on Star Trek: Beyond (with spoilers)

Star Trek: Beyond finally delivers both a good sci-fi action movie and a good Star Trek movie. And it’s an odd-numbered one! Truly, we live in interesting times.

As a fan of the original-continuity Star Trek, I was not impressed by the first two J.J. Abrams reboot movies. To me, they were generic sci-fi action movies that used the names and props of Star Trek, but were missing what separates Star Trek from other science fiction franchises like Star Wars, Stargate, or Guardians of the Galaxy: the optimistic liberal utopian philosophy. Star Trek’s philosophical and social commentary bent has definitely resulted in some bad hours of heavy-handed morality plays, but that outlook still defines the kinds of stories that do and don’t happen in its universe. The first two nuTrek movies didn’t give me a Federation or Starfleet that felt right. Nevertheless, they were popular money-making movies, and I began to wonder if it was asking too much to make a modern-day Star Trek.

Fortunately, Star Trek: Beyond proves that you CAN actually make an exciting action movie that is also a Star Trek movie. It got a lot of things right that the other two did wrong.

First off, the Federation is portrayed as smart and moral. There’s still a bit too much telling without showing through actions, but at least there’s something there. It’s far better than Starfleet authorizing a revenge-murder plan (which only Scotty objected to) in Star Trek Into Darkness. The original Starfleet would never have done that – heck, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, they were committed to following interstellar law even if it meant the deaths of Kirk and McCoy.

Secondly, Kirk is portrayed as a competent commander. In the first two movies, he was a petulant loose cannon – he shouted and broke every rule to get what he wanted, and then Starfleet somehow rewarded him with permanent and continuing command of the Enterprise. Here, he’s calmer, more confident and commanding, and actually listens to the rest of his crew like a leader should. At the same time, the movie manages he tricky task of giving the entire ensemble something to do. This is something even the original series movies didn’t do – excepting perhaps Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which broke them up into teams. Beyond does the same thing and breaks up the cast into Sulu and Uhura, Chekov and Kirk, Scotty and Jayla, and Spock and McCoy… and gives all of them important plot points. And despite the fact that there are still a lot of big action setpieces (and that Beyond is the shortest nuTrek movie to date) the script is full of less frenetic moments that allow the characters to breathe and talk to each other.

There are arcs for more characters. Kirk, still struggling under the weight of his father’s legendary heroism, gets to live up to it as the last man on a dying ship and as savior of his crew; he gets to go on and find his own purpose. Spock, too, comes out of the shadow of Spock Prime and discover his own path. Uhura gets to stand up to Krall, save Spock’s life, and unravel two of the most important mysteries. Jayla learns to trust people again. Scotty gets to fix things and be general comic relief. Sulu gets to be both ace pilot and leader when he’s the most senior bridge personnel around, and have a family. Chekov is clearly learning from Kirk; I would have loved to see where that was going (Anton Yelchin will be missed).

The plot was just generally more fully fleshed out than previous entries. In Star Trek (2009), Nero was one-dimensional and his crew were disposeable non-entities; Kirk bullied Spock out of command and Starfleet decided to allow him to keep it (because it has to be Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock rather than the other way ’round, I guess). In Into Darkness, the movie quotes directly (and awkwardly) from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the end. In Beyond, Krall has at least two dimensions, and the only thing in common between Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Beyond is that the Enterprise is destroyed – and even then, it’s done for a different purpose and with very different results. Beyond also gives Kirk, who is struggling with the shadow of his father’s heroism, a chance to literally live out his father’s last act – last man on a dying ship, and the chance to save his crew – and then lets him figure out where to go from there. The only thing it was really missing was for Krall to realize the error of his ways and save everyone at the end. It would have been a truly Star Trek ending – and I seriously suspect they were originally going for that ending – but they didn’t structure the rest of the character in a way that that would have felt earned.

Beyond also checked some other Star Trek boxes the first two nuTrek movies didn’t. They finally explored a strange new world. Nobody has seen that strange planet or the aliens on it before; it’s not a planet like Vulcan or Earth or Qo’nos. They also fixed a number of representation issues. There was no pointless underwear modeling, and they finally had a gay character… even if making Sulu gay is somewhat problematic (as this points out, it basically benefits from Takei’s own life story without his permission or approval, even if Pegg’s reasoning is otherwise sound).

Finally, they didn’t destroy Yorktown Base. After the destruction of the entire planet Vulcan in the first movie and the other huge scenes of carnage in recent action movies (for instance, Man of Steel and the Batman movies) it was nice to see them NOT destroy what McCoy earlier called a “snow globe”, and stop a threat just in the nick of time rather than after millions die.

Is it a perfect movie? No… Krall’s philosophy of conflict over unity was vague, as was the status of the Franklin: if Jayla and Scotty could get it working, why didn’t Edison and the rest of the crew leave? I mean, they’re geniuses, but the crew of the Franklin had a lot more time. And the idea of an asteroid field that dense doesn’t really make sense unless (and this would be stretching it quite a bit) it’s a protoplanetary nebula in the first million years or so, at which point the planet inside shouldn’t have had time to form, let alone have vegetation evolve. (Maybe the star system drifted into the nebula?) Kirk’s pending appointment as Vice Admiral makes no sense, considering that it sounds more boring than his current job he’s apparently bored by. But honestly, many of the original series movies had worse flaws.

On the whole, I think the success of Star Trek Beyond comes down to the fact that Simon Pegg and the director, Justin Lin, are fans of Star Trek AND aware of the demands of modern cinema, whereas J.J. Abrams wasn’t/isn’t really a fan of Star Trek and didn’t quite get what makes Star Trek unique… whereas he clearly DOES understand Star Wars.

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