Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond (Film Review)

To say that Star Trek's rebirth has been tumultuous would be an understatement.

For every step forwards it has taken at least another back, and for all its successes it has never truly had an out an out win. Really, think about it. The 2009 outing rebooted things with a fresh sense of energy, a focus upon classic action, and managed to reopen the universe to mainstream audiences while preserving the old setting (a treatment Star Wars apparently didn't deserve), but the film itself was flawed. The plot holes were huge, the structure sloppy, it lacked the ideological or moral conflict of the old series and Kirk himself lacked many of the original character's qualities.

Into Darkness promptly improved upon almost all of the first film's failings, but promptly failed in the final act. After opting to rip off Wrath of Khan for the entire finale, betraying the very idea of a reboot, and destroying a potentially complex; it promptly followed this up with a series of plot holes so large they could be seen from space.

Star Trek Beyond follows on from this fine tradition despite Justin Lin's creative control, albeit having learned a great deal from his predecessor's mistakes. While it's certainly not akin to First Contact or Undiscovered Country, and action remains the big appeal, it's the first film since the reboot to truly feel like something a truly unapologetic Trek experience.

Some years after the events of Into Darkness, the Enterprise crew have found themselves at a crossroads. Many of the characters are beginning to question their role in Starfleet, with Kirk finding that captaincy has lost its charm, Spock considering departing to better help his people and Scotty himself having trouble just keeping the ship going. Just as each of them are set to go their separate ways, a mysterious escape pod arrives while docked with the star base Yorktown which requires their immediate aid. Joining together for what could be one last time, the Enterprise sets out and soon  sails into the jaws of hell itself.

Given how character focused a tale this is, it's worth mentioning that Beyond does a vastly better job of distributing the importance and screen-time between the crew than past films. While films would always find something for the majority of the cast to do, the focus always tended to be on the three core characters of Kirk, Spock and Bones (or Picard, Riker and Data for TNG) with everyone else pushed aside. Oh they'd have their roles for sure, but they were perpetually stuck as members of the supporting cast. Here however, it does the best job of offering them something to do since The Voyage Home, dividing up the crew and giving many their own minor plotlines. 

While the focus is once more placed primarily upon Kirk and co. you have stories like Scotty trying to use his engineering knowledge to survive against a superior foe, Sulu serving as a captive for the big bad and whatnot. Even once the heroes are all together after being separated out, their actions and general roles still remain distinct within the film, allowing them to retain a far stronger screen presence as a result.

The character dynamics and presentation truly is what helps to elevate the film above its contemporaries, as the main story itself remains relatively straight forwards. It's still primarily an action romp, and still sticks to a lot of the main beats, but it uses that to its advantage. By having a traditional (if a little unoriginal) core story, the film is freed up to use secondary elements to help itself stand out. The character arcs are distinct part of this, but aside from that you have some of the best humour of the rebooted trilogy thus far, a tightly written and well performed villain and subtle yet interesting pushes to explore the new universe. In a way, it's akin to what audiences (those who saw it) loved about Dredd, as the film treats the core plot as little more than a simple skeleton to flesh out the fun stuff atop of.

Another, and extremely welcome, change to the structure here is the overall pacing of Beyond. Second only to Steven Moffat, Abrams has this frustrating habit of leaping headlong into the story without bothering to lay down the foundations first. Even in his better films, you might well have noticed that he seems to regard a solid first act as being a nice bonus at best, and an inconvenience at worst. As a result, many productions under him retain an oddly rushed and incomplete feeling, as if you've just missed several major sequences which were core to understanding the story. Thankfully Justin Lin opted not to repeat this error, and while it does feature a fast moving beginning, you're at least given a chance to get your bearings before someone starts shooting a phaser. Beyond also knows when to take breaks from the action as well, which serves to both break up the action and support the stronger overall plot. Thanks to this constant sense of momentum rather than sheer breakneck speed, it remains engaging without becoming exhausting.

Basically it's what separates James Gunn from Michael Bay.

Of course, as this is all moot if Beyond lacks a few strong action sequences. With trailer after trailer hyping a big, explosive outing, many fans were wondering just how Lin would tackle a full on space conflict. The only moment any promo piece ever focused upon was the loss of  the Enterprise to an attacking fleet of smaller vessels. Only a scant few clips even highlighted later spaceborne skirmishes, and offered little insight into the actual staging or presentation of any later battles. Thankfully however, there isn't a bad fight in the entire film. From the requisite Kirk fistfight (the first one he actually wins against a named foe in this rebooted franchise no less) to the hectic battles throughout a derelict vessel, there is a fantastic sense of kinetic enthusiasm which resonates through the screen. Both slick editing and excellent environmental staging allows each fight to constantly be on the move. Constantly twisting against expectations, you can never fully predict how any battle will progress, and it's always fun just to see what new element could be possibly thrown into a fight to keep things moving.

Sadly though, Beyond is hardly without its problems. For starers, while the cinematography is solid overall and present some truly engaging battle sequences, there is a distinct lack of money shots. You'll rarely be left thinking of  that one truly awesome moment which stands out above all others or single shot which personifies the film. It never pauses long enough to emphasise this or fully make use of the overall environment, and as a result a few technically fantastic sequences lack the post-film impact they deserve. 

This directorial problem is only further compounded by the fact that the camerawork cannot make the settings seem alien no matter their scale or features. Whether or not this was an ingenious tip of the hat to the classic series or simply a creative failing, the alien worlds are little more than barren rocky wastes bereft of truly alien features. As a result, no matter how hard you try, it's difficult to consider certain scenes as anything more than a big budget film pulling the old BBC Quarry trick.

The script also fails on two fronts, holding back what was otherwise a truly outstanding film. First and foremost, all too often it honestly seems to be playing it safe, unwilling to fully commit to any character moments. Oh they're a welcome addition to be sure and certainly a strong point of the story, but their resolutions or twists are often rushed. For example, Spock's entire character arc is resolved with little fanfare, coming to a decision in an alarmingly short amount of time. While the ideas, concepts and conversations are welcome, the actual conclusion seems to have been rushed through in order to get to more violence. The same goes for a few other character moments as Spock and Uhura's budding romance is unceremoniously killed off, and Sulu's (un)surprising familial revelation sadly amounts to nothing. This often makes the film feel like Wrath of Khan lite, with the action/drama ratio reversed.

Finally we have the villain who, while certainly not the weakest foe ever featured on Star Trek, is sadly a little shallow. Much of his serious menace and presence comes down to Idris Elba turning in an outstanding performance through heavy prosthetics. Quite frankly that shouldn't be a surprise, as the man can practically make something from nothing in just about any role, but there's no denying that the character on paper is relatively flat. He's a warlord, wants to destroy the Federation and is bloodthirsty to a fault. The only real depth we're given to his persona shows up in the last few minutes with several major bombshells, but given this is deep into the third and final act there's sadly little opportunity to react to this.

Really, Beyond is flawed but undeniably entertaining. It hits all the right notes for an engaging and downright fun summer blockbuster adventure, and proves to be a fine Trek film in its own right. It does sadly still lack a lot of the qualities which made this franchise famous in the first place, but the creative team did a fine job of weaving older themes into an action heavy script. Even if you were disheartened by Into Darkness, this is most definitely not a film to be missed so go out and watch it on the big screen while you still have a chance.

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