The current crop of Star Trek films tread a very fine line.
By necessity a big budget blockbuster produced in the 21st century has to offer a degree of spectacle, levict and accessibility that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Since 2009 this notion has been anathema to many Star Trek fans (including our very own Josh), who value Trek’s place at the more cerebral end of populist science fiction.
When Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) director J J Abrams stepped down and was replaced by Justin Lin, a name synonymous with the Fast and the Furious franchise, one could forgive hardcore Trekkies for feeling like the fundamental spirit of their beloved franchise had been compromised, dare I even say… dumbed down?
As the hype machine began to rev its engines, the kinetic action sequences and profuse explosions were very much front and centre in the trailers with very little emphasis on the characters and relationships that fans new and old would undoubtedly be flocking to the cinema to see.
But a film must always exist on its own merits, not those of its marketing materials.
Does Star Trek Beyond manage to explore the weighty themes and issues that the franchise demands while providing the awesome spectacle that we should expect from contemporary science fiction?
Not really, no.
Is it, nonetheless, a fun and entertaining film?
Despite a decidedly ropy opening scene in which a culturally sensitive diplomatic mission descends into slapstick farce, the film generally has enough going on between its ears to shepherd you from one action set piece to the next without feeling the need to write a written apology to the laws of physics (up until the end of the second act, anyway).
This is a Trek film that appears to be ticking all the right boxes until you realise that it’s ticking boxes just for the sake of ticking boxes.
It’s a shame too, because somewhere in it’s DNA exist the ingredients of a perfect Star Trek film. Marooning the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a hostile alien world with only their wits and their mission is the very quintessence of ‘Trek, but by the time the plot gets to this integral point it’s in too much of a rush to tie up all its loose ends for us to really appreciate it.
Using the magic of digital effects to show us props, locations and cosmic vistas such as we’ve never seen before should also be a given, and while the film does deliver on some pretty incredible visuals you barely have time to really appreciate them before they’re blown up.
STB touches on some really interesting themes but doesn’t really quite follow through on any of them.
Captain Kirk, for example, begins the film weary and a little stir-crazy, three years into the famous five year mission. As much as he’s trying to save face in front of the crew, he’s having something of an identity crisis, questioning his reasons for sitting in the Captain’s chair and contemplating jacking it all in for a cushy job as Vice Admiral.
By the end of the film, he’s resolutely sure he wants to stay on the bridge but the how and the why are, while explained, never really earned.
Likewise, Spock is torn between his duties to Starfleet and his duty to his, now endangered, species. This dilemma is also resolved but in quite a superficial way.
The film’s villain, Krall represents an interesting notion, as well as a rather cool plot twist. Having devoted his life to combat, he believes that greatness can only be achieved by conflict and as such the post-militaristic notion of Starfleet is repugnant to him. It’s a nice idea and one that would carry far more weight if he did more than swagger around snarling at everyone.
On the positive side, the cast are as reliable as you’d expect with Karl Urban’s Leonard McCoy at his misanthropic best. Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the film) also feels like he’s much more settled into his role. The trinity of Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock and Zoe Saldana as Uhura are once again superb and worthy caretakers of such iconic roles.
Idris Elba does his best with sparse dialogue and prosthetic encumbrances but, as Eric Bana and Benedict Cumberbatch before him, it takes more than a heavyweight thesp to break the curse of forgettable post-2009 Star Trek villains.
The multi-talented Sophia Boutella Would steal the show as Jaylah if her character were just a little better developed. Some fans have already compared her to Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and while they share the same dichotomy of Disney princess optimism and ass-kicking, the latter feels like a deliberate mystery while the former just feels part-baked.
STB is really a Faberge egg of a film; beautiful, intricate, compelling… But hollow. It’s beautiful enough that you probably won’t mind but when you’re through with the pretty colours, you’re not going to find a whole lot going on beneath the surface.