Posted on Monday, July 25th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
In a summer seemingly defined by how disappointing so many movies have been, Star Trek Beyond is an oasis. It’s crowd-pleaser that has something on its mind, a sequel that’s not painfully beholden to massive franchise plans, and a story about the power of positivity overcoming darkness. In short, it’s a unique release for 2016…and the right antidote for 2016.
And since it’s Monday and you’ve had a chance to see it, let’s take a deeper dive into what makes this movie tick.
What is Star Trek, Anyway?
When Star Trek Beyond first began screening, an old argument was dragged into the public yet again: what is Star Trek? And who is it for? And does this, the latest iteration of a 50-year old franchise, actually count as Star Trek or is it something the more serious fans, the aficionados who have studied Enterprise blueprints, should write off as not mattering in the grand scheme of things?
The truth is that this discussion is inherently silly. Star Trek isn’t so easily identifiable as a single thing. It’s too big for that. Even creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t make up his mind and his original “wagon train to the stars” pitch evolved over the years, transforming from heady, spacey, pulpy science fiction into something of a social document that used sci-fi as a backdrop for a utopian portrait. The original series is a different beast than Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a different beast than most of the movies. The Kelvin Timeline, the rebooted series created by J.J. Abrams, is its own animal.
And it is an animal that suits new director Justin Lin‘s sensibilities just fine. Although he grew up a Star Trek fan, Lin’s interests are more varied. In Star Trek Beyond, you can see the other facets of his personality shining through. He likes fast vehicles and intense action. He has a soft spot for goofy humor. The blockbuster-friendly pacing that he perfected while transforming the Fast and Furious series from a terrible movie franchise into a hugely entertaining one is on display here. Lin may like Star Trek, but he’s a jock at heart, the kind of kid who left the house to play basketball when other Trek fans cracked open those technical manuals. Star Trek Beyond is the obvious work of a casual fan – he’s aware of the iconography, but nothing is sacred. Him blowing up the Enterprise in act one feels like statement.
Star Trek Beyond is Star Trek because it doesn’t feel quite like what came before. That’s the whole point of Star Trek. There are shades of the original series in how Kirk and the crew solve a trick problem on the Planet of the Week. There are shades of The Next Generation in how it holds humanity’s unlimited potential up on a pedestal. There are even shades of Deep Space Nine, a show that continuously questioned the purpose of the Federation and Starfleet and explored what it means to function in a society where perfection is the norm. But most of all, Star Trek Beyond is a spirited adventure, an optimistic romp, a tale of colleagues, a makeshift family, coming together and fighting for what they believe in. Lin is a jock. His Captain Kirk, who even gets to drive a motorcycle like a more traditional action hero, is also a total jock. However, they’re the kind of jocks who fraternize with the nerds and rely on them and treat them with the utmost respect. Star Trek Beyond isn’t Trek at its smartest, but it’s the first Trek movie in a long time that stands in awe of what a mixed team of experts from all different backgrounds can accomplish.
Whenever I start watching a new television show, I give it a simple test. Could you take any two characters and separate them from the rest of the ensemble and enjoy their interactions? For the best shows, the answer is generally yes. A strong cast isn’t made up of individuals – it’s a team. Each actor, each character, serves a unique function. Watching those functions mix and match and bounce off one another must be a pleasure.
The crew of the Enterprise has been the chief draw of Star Trek since 1966. Watching this assortment of personalities gel on the bridge or on an away mission has always been a delight. At its best, Trek has always been an ode to teamwork. Remove one member of the bridge crew and watch things start to crumble. Everyone has one another’s back. J.J. Abrams recognized this. Even through 2009’s Star Trek struggles through its myriad of story speed bumps, Abrams inspires great joy by showcasing people doing their jobs well. Orders are issued and actions are performed and everyone looks like they know exactly what they’re doing. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in watching a well-oiled machine.
Star Trek Beyond shakes up the formula by removing the bridge, and the entire Enterprise, from the picture. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung‘s screenplay scatters the Enterprise crew across an uncharted planet, creating a few odd couples. Kirk and Chekov set out to locate the rest of the crew. Dr. McCoy struggles to save an injured Spock. Uhura and Sulu do some detective work from prison. Scotty meets a new ally in Jaylah, a stone-faced survivor and warrior. While all of these people are a blast in the same room, the dynamics that are created when they are paired off is immensely satisfying. Without backup, they must rely on one another and the film finds joy in how everyone steps up to fill the void of their missing crew mates. The temptation to create artificial drama in each pairing much have lurked over Pegg and Jung at all times, but they craft drama from characters coming together in the face of a desperate situation. It’s a breath of fresh air after the overbearing negativity of Star Trek Into Darkness. People, Star Trek Beyond argues, can and will rise to the occasion.
While each pairing is fun, it’s the McCoy and Spock scenes that rise to the top. There has always been a natural friction between these two – one lets his emotions lead the way while the other is, by the nature of his species and upbringing, a being of pure logic. The dynamic here isn’t about these two coming to an understanding or learning that they’re friends. They are already friends. They’ve reached an understanding ages ago. These two push each other’s buttons in ways that only people who have been working together for three years can get away with. Their loyalty to one another is paramount and their affection obvious. They bicker and debate and insult like only true friends can. Star Trek Beyond‘s action scenes are already fading from my mind, but Spock and McCoy’s conversations and gripings continue to linger. Cooperation is a thrilling thing, especially when its two parties with such different world views.