Thursday, August 4, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

It took me a week or two, but I finally got to see the latest Star Trek movie... On election day. I took advantage of some comp time, earned over the weekend while shooting newspaper photos at the county fair, to clock out of the newspaper early, before having to go back into the office in the evening to write an election story.

At risk of contradicting all the other critics, I think this is by far the best film in the "original Trek reboot" series. I think a lot of credit for the difference goes to the new writing team of Simon Pegg (who also co-stars as Scotty) and Doug Jung, as opposed to the previous reboot-films' unfortunate writing team of Star Wars mavens J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci. Also, Justin Lin's direction is mercifully free of the lens-flare bullshit that is the hallmark of Abrams' directorial style. Both visually and dramatically, it is a more satisfying movie.

The Pegg-Jung writing team is open to perhaps one serious criticism: while taking great pains to give all seven principal regular Trek characters (right down to Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov) truly starring roles in the action, they broaden, and at least potentially weaken, the focus on the really central characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This is particularly seen in the lack of major scenes developing the Kirk-Spock relationship; other than a brief, early encounter in the turbolift, they are hardly in the frame together for more than a couple of lines. On the other hand, the classic McCoy-Spock relationship gets a lot of quality time, by no means wasted by actors Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto. These guys come as close as I think any actors could to capturing the chemistry of the characters originally created by DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy. In fact, there are a couple moments when Urban's mimicry of Kelley's old-timey acting style is so spot-on, it almost qualifies as a special effect.

Other than a stupidly long series of production-company titles, the credits don't roll until the movie is over. Only then does one appreciate the interesting pecking-order of a cast in which the top two billing slots go to John Cho (Sulu) and Pegg, in that order; only then do Chris Pine (Kirk) and Quinto get credit, with Urban relegated to next-to-last position among the starring seven (between Zoe Saldana as Uhura and the tragically late Anton Yelchin as Chekov). People who were in the theater with me were shocked to see "in loving memory" credits to both Nimoy and Yelchin at the end of the film; apparently the news of the actors' deaths, the latter's so immensely senseless and untimely, had not reached them until then. Rounding out the main cast are Idris Elba as the chief villain, Sofia Boutella (late of Kingsman) as a sympathetic alien girl; and model-handsome martial-arts maven Joe Taslim as a second-string villain, unrecognizable under lots of alien make-up. Deep Roy (best known as all the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is back as Scotty's acid-phlegmed buddy Keenser. Greg Grunberg (late of TV's Heroes) plays a security officer at the ginormous space station Yorktown, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the admiral who offers Kirk a promotion. Any cast-related questions? IMDB it yourself.

Another questionable writing decision was to out Sulu as gay, a much-publicized decision that (according to press reports) ironically upset the character's original actor, the then-closeted but now openly gay George Takei. Takei thought it disrespectful toward series creator Gene Roddenberry so to change a character he specifically created as "straight," and that Takei himself deliberately played that way; Cho, however, was so enthused about the change that he went for it gung-ho (ha, ha) in spite of Takei's objections, and the result is unfortunate. I don't particularly care about the scene in which his sexual orientation is revealed (without a line of dialogue, or a hint of disapproval on anyone's part), but I did detect a change in the way Cho played the role. Instead of the stoic toughness and can-do bravado that became Cho's Sulu so well in the previous two Trek films, the new Sulu comes across as self-consciously soft-spoken and graceful - perhaps an offensive stereotype. It would have been a more interesting statement about the sexual politics of the 23rd century if there had been no perceptible difference in the character's mannerisms before and after the scene in which his same-sex spouse embraced him at the space station.

On the plus side, the movie makes much more interesting hay out of destroying the Starship Enterprise than the original-series films did (Oops! Spoilers!). It also massages plot threads from prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise into the historical background of the present film (such as mentioning the M.A.C.O.s and the Xindi war). It makes some adorable jokes about the original series (such as Scott's throwaway line about a giant green hand in space, McCoy's "I'm a doctor, not a..." patter, Chekov's running gag of claiming various things were invented in Russia, and Kirk's habit of tearing his shirt). It even turns Nimoy's real-life death into an opportunity for in-canon story developments (the death of the elder and temporally-displaced Ambassador Spock, who leaves his younger self a photograph of the Original Series crew, circa Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

The best part of the movie, besides the Spock-McCoy chemistry previously mentioned, is the way the action splits the main cast up into smaller units and gives them separate quests to achieve before coming back together. And there's definitely a lot of action, with jeopardy galore. But, as I hinted before, this is also a slight weakness since, for example, it gives Simon Pegg's Scotty just a little too much attention as an independent character, thereby falling into the trap of reading like fan-fiction. The hero whose heroism we came to see is, at the end, Kirk; and the relationships that really pay off are those between Kirk and his two best friends, the stoic Vulcan science officer and the curmudgeonly Southern doctor. The tweak I would suggest before heading into their next movie would be to tighten the focus on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio, and let the supporting characters simply support.

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