Action, Not Story, Rules STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

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My love for STAR TREK goes back to the original series with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, so when it comes to the Star Trek universe, I guess I’m a hard person to please.

That being said, I have enjoyed the new STAR TREK movies, but the problem I have with them is they rely too heavily on action rather than story.

It’s especially noticeable in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), the third and latest installment in the rebooted series.  The actors here have really grown into their roles, and they are a joy to watch, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of the original series, because they truly capture the spirit of the original actors.  When these actors are on screen with actual dialogue, the film soars, but when they get drowned out in long action scenes filled with eye popping and often exhausting special effects, the film falters.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe for some fans the special effects and action scenes are the thing.  For me, I prefer the characters over the special effects, ideas over action scenes.  That’s the true spirit of STAR TREK, and that’s what’s missing in these movies.

In STAR TREK BEYOND, the Enterprise is in the third year of its five year mission of exploring new worlds and civilizations.  The ship and crew dock at the space station Yorktown to get supplies and some rest.  Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) ponders his decision to leave the Enterprise and become an Admiral, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) learns of the death of Admiral Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and begins his own soul searching, wondering if he too should leave the Enterprise and help rebuild the planet New Vulcan.  Meanwhile, it’s Jim Kirk’s birthday, and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) helps him celebrate with some special ale, in a scene that’s a clear nod to a similar scene between William Shatner and DeForest Kelley in STAR TREK II:  THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).

The respite is short-lived as the Yorktown receives a distress call from a ship inside a nebula, and of course the Enteprise heads off to investigate.   But all is not as it seems, and in the famous words of a character from that other science fiction series, “It’s a trap!

A trap indeed, as waiting for the Enterprise inside the nebula is a nasty group of aliens led by a cold-hearted villain named Krall (Idris Elba) whose superior technology makes short work of the Enterprise, literally ripping it apart, sending the shocked crew fleeing in separate directions.  The bulk of the crew, including Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are abducted by Krall, while the rest flee in escape pods only to crash on the planet below.  These separate groups include Spock and McCoy, Scotty (Simon Pegg) who meets an alien woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) whose help proves invaluable, and Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

It’s pretty much the theme of the movie.  Together the Enterprise crew can do anything. They need each other, and so it’s up to these separate groups to reunite to rescue their abducted crew members and stop Krall from destroying the Yorktown and the rest of the Federation.  Working towards this goal, Kirk and Spock ponder that perhaps their destiny shouldn’t include going their separate ways.

STAR TREK BEYOND is silly fun.  I liked it most whenever the characters actually engaged in conversation.  When they navigated through CGI-immersed action scenes, I was less than impressed.  To me, these scenes should be saved for key moments in the movie, but when they go on nonstop one after another, as is the case during the middle of this movie, I quickly become bored.

For example, rather than a ridiculous ten minute sequence featuring Jim Kirk racing a motorcycle through a firefight to cause a distraction, a sequence that is so implausible I half expected to see Bugs Bunny riding the cycle, I’d rather have had a ten minute sequence where Kirk, Spock and McCoy actually discuss a real  rescue plan, one that is at least half way believable.  One of my favorite episodes from the original series, “The Corbomite Maneuver” has as its centerpiece not an elaborate battle scene, but a highly tense conversation on the bridge dealing with a no win situation in which Spock tells Kirk that in chess, checkmate means the end, and that loss is inevitable, whereas Kirk turns the tables by suggesting another game, poker, and he proceeds to bluff their all-powerful adversary into submission.  It’s moments like this that this new series misses the most.

The cast here, as has been the case throughout this series, is fun, and they continue to grow into these roles.

As Captain Kirk, Chris Pine seemed more influenced by William Shatner this time around. His performance here really hearkend back to Shatner’s in the original series, more so than in the previous two movies.

I’m still amazed at how good Zachary Quinto is as Spock and how successfully he nails the role.  It’s like Leonard Nimoy reborn.  Speaking of Nimoy, some of Quinto’s best scenes here are when he reminsces about the death of his parallel universe self, Commander Spock (Nimoy).  These scenes are poignant and special.

Once again, Karl Urban has a field day as Dr. McCoy.  More than any of the other actors in this series, Urban plays McCoy as a clear homage to the way DeForest Kelley played him in the original series.  As McCoy, Urban gets the best lines in the movie and delivers some genuine laugh out loud moments.

Simon Pegg, as you might expect, infuses more humor into the role of Scotty than James Doohan did.  Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin as Chekov all hold their own, but they don’t do as much as they could.

Idris Elba, while looking menacing underneath his alien make-up, is largely wasted as villain Krall.  Elba is a tremendous actor who if given the chance to act here could have made Krall a memorable villain, but other than a line here and a line there, there’s little development, until the end of the movie when we learn more about Krall, but that’s too little too late.

Sofia Boutella is very impressive as alien Jaylah.  Her scenes with Scotty are some of the best in the movie.

Director Justin Lin, taking over for J.J. Abrams, infuses this one with heavy action scenes.  No surprises here from the FAST AND FURIOUS director.  These scenes were okay.  The problem is I wouldn’t cite any one scene in this movie as being memorable or incredibly cinematic.  In fact, I’d argue the opposite.  There were some scenes that looked way too cartoonish and CGI infested for my tastes.  I felt like I was watching an animated STAR TREK movie at times.

The screenplay by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung is okay.  The overall premise- Enterprise crew must stop alien from destroying Starfleet- is pretty standard and not very thought-provoking.  Its strength, which again is no surprise since it was written by comedian Pegg, is its humor and the dialogue between the characters.  I also thought Scotty’s role was beefed up a bit here.  Again, no surprise since Pegg wrote it.

STAR TREK BEYOND doesn’t go beyond where any of the other STAR TREK movies or TV shows have gone, doesn’t explore new worlds or civilizations that we haven’t already encountered, but it still makes for a solidly entertaining two hours at the movies.

STAR TREK BEYOND seems to be STAR TREK for the 21st century audience, where action has replaced characters and story.  I wish it were otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for no action scenes whatsoever.  I just want them to matter.  To be few and far between, and when they occur, for them to have impact and resonance.

While I prefer the STAR TREK of old, I still enjoy these new films, mostly because of the nostalgia they resurrect, but also because the cast here truly does a bang-up job.  If only the directors and writers would follow suit and do the same.

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