Thursday, September 8, 2016

Beyond Space Dudes

"Can't we just get Beyond Star Trek?" - Old Klingon Proverb.

Star Trek has turned 50 and I find myself at this time very much at peace with the franchise. The time when I was a devoted Trek fan was considerably brief - 7 years - but those corners of the franchise which I once disparaged I'm now friendly towards and of late I've taken to revisiting a lot of old Trek episodes and films.

The breaking point for me was the series Enterprise and, coupled with the one-two-punch of Star Trek: Nemesis it seemed as though the franchise had turned sour and needed to be fixed. However, thanks to Netflix I've reappraised Enterprise and discovered it became genuinely good near the end of its 2nd season. There many things about the program which I find fault with, but overall I'm positive about it and will even recommended it to others (with the proviso they avoid the many episodes which frustrated me).

And this brings me to Star Trek: Beyond, the most recent film in the Trek film franchise begun by J. J. Abrams. In examining the previous two films I dubbed them "Space Dudes" based on my theory that "there is nothing wrong with the films that changing their names to 'Space Dudes' wouldn't fix." But to continue my reconciliation with the franchise, I'm now placated by the Abrams films and I won't be using that disparaging nickname any longer.

The previous two Abrams films directly clashed with Trek on purpose in the vein of "you've never seen these characters like this before," which was a little misconceived as these were new incarnations of the characters and didn't have the same backstories as the originals. Leonard Nimoy's Spock kept his emotions bottled up and when they came out, they were usually morose and melancholy; compare that to Zachary Quinto's Spock, whose emotions are barely below the surface and come to the fore as extreme rage. William Shatner's Kirk was a ladies' man who could improvise brilliant plans and defy authority for the greater good; Chris Pine's Kirk engages in meaningless sex with unimportant characters, is extremely brash, entitled and bad at taking orders. Nichelle Nichols' Uhura was defined solely by her job as communications officer; Zoe Saldana's Uhura is defined... well, primarily as Spock's girlfriend. Progress! These changes work as a contrast to the previous performers' roles but consequently, I can't buy Quinto's Spock as "the" Spock - he's drifted too far from Nimoy's.

Thus, Star Trek: Beyond pushes back a bit; Spock is again reserved and if at all emotional, is morose; Kirk is intelligent, can outfox his enemies and, shockingly, doesn't try to pick up any ladies; McCoy is back to being one of the leads and banters with Spock. And so forth. At the same time, what came before is still there but it feels justified; like, Kirk riding motorcycles and listening to Beastie Boys in the first film felt like pandering; Beyond makes those elements seem organic.

Beyond has trouble, and that's everything to do with the villain, yet another revenge-seeking madman with a doomsday weapon (5 films in a row now). What makes this villain particularly painful is that his backstory is withheld until the climax of the film is already underway; the sudden pause to explain who the villain truly is kills the momentum and invites all manner of "but if he's really this guy, then why..." questions. The villain plot is basically a waste.

Although the Abrams Trek still hasn't figured out how to write villains, the good news is that the characters are likeable and they carry the film regardless of whatever nonsense is unfolding. Trailers did not accurately reflect what the film was like, making it look like one of director Justin Lin's Fast and Furious flicks. There are a lot of great action scenes, but the characters are the best part of the movie. Perhaps the best scenes are the McCoy-Spock scenes as they start by bickering with each other, then eventually have a heartfelt conversation.

And now that I'm finally on board with the new Trek... obviously, now audiences disagree with me. I did hear that Into Darkness may have lost money because of its high advertising budget, but Beyond seems to be doing considerably worse, having all but vanished at the box office due to the intense glut of big budget action movies this year. I'm sure the Trek films will be back, but perhaps they should take a cue from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and trim the budget back; who knows... when you've got less money to throw on the screen, it might force you to write a compelling story instead...

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