Wednesday, September 21, 2016

'Star Trek Beyond' Isn't Perfect, But It Is Definitely Star Trek


When I try to describe my enjoyment of Star Trek Beyond to people, and rest assured that my enjoyment is well worth describing, it feels like all I can ever come up with, "It's so much more Star Trek than the other ones, you know?" To which they invariably reply that they don't know. It's a problem.

So for you, today, I thought it would be worth all of our while to explain precisely what I think Star Trek is, in order that we can examine how Star Trek Beyond, while not a perfect movie, is unmistakably Star Trek and that's great.

I'm not sure if you've caught it from the endless enthusiasm for Star Trek new and old, but I really really dig me some retro space adventures. As a kid, I grew up watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock go back in time to save the whales or battle Khan or accidentally destroy the timeline because Kirk fell in love again. I respected the hell out of Jean Luc Picard, adored LeVar Burton as both Geordi LaForge and the guy on Reading Rainbow, and wanted to be Deanna Troi when I grew up. Heck, I even got super into Deep Space Nine in college. I guess what I'm saying is that if it's Star Trek, I was into it, am still into it, and probably always will be into it.

But I'm also saying that the first two JJ Abrams' handled reboot films, enjoyable though they may be, are not Star Trek.

Which brings us to the big question. What then is Star Trek? Is it the low budgets, the cheesy costumes, the sometimes hamfisted acting? Is it getting great stage actors to chew the scenery as everyone falls over when we pretend the ship has crashed? Is it just science fiction and space and the idea of a pseudo military future? Not really.

Star Trek, to me at least, is about hope. That's all it is. Star Trek is a vision of a future where mankind gets our act together. Where we look up to the stars and hold hands while we race across the universe. It's a world where discovering the life outside of our little globe doesn't shatter us or tear us apart, it makes us proud of who we are and eager to meet others who might be just a little like us.

It's all the idealism and genuine excitement of the 1960s space race era, tempered with the reasoned desire to understand and to grow. Star Trek is a world where poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious discrimination are virtually extinct. It's a world where the closest thing Earth has to a military is a fleet of exploratory vessels whose mission is to go out there into the great beyond and, I don't know, meet some people? Look at cool rocks? Just go explore, guys!

That's a future I desperately want, even if I doubt that, human nature being what it is, that future is possible. I want us to fly through the stars and make new friends while we're up there. To paraphrase a line from that other great 1960s optimism era science fiction show, imagine a world where that's what we do when we finally get to space: we dance.

This is what I see in Star Trek, what even the clunky interpretations of bygone eras have been reaching for. This is the point of the franchise, to embrace an idea of humanity as kind and selfless and hopeful. And this is why, when I saw the other reboot Star Treks, my general impression, whether I liked them or not, is that they were not Star Trek.

Now, I go into this in greater detail elsewhere, lining up a firing squad of reasons I was dissatisfied with Star Trek: Into Darkness, and you might find that worth a read. But instead of going over all those points again, let's look at how Star Trek Beyond was a pivot in the right direction. For all its faults and flaws, and it did have more than a few, this movie was still unmistakably Star Trek, and for that I will forgive a lot.

The basic premise of the movie is this: Largely ignoring the events of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Beyond starts with the crew of the Starship Enterprise a few years into their five year mission. 

Everything is going well, basically, but without any gigantic universe threatening explosions for a while, Kirk (Chris Pine) is starting to get bored. It's just one more weird planet with weird aliens and unsolvable conflicts after another. He's even put in his resume for a promotion that would strand him at a brand new space station, that's how bored he is.

Spock (Zachary Quinto), meanwhile, is also pondering his future and his life choices. When he receives the news that Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has passed away, Spock feels like maybe his life would be better spent serving the community of Vulcans on New Vulcan, rather than gallivanting around having space adventures. And maybe he's not wrong. 

So while the rest of the crew get more minimal storylines (as per usual), we're set up with the idea that this is the Enterprise on its normal day to day work. Work it's good at, sure, but as Kirk says in the beginning, it's all starting to feel a bit "episodic". And that's where we begin.

First, during an ordinary supply run at Yorktown (the new space station), the crew runs into an unusual alien whose species is unknown to them. She doesn't even speak a language they've seen. She claims that her ship crashed on a planet inside the nebula nearby, but that the solar activity of the nebula has made it impossible for them to get help. She begs someone to go back with her to help save her crew. Unsurprisingly, Kirk volunteers.

Upon reaching the planet, however, the Enterprise finds itself gravely under attack by swarms and swarms of little ships. The ships cripple the Enterprise, causing the crew to jettison themselves and abandon ship while the main saucer crashes on a mysterious and remote planet. No way to call for help, no one who could come if they did, and a hostile army out there. Even worse, as the crew flew away in their pods, they were taken, one by one, by the attacking ships. So even the crew is gone.

The good thing is that the enemies didn't get what they came for, at least. A little artifact from one of their "unimportant" missions, Kirk finds and pockets the macguffin before the bad guys can find it, and here we get the plot. Kirk and a few of the characters we know and love have to find each other and work their way out of this mess to rescue the crew, while the bad guys hunt down Kirk looking for the artifact. Very, very Star Trek.

Down on the surface of the planet, the film does a good job pairing up characters who before now haven't had much chance to shine or work together. Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) have a hilarious series of bonding scenes while McCoy tries to care for a gravely injured Spock and they bicker like the old married couple they definitely are. 

Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) shine in a storyline about what happens to the crewmembers who were kidnapped, and they both give pretty great Federation resistance to the bad guy, Krall (Idris Elba).

Kirk, meanwhile, is fighting with the duplicitous alien who led them there and teams up with Chekov (the late, great Anton Yelchin) to trick her. But the best of all of these unlikely matchup stories is definitely the one that has Scotty (Simon Pegg, who also helped write the screenplay) working with another young strandee, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella).

This is the storyline that, more than anything else, makes this movie Star Trek. I don't want to spoil it for you, and I don't think I will, but suffice to say that Jaylah is the kind of character you rarely get anywhere else but an optimistic science fiction franchise like this. She's a young woman (alien) who has grown up surrounded by death and misery, largely alone and calling her "house" (the spaceship in which she lives) her only friend. She's a bit reminiscent of Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but with a slightly different spin.

Jaylah is martialistic and angry and terrified and silly and good with machines but not preternaturally good. She's a very realistic character is what I'm getting at, I guess. And I love that she quickly becomes the emotional core of the movie. There's no romance between her and Kirk (or Scotty), which is a pleasant diversion from business as usual. Instead, her character stands in for the crew as a whole, and the question of whether or not Kirk has it in him to abandon them.

So what makes this movie Star Trek when the other two weren't? Admittedly, like the other two reboot films, this movie does feature a third act full of explosions and dire consequences and impossible coincidences and half a city getting destroyed. But I would argue that such surface level trappings don't make it Star Trek or not. That is determined by the attitude and tone of the movie, and in this one they are both on point.

I said it above and I stand by it: the goal of a Star Trek story is supposed to be showing us the best of all possible worlds. We're supposed to look at the Federation, to look at Earth and Starfleet and the Enterprise, and want it so badly that we make it so. The point of the franchise is this optimism about our future as a species. And it's also not insignificantly about how when we work together we can make it so much further than we can make it alone.

These are all concepts I talk about all the time, but in all fairness it's because I think they're important all the time. We need to work together because people are social beings. We need to love each other like a closeknit family because that's the connection we crave. And we need to be on mission together because there is glorious work to be done and we can do it together.

Part of the appeal of Star Trek, at least for me, is the idea of getting to explore the galaxy and see new planets and meet new aliens with other people. With people just as committed to this hopeful future as I am. With people who believe in these values. The greatest gift that life has to offer, after all, is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing, and getting to do that work with people that you love.

This movie, which centers its emotional core on the responsibility of a captain to his crew, understands deeply what people want to get out of a Star Trek film. It gets that we're here to see people fight evil and save the day, sure, but we're really here to see them do it together. The emotional satisfaction of the film comes, not when the villain is defeated, but when we discover Jaylah is (extremely mild spoiler) planning to apply to Starfleet.

It's the satisfaction because it brings it around full circle. It brings us back to Kirk on the bridge, bored out of his mind with the day to day routine, and shows us why that routine, even if it's boring sometimes, is so worthwhile. It brings Kirk back to his love of being the captain. Not because he loves bossing people around or starting intergalactic wars or seducing women, but because he loves helping people be the people they want to be. He loves facilitating that, so his genuine joy at Jaylah considering the academy is a full reversal of his character at the beginning, and that's so important.

This is not to say that the movie is perfect, though. It's really not. Sulu and Uhura might get a lot more screentime than they have in the past few films, but they're still relatively minor and don't get nearly as many fun moments to shine as everyone else. Uhura's noble sacrifice is amazing, but a little confusingly cut which meant I almost missed it. Sulu's relationship is cute and lovely and canon and all, but also very fleeting and really one of the few things he gets to do in the movie.

Likewise, it seemed a waste to cast the amazing Idris Elba in the film and then spend hours covering up his face with a heavy prosthetic that made it hard for him to talk. And let's not forget the awkward fact that of the three or four named characters of color introduced in this film, two were covered in thick makeup and weird wigs. That's not great.

Still, the core of the movie is good and that counts for a lot. It's a film that deeply considers what it means to be a good leader, and that leans into the franchise's interest in team dynamics and the idea of committed, passionate people trying to change the world. Or just save each other and love each other like a good community. Either one.

I don't know if you love Star Trek like I do, but I hope you understand now what I mean when I say that a movie isn't Star Trek enough or that something is Star Trek and therefore it's all good with me. I mean, Pacific Rim is kind of Star Trek. Pumzi is pretty Star Trek. Farscape is pretty dang Star Trek too.* A lot of things are Star Trek, and this movie is one of them. That's what I wanted from it; the rest is just icing on the cake.

#giveuhurasomethingtodo
*I actually consider Farscape to be a very early prequel in the Star Trek universe and I will fight you on this. I have bullet points!

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  2. It's definitely Star Trek. It's nice to see hopeful science fiction again, a future that you actually want to see happen.

    The main problem with Elba's character was the "twist". There was no need for the twist - to the extent that he's a compelling character (and to be honest, I think he's kind of a half-baked villain), it doesn't add anything useful to the story.

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