Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trek 2016: Star Trek Beyond

Technically, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek's first season continues into spring 2017.  But 2016 was the anniversary year.  There were conventions, related books, videos, fan tributes, though not as much as you might expect.  And there was the latest feature film, Star Trek Beyond, shown in theaters last summer and released on DVD and related formats late in the year.  That's how I've finally seen it.

The random observations first.  There were a number of echoes from past films and series, like Doctor McCoy discussing Kirk's latest birthday with him.  There were also some interesting variations to Trek conventions, such as a very brief visual which was easily the closest Star Trek has gotten to more realistically depicting the Enterprise in warp.  Warp is usually shown as just a much faster speed, but it's not that--it warps space.

Similarly, the convention of people speaking different languages, which the unseen universal translator is turning into English.  But such a device doesn't govern how an alien's mouth moves, yet the actors are always shown speaking English.  In one scene here at least, we see the alien speaking the alien language (and hear it muffled) while we hear the translation.  And then there's that futuristic device aboard the Franklin, the seat belt.

We can note that McCoy gets a lot more to do, including action sequences, as does Scotty, with Spock getting less.  Uhura is now a martial arts fighter, too.  In a much heralded but very brief scene, Sulu is shown greeting his young daughter in the arms of a man, meant to convey that he's gay.  John Cho continues to be impressive as Sulu, making the most of his moments.

It's a fast-paced adventure with lots of interplay moments for a good cast, both regulars and guests.  The story revolves around yet another single psychotic villain and his henchmen, but except for a wan attempt at hanging the plot on the difficulties warriors have when the war is over, it's almost a McGuffin--an excuse for the action and other plot developments.

There are the usual absurdities of people getting hit and falling but jumping right back up without injury. Generally it has all the silliness of action movies, which tend to detract from it as Star Trek.  But either I've lowered my expectations, or this is better handled in this film than in the previous two JJA-produced movies.

The core idea seems to be the one expressed by Scotty (quoting his grandmother)--that you can't break a stick in a bundle.  In other words, that we're stronger together. (Where have we heard that before?)  With the corollary that by being united as a team means that every individual is important--that no one gets left behind.  It's the union of "the needs of the many" and the needs of the one.  Diversity and unity--very basic Star Trek concepts, very subtly handled.  Maybe too subtly for some, within all the joyous action noise.  On the other hand, the way it is presented makes it just as similar to the US Marines ethic.

The most elegant moment of contrast was when the villain says he was born to conflict (kill or be killed), and Kirk says he was born to rescue (all for one and one for all)--literally true, for his father saved the Kelvin at the cost of his own life as Kirk was being born, which ties in with Kirk and McCoy's first birthday conversation.

The dramatic arc is Kirk and Spock at the beginning both planning to leave the Enterprise, though neither knows what the other is thinking.  After 3 years in space, Kirk is disillusioned with Starfleet's mission--what are we doing out here?  (It's a question that the villain addresses in the negative--suggesting issues of conquest etc. that aren't really dealt with.)  Spock is reacting to the death of Spock prime, for the actor Leonard Nimoy and the character he played have both died.  The Kelvin timeline, movie Spock feels a duty to replace him in reviving his civilization on New Vulcan.

In the end, Chris Pine's Kirk decides to stay because being captain of the Enterprise is fun (a  kind of echo of Shatner's Kirk in Generations.)  Spock sees that Spock Prime carried with him a photo of his Enterprise crewmates--a poignant scene and very brief 50th anniversary tribute to the prime universe crew and actors.  So he apparently realizes that the Enterprise is his true destiny.  And at the end of the movie that turns out to be the Enterprise-A.

I recall seeing an interview with Chris Pine suggesting that to expect anything more than an action movie isn't realistic these days. Maybe so. But apparently it hasn't improved the box office all that much.  There's less to dislike and more to like about this movie than the previous two, to my mind.  The actors are more comfortable in their roles, the dialogue is better and quicker.  Beyond the "how," the film doesn't break new ground.  I only wonder if even its most basic core--the Star Trek ethos of unity in diversity, gets beyond military-inspired references. Or if it is strong enough to communicate to audiences, new or old.  

It seems clearer to me that we're dealing with a Paramount Star Trek and a CBS Star Trek in terms of new stories.  In retrospect, J.J. did everyone a favor by creating the alternate time line universe.  It can be embraced or ignored.  Either way this film seems to make no change, let alone addition, in the soul of Star Trek.

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