own thing, patting itself on the back for its damned ingenuity while never noticing its britches are down. The emperor has no clothes, and it is beginning to become more apparent.
Pine’s Kirk, as this twitter thread eloquently puts it, displays all of the original timeline’s braggadocio – “bold, brash, flirty and flippant”, without Shatner Kirk’s “honour, duty and dedication.” What sort of admittedly brilliant young man can bypass Academy graduation (deleted scene?), get captaincy of his own ship straight off the bat, lose said ship in a disciplinary hearing and win it back in a heartbeat, then decide that after going out to explore strange new wonders that he’s bored, and wants yet another promotion to a desk job?
Director Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond is for sure entertaining. But it also feels rushed, impatient, busy. Special effects are mostly spectacular, but CGI, confusing cutting and gaudy production design seem to infest every conceivable crevice (the bad guys hench-aliens were real people – in costume!– then digitally replaced). It’s like Lin took the original series and reheated it, spewing it up on the screen for the ADD generation. Nothing feels grounded, or nuanced. As the villainous Krall’s (a criminally wasted Idris Elba under layers of make-up) swarm of mini ships rip the Enterprise to shreds and it tumbles to its doom, it merely illicits a “meh”. We’ve seen Enterprise get its ass handed to it twice before in these films. Compare its fate to the drumroll as the mighty starship explodes and tumbles towards screen before streaking across the Genesis planet like a comet in Search For Spock, and Shatner’s Kirk chokes, “My God Bones. What have I done?” Even a frustrated hand slamming against the escape pod window by Pine would have elevated nu-Trek’s destruction to something approaching pathos.
There’s no real weight to character interaction either. Yes, there are many fun moments and cool lines, some nice nods towards finally acknowledging a few of the key messages of what Trek stands for. Fan-writer Simon Pegg (Scotty, writing with Doug Jung), who takes advantage to puff up his own part, working in conjunction with stranded albino-esque alien Jayla (Sofia Boutella), seems content to check such things off in passing though. In it’s 50th anniversary, Trek is more diverse (50 new alien species) and sensitive to changing society in our own timeline – Sulu charmingly reunited with his now canonically male partner and cute daughter on a spectacular looking snowglobe space station stop over. But Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is still shortchanged, still gets to play the pouty girlfriend – again, to an oblivious Spock (Zachary Quinto), flip-flopping between survivor guilt over propagating his dwindling Vulcan heritage, and embracing his half-humanness. This dilemma does lead to Bones (Karl Urban) getting some of the best lines in the film with his wry observations.
Nero, Khan, Krall – there’s a cigarette paper gap between each of Kelvin-era’s motivational threats to the Federation and Starfleet (often ignorantly confused and meshed by this iteration’s writers). Krall’s swarm even resembles the spiky torpedoes of Nero’s behemoth. Chris Pine recently said that “cerebral” Star Trek has to be hidden amidst the crash bang wallop of modern popcorn entertainment. But as these films continue to reheat the same old elements, I’m pinning my hopes on Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods), the gifted showrunner of upcoming CBS show Star Trek Discovery, to, pardon a pun, re-energise the concept, and “boldly go” in a mature, intelligent direction. And please, no more hand-offs between eras. Be your own thing.