Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
With our new franchise films Hollywood, giving a bit of background on previous experience with these movie brands seems a requirement for critics. You can’t simply go to a movie anymore…you need to do your homework. But that also means seeing a familiar franchise without any preconceived notion can provide a completely different perspective on a film. Usually when a critic is assigned to a film they assume the responsibility to see those films leading up to the new release. But to test this theory, I went in with as little preconceived information as possible.
I didn’t attend the screening as a completely blank slate. I had been shown a clip from Star Trek Genesis (a movie I probably will not be going back to), a YouTube compilation of actor Jonathan Frakes sitting in a chair friends thought I would enjoy it (I will be going back to that part of the franchise). I had seen the fourth Star Trek movie without realizing that fact (I have no real memory of watching it) and I saw the first movie in this reboot (but never re-watched it). From pop culture I know some elements about the characters I assume most people would come into any Star Trek movie with; the characters names and nationalities, some catchphrases, and the fact that their ship is named the Enterprise. But what I didn’t come into the theater with were 50 years of background knowledge. And I’m glad I didn’t because it allowed me to test how well Star Trek Beyond stands as its own movie. And as an uneducated viewer, it works remarkably well as a movie.
A lot of credit can be given to the new team behind the scenes of this film…Justin Lin has taken over for JJ Abrams as director and Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are the new screenwriters. And this new three man team seem to have embraced the concept and possibilities of a franchise film and feel it gives them the freedom to make the movie episodic in nature. The film actually begins with what feels almost like the conclusion of a previous episode we missed (an episode I would have watched). And rather than kick start the film with a big action sequence which is the common approach to starting action movies, the movie brings audiences into this sci-fi world essentially with a joke; a bit of humor to clue audiences into the fact that this third film will have a comedic and campy tone. A big part of that’s likely owed to Pegg’s contributions to the screenplay, as the film’s wit feels close to his work alongside Edgar Wright on their films and TV series Spaced.
But while this movie is arguably funnier than the new film Ghostbuster, the comedy-action movie we have out currently in theaters, this isn’t a comedy. It’s an action film with a comedic tone (like last year’s The Martian). Establishing this tone early in the film with that first sequence allows audiences to acclimate to something essential in this movie. While there will be danger and thrills throughout, the feeling in the theater is far more relaxed than other franchise action movies we’ve seen this year such as Batman V. Superman or Warcraft.
While tension and a dark mood can be essential for some film, it has been overused, often to a film’s detriment. When an audience feels tense, there can often be a reaction of resistance to what is being put forth, leading to an audience feeling disengaged and unwilling to immerse themselves in the world the filmmaker’s attempting to create. When able to relax and laugh in a theater, that resistance goes down and an audience can feel far more vulnerable to the outlandish ideas being presented. It is part of the reasons horror and comedy so often go hand in hand; by releasing tension through humor, audiences are more vulnerable to being shocked by scares. For that matter, they are also more vulnerable to emotional reactions during a film because their defenses are down and their nerves raw.
This approach works remarkably well in Star Trek Beyond as it introduces audiences to that fantastical futuristic world; specifically one which is “beyond” anywhere star fleet has gone before. The Beyond is a planet which can attack the Enterprise with lethal flying objects that look like jacks and alien occupants (lead by Idris Elba) who want Kirk and his crew dead. Separated after an attack and without they trusty ship to get them home, the crew find themselves stranded on this new planet.
Most of the crew, at least the crew known by name, are paired off. Often mentioned as severely under used, Uhura and Sulu (Zoe Saldana and John Cho) are paired off and become the new leaders of the crew that have been captured by these aliens. While this limits the amount of action they are able to engage in themselves, it does allow Lin to shine a spotlight on them and what their strengths are as characters (and the actors). As for the others, there’s a kind of equilibrium to how character is paired off. The most cynical and innocent characters, Kirk and Chekov (Chris Pine and Anton Yelchin) become a team. The always serious Spock (Zachary Quinto) is paired off with the light-hearted Bones (Karl Urban) to form a comedic partnership. And Simon Pegg’s methodical and skittish Scotty finds new friend in Sofia Boutella Jaylah, the tough and edgy survivor stranded on the planet.
The decision to make a large portion of the movie these odd couple pairings is one of the film’s biggest assets as it allows each relationship to get their moment, highlighting the team aspects of this franchise. The movie magnifies the character traits each of these crew members bring to the Enterprise by pairing them with their opposite. Spock and Bones provide the most comedy in these scenes, as both Urban and Quinto are fine comedic performers and have excellent chemistry together. But all the pairings work together, before slowly getting the team back together.
Lin is an immensely talented action director, and unlike the first film, this movie depends more on physical action sequences than visual effects eye candy. The effects are impressive, but Lin sells the visuals by having real living, breathing actors performing well choreographic action sequences. Like his influence on the Fast and Furious film franchise, stressing the fact that he staged real stunts and fights even in the age of CGI, the same seems to have been done in Star Trek Beyond. The environments might not be real, but the action is, and just the way the infusion of comedy effects the tone for audience, the amount of stunt work done in this movie effects how immersive the film becomes. It feels like a real world because the action looks and feels like it’s done by real-human beings.
Upon seeing the film the most common complaint I heard were the fact that it felt derivative of other films and too much like an episode of the TV series. The effects are bigger, the world building more elaborate, but this is the definition of a film with characters on a mission. Having no real concept of the show or other films and what has happened previous, I had to sense of this being derivative (adding to my enjoyment). And I liked the sense that this is an example of the crew being on a mission and have no need for each movie to be bigger than the predecessor…just entertaining on its own. And with this likable cast of characters, with strong relationships to one another, these missions provide an excellent source of well-made summer escapism.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)