Star Trek Beyond: Career Changes of Small Consequence
Star Trek Beyond
by Bill Stamets
Star Trek films are of two sorts: TV-like episodes or cinema-scale epics. Even on a towering Imax screen, viewed from third row center, “Star Trek Beyond” felt small. Director Justin Lin, and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, aim small. A routine narrative with thin characters, this lesser entry entertains only modest thoughts about the title’s “Beyond.”
Big thoughts are a fixture in the franchise launched by Gene Roddenberry in 1966 as an NBC series. “Star Trek Beyond” is the 13th in an uneven succession of big screen features since 1979. Its philosophizing on virtuous vocations and galactic governance is cursory.
Once again, the five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Originally intoned by William Shatner in the role of Captain James T. Kirk, that Starfleet mandate opened each television episode. “Star Trek Beyond” moves those lines to the film’s end. The first words– “Space, the final frontier”– are voiced by a younger Kirk (Chris Pine). Assorted male and female crew members under his command recite the remainder, with “no one” replacing “no man.”
“Today is our 966th day in deep space,” states the Kirk in his third turn captaining the Enterprise for producer J.J. Abrams. Morale is flagging. His log entry cites “prolonged co-habitation” as a contributing factor. He’s not seeing anyone himself. What does he see in the beyond? Is he less curious about the frontier?
“The farther out we go, the more I find myself wondering what it is we’re trying to accomplish,” Kirk confides to his journal. “If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?” Doubts aside, he dutifully heads towards “an unstable nebula” out there in “uncharted space.” When he hails his crew, Kirk lifts a line from a 1966 television episode: “We have come to understand that there is no such thing as the unknown– be it temporarily hidden.”
The plot is routine: ambush, shipwreck, escape, chase. Villain thwarted, civilians saved. Combat and chases unfold in loud blurs of shards. Which way is up is unclear because in space, there is no up. Maybe Lin needs Earth gravity to ground his action sequences. This was not an issue in his four turns steering “Fast and Furious,” a thoroughly terrestrial franchise where vehicles travel below warp speed.
By luck the atmosphere, temperature and terrain of Vancouver and Dubai all support the shooting of exteriors light years from Earth. The characters, cast and crew never need helmets and suits, or off-planet per diems. The film’s visual highlights are two built environments with CGI enhancements: a primitive depopulated planet where a Federation vessel crashed a century or so ago, and an urbane Starbase with skyscrapers aimed every which way. Due to multi-vectorial artificial gravity, I figure.
Key cast members reprise roles from two past Star Trek films directed by J.J. Abrams: “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek into Darkness” (2013). Besides Kirk, the roster includes commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Novel detail and nuance is scripted only for Spock and Kirk, the two ranked highest. They each get a speck of characterization tied to their respective fathers.
Career changes loom. On the anniversary of his father’s death aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, Kirk waits to hear about a promotion to Vice Admiral. Spock weighs his own exit the Enterprise. Is it time to follow in his recently deceased father’s footsteps to New Vulcan? Their issues are small compared to what impels Krall (Idris Elba) to fire up the ultimate weapon– made then disarmed long ago by the Ancient Ones, in the best interests of the universe.
Krall is one seriously disgruntled seeker of redress. He once saw “a lot of off-world combat” as a Major in the United Earth Military Assault Command Operation, according to his file. “I’m a soldier,” he tells Kirk. “You gave us peace. Peace is not what I was born into.” He chafed in his new uniform when Starfleet made him captain of the U.S.S. Franklin. He could not abide the new order of galactic diplomacy. It borders on treason “to break bread with the enemy,” he seethes.
“This is where the frontier pushes back,” Krall threatens his former employer, the Federation. He debates Kirk about character-building and self-knowledge: “We knew pain. We knew terror. Struggle made us stronger… But without struggle you will never know who you truly are.” This quasi-Nietzschean diatribe gets muddled in a segue to Krall’s agenda: “To save you from yourselves.” An interstellar terrorist strike on a Starbase will teach the soft Federation a hard lesson in military realism or something.
As in the “Independence Day” franchise, wile is the weapon of the good and the just against overpowering odds. The same ploy is in play here. Take out the enemy’s command-and-control of its hive-like swarms of spacecraft to preserve the peace of the universe. Instead of uploading a virus, Kirk’s team broadcasts aggressive vintage rock by VHF to crash the “cyberpathic link” synchronizing Krall’s “bioweapon.”
Kirk speaks of politics in the known universe when he instructs Krall: “We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.” The former major could not make peace with his warrior within. Kirk and Spock likewise prove incapable of making their own career changes. They battle internally with duty, without collateral damage. Both decide to keep going boldly toward that final frontier.
Kirk was born on the day his father died. It’s never the right day to party. Yet this will be the day he elects to undertake another mission for “fun.” At a surprise celebration, Bones grouses about the prospect of encountering more “alien despots hellbent on killing us” and “incomprehensible cosmic anomalies that could wipe us out in an instant.”
“It’s going to be so much fun,” enthuses Kirk. If only “Star Trek Beyond” could make it so.