Star Trek Beyond: The Spoilerific Review.

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I grew up in a Star Trek house. A lot of my early memories involved classic Star Trek reruns and watching The Wrath of Khan the way my niece watches Frozen. I can remember the excitement of seeing Star Trek‘s future when TNG was new, and being mildly horrified and fascinated when my Dad told me the new Enterprise had kids on board, and they put them on “the disc” during battle to keep them safe. (I was five; I assumed they beamed them up halfway and stored them on floppies. It was probably a better solution than sticking them all on a big target without warp drive.) It was one of those things that got into my blood, and it stayed there until the 90s anime/Babylon 5 combo showed me there was more to scifi than Star Trek. Relations have been strained since then; I tend to see Star Trek as being moments of brilliance interrupted by long stretches of meh, though catching reruns on TV lately has sort of reawakened my appreciation for it beyond that. More after the cut; and spoilers ho.

Seriously, guys. Spoilers.

I’m guessing my complicated relationship with the Star Trek franchise is at least partially responsible for my lack of hatred for NuTrek, the JJverse, the Kelvin timeline… whatever you want to call it. My horses have long since pulled out of this particular fandom race. I like what I like, I dislike what I dislike, and in what might be one of the most controversial statements I’ve ever made, I respect Abrams for trying to breath life into a franchise that had been sitting there gathering dust.

Franklin BridgeStar Trek Beyond‘s advertising has pretty much laid out the entire story for the movie, all the way until the end: Enterprise is exploring, gets shredded by lots of little ships that can punch through a hull capable of running into mountains and coming out okay, crew is mostly captured by a guy who we’re told is Idris Elba in lots of alien makeup. Kirk and people too central to be captured mount daring JJverse rescues, with motorcycles and beaming around, the Beasty Boys, and Hollywood’s latest butt-kicking Action Grrrrrl. Post-premier commercials give us a glimpse of a human Idris Elba, too, leading Brad Torgerson to describe the villain as a “Scooby Doo villain.” It is the era of trailers that are two minute long versions of the movie they’re advertising, after all. Two minute versions that are better than the actual film, more often than not.

This is all a pretty much accurate summation of the movie, if you throw in the gay-Sulu controversy. But, weirdly, it doesn’t actually do the movie justice. I was prepared for a stinker. The part of me that reacts to giant spaceships reacts well to Star Trek Into Darkness, but it has to beat down the intelligent part of me for that to happen. Trailers showcasing a not-too-alien-to-be-sexy Action Grrrrl lead me to expect… well. You know. A milder version of that whole Ghostbusters thing. Awesome Womyn! Incompetent Men! Brave Hollywood bravely progressing the envelope! But I was really pleasantly surprised by Beyond. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s also definitely not the worst Trek film that’s ever been made. It’s not even the most mediocre Trek film that’s ever been made. I feel like it’s actually towards the middle of the “Good” section.

I’m not going to bother summing up the plot, because, like I said, you know the basic shape of it. So instead, I’m going to run off some thoughts I had about the film. Last Warning on Spoilers!

  • The great big gay-Sulu thing is annoying; even George Takei agrees. Worse than annoying, it’s a very blatant “Look how progressive we are” thing that has zero impact upon anything but making the social justice crowd preen. Someone also pointed out that it is so short and minor that you could easily edit it out for “less enlightened” markets, making it even more meaningless. It’s five seconds of two dudes walking off with their arms around each other. My, how brave. Probably my biggest beef with the film.
  • Brad Torgerson tends to be a thoughtful man, and a better author than I (or at least with more proof under his belt), but I think calling Krall a “Scooby Doo” villain isn’t fair. Star Trek has a long history of humans who are transformed into something else. Krall’s not out of line with that tradition; nor are Starfleet officers immune from going rogue.  NuTrek’s had a villain problem from the get-go, with no one really acting as a convincing villain. Benedict Cumberbatch was wasted by the hamfisted mining of Khan. Nero’s personality was mostly just based around shouting and blowing up planets. But I felt like Krall was actually a pretty good villain, and they mined Star Trek Enterprise‘s backstory fairly skillfully to get his character concept. What I would’ve liked to see was more detail about how Krall became Krall, leading us to my next thought:
  • Hinting at the real nature of a plot point is fine for Gene Wolfe. NuTrek doesn’t have that kind of cache; not giving us a more explicit rationalization makes it feel like they didn’t bother to think through the nature of their menace. Krall’s origins, and the origins of the tech (both the MacGuffin and the Swarm-ships) are briefly touched on but otherwise glossed over. Which is a shame; it was a good chance for some mild body-horror. Similarly, defeating the Swarm Ships has enough technobabble to not make it absolutely ridiculous, but we could’ve done with some more detail as to why interfering with their network makes explosions. At least show some ships crashing together, man.
  • Jaylah has more depth and way less annoying Action Grrrrl than I expected. She’s competent. And more competent than Scotty and some other Starfleet folks at combat, but not obnoxiously so. She never really mows down anyone with any skill, and I was pleased that she was actually kind of outmatched by Krall’s Lieutenant for a good portion of their fight.
  • Urban continues to be great as Bones; Quinto makes a fine Vulcan, but an iffy Spock– although he’s better here than he has been. Pegg might not be the Scotty we’re used to, but I still like his take on it. Pine’s not the Kirk we’re used to, but I feel like that’s at least in part because this movie is about his growth towards that Kirk.
  • One of the criticisms leveled at NuTrek as a whole is that it’s “not smart.” But the Star Trek films haven’t been smart since, at the very latest, First ContactNemesis and Insurrection are so forgettable that I can really only remember the parts that I loathed. And TV-wise Trek‘s been spotty since, at the latest, the end of Deep Space Nine. Star Trek Beyond actually ratchets up the intelligence level from where the prime timeline left it lying; it’s a movie where exploration is actually one of the driving forces behind it. Stuff explodes, sure, but we’ve always had explosions in Star Trek.

I could probably go on, but I’m running long. Like I said, though: I was pleasantly surprised by Star Trek Beyond. I feel like it’s a fine entry– at the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.