The release of Star Trek Beyond coincides with the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s creation, but it isn’t hard to feel that many die hard Trekkies won’t be buying into the celebratory feeling of this latest franchise entry. The previous film in the rebooted saga, Star Trek Into Darkness, was voted by Trekkies to be the worst film in the franchise history. This critically and commercially successful blockbuster managed the bizarre feat of being, in their eyes, worse than a film where the crew were sent on a mission to find Humpback Whales and even significantly worse than the sight of William Shatner arguing with God.
With sci-fi fans always arguing about the best “Star…” based franchise, many Trekkies became pissed off with JJ Abrams turning their beloved series into nothing more than a trial run for their despised Star Wars, which he was confirmed to direct. Abrams himself even admitted as much, claiming he didn’t even like Star Trek until he started making the movies and adapted the stories to fit his ginormous blockbuster sensibility. Abrams is absent from the director’s chair this time around, but die hard fans shouldn’t celebrate out of relief that we’re getting the old Star Trek back.
It is never a good sign when the film opens with the entire cast suffering from boredom. Three years into their five year mission, the USS Enterprise is making a supply stop, with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) so bored he wants to quit his role as Commanding Officer. Soon after landing, they are sent out on a rescue mission after they are told an important ship is stranded in a far away Nebula. In true Admiral Akbar style, it’s a trap and their ship gets blown to pieces, separating the crew on the nearby planet, as the villainous Krall (Idris Elba) tries to obtain some McGuffin artefact that Kirk apparently has in his possession on the ship. It is such a basic, half-hearted narrative, that it isn’t hard to wonder why you’re supposed to care.
No matter how many callbacks to the original series are included, this is still the sort of generic popcorn blockbuster more akin to a Star Wars rip off than a Trek one. Without Abrams behind the camera, it feels significantly less exciting than the films that came before it- and frequently quite dull too. It is more exposed than ever at how little it bares resemblance to the original series, as Abrams’ loving touch behind the camera is absent, in favour of the comparatively indistinctive directorial style of Justin Lin (Fast Five).
With this director for hire behind the camera instead of somebody who has an emotional investment in creating brilliant space operas, it feels weirdly passionless. Many people have claimed this is the most fun blockbuster of the summer season so far. I want to know what they were watching, as this is a tonal mess that goes from being ponderously existential one minute, to delivering out of place cheesy one liners the next. The screenplay, co-written by Simon Pegg (proving that he really needs Edgar Wright by his side when creating movies), is a classic case of trying to have its cake and eat it; appeasing modern blockbuster fans, whilst also getting the old die hards back on board.
It really doesn’t work. For latter day blockbuster fans, the narrative itself contains many excuses to create spectacular set pieces, yet these still disappoint as the story around them never truly feels like it is stepping into a high gear. It is the failure to craft an engaging story to tie these action moments in that ensures these sequences never deliver the sheer awe and amazement they clearly should.
Justin Lin has created some of the most brilliantly bonkers action scenes of recent years during his tenure behind the cameras of the Fast franchise and he manages to do the same here- just without the same sense of fun. There’s an odd detachment, where I was looking at the screen and admiring the visual effects, without caring remotely about what was happening. Many have praised the film for feeling like an episode of the TV series, what with the inter-character dialogues about weighty subject matter, including a rather moving meditation on the meaning of life, courtesy of Spock (Zachary Quinto). But this isn’t enough to get the oldest Trekkies back on board.
I can’t help but say I wished the film went smaller scale more often, instead of grandiose, as the best moments all but underlined that as much as you cared about these characters, you really didn’t care about the story they were in. When you hire an action director to make a sombre character study, chances are the film is going to feel uneven. Here, action scenes frequently happen just for the sake of Lin showing us his directorial chops. There is a distinctive visual style- but that is because Lin’s regular cinematographer Stephen F. Windon appears to be aping the vertigo-inducing style of Gaspar Noe. Cameras tilt and spin consistently at unusual angles, not seen since Noe’s 2002 rape-revenge thriller Irreversible; it becomes increasingly distracting and will no doubt give many viewers nausea. Sure, it looks brilliantly unusual for a blockbuster movie (the film frequently plays with scale of objects too), but is entirely uncalled for.
Star Trek Beyond is competently made, but as a celebration of the franchise on its 50th anniversary, falls flat. It turns what was once enormous sci-fi fun into a dull tonal mess- and feels likely to alienate the regular popcorn viewer as much as Into Darkness alienated fans of the old saga.