JULY 29, 2016
AT THE START of Star Trek Beyond, directed by Fast & Furious’s Justin Lin from a script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, even Captain Kirk is sick of Star Trek. About three seasons — er, years — into the five-year mission launched at the end of the last movie, Kirk tells us that the once-promising frontier of strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations has proved “episodic” — the best joke in the film — and now he wants out. He’s applied for a desk job, a vice admiralcy at a cutting-edge deep space station, Yorktown Base, which looks like a giant suburban outdoor mall; after one last mission saving the crew of a downed ship on Random Planet in the Mysterious Nebula, where sensors and radios don’t work right, he’s hanging up those yellow captain’s shirts (which he somehow keeps ripping open) for good. Spock is planning on quitting too, we find out; with the death of his older self, Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, he feels his talents are needed on the New Vulcan colony where the last of his people have resettled. Dr. Carol Marcus (remember her?), who joined the crew at the end of the last movie, must have gotten bored too, somewhere along the way; she’s been gone so long that when the movie starts there’s no sign of her, and certainly no one mentions her.
Star Trek has been here before. The six movies with the original crew (and the first movie with the Next Generation crew, in which Kirk also appears) were each, in their own way, ruminations on the strange longevity of the franchise: Original Recipe Kirk and crew had to confront their age over and over again in ways big and small, from Kirk’s unhappiness with his promotion to admiral in The Motion Picture (1979) to the drama of death and rebirth in movies II-IV (1982–1986) to the confrontation with eternity in The Final Frontier (1989) to the march of history moving on past the original crew altogether in the peace with the hated Klingons that is announced in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) to Kirk’s regrets and final death in Generations (1994). But it’s all happening faster now, somehow, not only through the backward-looking glance of a reboot franchise that has never, despite its many self-conscious attempts to brand itself as new and hip, been able to move beyond pale replication of the adventures of the original crew, but also in events that are external to the Abramsverse franchise, most notably the death of Leonard Nimoy in 2015. Nimoy’s Spock was the strongest link between the Old Star Trek and the New Star Trek, which itself has suddenly been transformed into the Old Star Trek with this weekend’s Comic-Con confirmation that the television series launching in January 2017, Star Trek: Discovery, will be set back in the original, or “Prime,” universe. Now, all of a sudden, the Reboot Universe is the one that’s a cul-de-sac, a dead end; it’s the one that doesn’t have a future.
It’s worth lingering a bit on the way the Comic-Con announcement steps on Star Trek Beyond, because it’s only the latest in Paramount’s missteps in promoting the film. The hype machine for the film was surprisingly austere and they didn’t screen the film for critics, usually a strong indicator that they think the film is a turkey; the promotion of the film has tended to be about anything but the film, from overpromotion of the blink-and-you-miss-it scene that suggests the reboot Sulu has a male partner to already beginning to promote the unmade fourth movie as a time-travel romp with Kirk’s dad (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) as if to say, sorry guys, listen, the next one will be good. The TV ads promoting the movie the week before it premiered even gave away the film’s third-act twist (possibly a blessing in disguise, insofar as the twist is so by-the-numbers and lifeless it almost ruins the film). Maybe Paramount was spooked by the franchise’s famous odd-numbered curse, which prophesies that only the even-numbered entries are any good — forgetting that the 10th film, Nemesis, broke the mold by being one of the very worst of all, and that in the reboot franchise it seems that the even-numbered movies (#12/#2, Star Trek Into Darkness) are the bad ones.
In some sense Star Trek Beyond’s desire to breathe new life into a reboot franchise that is already growing stale after just a few years never had a chance, framed as it is not by one death but by two: not just Nimoy but also Anton Yelchin (who played the youngest member of the crew, the new version of Chekov) in a freak accident at his home in June. The metatextual knowledge of Yelchin’s passing melancholically darkens our reception of the entire film, from an early scene where Kirk and McCoy break into his locker to steal his booze (Why Chekov? What does it mean?), to an uncanny lingering shot on Yelchin as Kirk toasts “absent friends,” to even the photo of the entire original crew that Quinto-Spock finds among Nimoy-Spock’s personal effects (from a promotional photo from The Final Frontier that now becomes an in-universe artifact as well). What the film presents as a comforting vision out of the future that tells Spock where he really belongs — with his friends, on the Enterprise — is for us, outside the film, a doubly cruel image of loss; we have now not only permanently lost three of the seven people in the photograph (Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan) but this crew, the reboot crew, will forever be one man short.
From the perverse and callous perspective of the critic, one might suggest that in one sense Yelchin’s death now forces the reboot franchise to truly be its own thing and cut its own creative path. Whatever the future movies in the Abramsverse become, there’s a permanent barrier between them and the sort of uncanny replication they’ve seemed (at times despite their better judgment) to be striving for. And Chekov wasn’t in The Animated Series, after all, and his absence (acknowledged on-screen or not) would be an opportunity to introduce a new character to an old mix, perhaps Yeoman Janice Rand (oddly absent in the reboot franchise) or even The Animated Series’s Chekov-replacements Arex and M’Ress. But even without that mournful context of grief, Beyond already feels final. Between Beyond’s somber sense that the possibilities of Trek have all been exhausted, the announcement that Yelchin will not be recast, and the tease from J. J. Abrams that the next movie in the reboot franchise will involve time-travel (again) back to before the moment of Kirk’s father’s death at the start of Star Trek (2009), one wonders if the Reboot Universe might not in fact be heading now toward a sort of de-boot, and in the name of saving Vulcan or San Francisco or Chekov or all three they’re now going to give the famously cantankerous classic fandom what it’s always wanted and make it so none of the reboot movies ever happened in the first place.
In essence, of course, this has already happened, whether NuTrek IV is a time-travel story or not, and even if it’s never actually made; Star Trek: Discovery’s return to the Prime Timeline of TOS, TAS, TNG, DS9, and VOY has now rendered the Reboot Universe as canonically superfluous as the Prime Universe used to be, way back in 2009. The Undiscovered Country helped say goodbye to the original crew once before; with the memento photo in Beyond, and Discovery rumored to be set in the aftermath of that film, the clear implication would seem to be that we are once again moving on from Kirk and company, perhaps this time for good.
With all that out of the way, we can say it: Star Trek Beyond is fine. It’s mostly enjoyable. I’m sure I’ll watch it again, more than once. In my own mental power rankings of the Star Trek movies it seems to me to fall squarely in the middle, exactly where the film’s limited ambition would want to place it: It’s plainly worse than WOK, FC, TVH, TUC, ST (2009), and TSFS, but clearly better than STID, TMP, TFF, GEN, NEM, or INS. Like the other reboot films that surround it in that list, it’s quite literally middling; it’s Star Trek, neither at its best nor its worst, and I like Star Trek even at its very worst. So, like I said, this is fine.
As others before me have remarked, Beyond actually captures the feeling of just watching a generic Star Trek episode on television better than any of the other feature films since at least INS, if not TFF or TMP: the ship runs across a thing on the way from one place to another place, gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. (It also feels like a classic TV Trek two-parter in another way, too, in that the first half is much better than the second half.) That the ship blows up about a third of the way through the picture (as seen in the ads) is a novelty, sure, but by then we’ve already been set up for the inevitable christening of the NCC-1701-A at the end of the film (just like that time it blew up in those old movies you liked!). No one seems to really care that Kirk crashed his ship, or that he lost what looks like at least several dozen crew members in the process, maybe as many as one or two hundred — in this one, the non-featured-players beyond the Big Seven barely matter (and indeed seem to disappear entirely, without explanation, in the film’s extended climax). For most of the film, the role of the rest of the crew (despite nominally being Starfleet’s other best and brightest) is to stand around waiting for a main character to show up and move the plot forward. Forget the Bechdel Test (which of course the film doesn’t pass either) and imagine one for the background players who aren’t Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, or Scotty: two characters, with names, who talk to each other about something other than Captain Kirk. Even the much-touted Sulu romance features a partner and a daughter who have no lines, no on-screen names, and at most 20 seconds of screen time (some of that a still insert on a photograph).
The hermetic and formulaic nature of the film, its inability to sustain interest in anything other than telling another version of the same well-trod story with its main ensemble, hurts the production worst in its lack of commitment to its two new characters, the villain (Krall, an utterly wasted Idris Elba) and Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Jaylah is certainly a welcome addition to the classically male-heavy cast, and they nicely dodge the bullet of setting her up to be a love interest — but she is also a classic “guest star” whose characterization swings wildly from “incredible badass” to “exposition fairy” to “wilting flower” depending on what they need the main cast to be doing in that moment. (My favorite example of this flexibility is when the film suddenly gives her a tragic backstory with a hated nemesis, so she can have a “now we end this!” fight with that character literally three minutes later — then she beams away before his body hits the ground and it’s never mentioned again.) But the lack of attention to Krall is a serious problem with the movie, as the film seems to want Krall to be important while giving the audience almost nothing to work with. Here I spoil the twist the TV ads have already spoiled: Despite appearances, Krall is actually a human being, Balthazar Edison, who captained and crashed the USS Franklin on Random Planet almost a century ago, shortly after the Star Trek: Enterprise prequel era. Marooned on the planet and unable to fix their ship (despite the untrained Jaylah being able to mostly do so by herself, with Scotty and Chekov finishing the job in what appears to be a long afternoon’s work), his crew took advantage of the Ancient Alien Technology that was also on the planet (for some good reason I’m sure) to extend their lives, while also searching for Scary Ancient Alien Weapons that would allow him to get revenge on a Federation he blames for never rescuing him (despite, by this point, plainly having more than enough resources to just leave Random Planet whenever he wants and go elsewhere instead). Even being as generous as possible — not a Trek fan’s strong suit — Krall’s arc makes absolutely no sense, and yet the entire film hinges on it, and worse seems to want it to really mean something in that classic Star Trek “light-allegory” sense. But what? One friend thought Krall (a former soldier, scarred by the wars with the Romulans and the Xindi, who found he had no place in peacetime) was a timely statement on the way our society discards its soldiers once the war is over. Another was just as convinced that Krall was a reactionary metaphor against Black Lives Matter, seeing Krall/Edison as a figure for those who would hold on to (supposedly misunderstood) grudges too long, allowing their bitterness to twist and destroy them. Still another noted Krall as the latest version of the terrorism plot that has been replicated ad nauseam in all three reboot movies, almost always presenting the terrorist as a tactically brilliant but morally deranged psychopath with no possible politics or desires beyond their perverted love of misery and death.
My personal take on Krall was to see him as exemplary of the longer trend in post-Roddenberry Star Trek (dating back to the mid-TNG years) that has increasingly shown the utopian future of the Federation to be, at best, the glossy sheen on an obscene lie. The post-Roddenberry Federation is constantly abandoning its supposed principles in the name of expediency and self-interest, and is constantly at war, whether with the Evil Others from Over There (Krall, the Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion, the Romulans …) or the Evil Others from In Here (Edison, Section 31, Admiral Marcus from Into Darkness, the anti-Klingon-peace cabal from The Undiscovered Country, the creepy brain parasites from “Conspiracy” …). TOS had its share of violence and gunboat diplomacy too, but all the same, the Kirk who would refuse to kill the Gorn in “Arena,” or who would save the Horta in “Devil in the Dark,” or who would go back to help Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver” doesn’t seem to work here anymore. It’s little wonder that when Kirk tries to broker peace with some silly cartoon whatzits at the beginning of Beyond it all quickly turns to garbage; everyone in space is nuts and diplomacy is a joke, the only language anyone understands is a good old-fashioned chase scene followed by a fistfight on a rooftop (the dull action spectacle that ends both Into Darkness and Beyond).
As with the bizarrely off-message ending of The Wrath of Khan — in which Kirk’s response to his own incompetence, which has gotten his ship battered and much of his crew killed, including his best friend, is to “feel young” — the cataclysmic events and mass death of Beyond somehow make Kirk decide that he likes being a space cowboy after all. I hope there is another movie with this crew, but philosophically speaking this is the worst aspect of Beyond, for my money, the thing about it that is truly mirror-universe. That ostensibly boring, “episodic” drama of exploration, peace treaties, weird space anomalies, and mutually beneficial first contacts is supposed to be the good stuff, not the skin-of-your-teeth save-the-world escapes from genocidal lunatics at the edge of space. That’s why Star Trek has always been better on TV than in the movies, despite the lower budgets: We want to see these people out there, having fun adventures, in the name of some higher purpose and in pursuit of our better selves. “Risk,” the old Kirk once remarked, once upon a time, “is our business” — but that “risk” was the cost we paid for “the possibilities — the potential for knowledge and advancement … That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.” The new Kirk remains at his core a self-destructive and self-obsessed thrill-seeker, in a universe that needs him to put out the fires that are constantly being lit by maniacs — and that this is the only story we can tell about our Kirk speaks to our larger refusal of any other world of possibility, either out there or down here.
“Let’s see what’s out there,” a captain of the Enterprise once said, in happier times. But in our moment, it seems like we don’t want to know, or (maybe worse) we’re sure we already do. The lovely thing about Star Trek VI is that its “undiscovered country” was not death, but peace; hopefully Discovery is able to at least take a few scans of the place before they arm the torpedoes and set phasers to kill.