In_Circulation: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Review by Eric Wilkinson

Spock: Fear of death is illogical.
Bones: Fear of death is what keeps us alive.

What makes a great Star Trek story?

When Gene Rodenberry created the franchise back in the late 1960s, the world was a very different place. The cold war had grown into a paranoid frenzy over nuclear arms, our troops were neck deep in the jungle at the apex of the prolonged Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement was entering its difficult final years. With so much change happening all at once, Roddenberry’s optimistic exploration of space featuring diversity and unity as its core principles, must have felt immediately earth shattering.

In just three short years, Star Trek: The Original Series found new ways to provide dimension and personality to minority characters and women, aired the first inter-racial kiss on television, and slid a pantheon of topics and philosophies past the censors who normally would have dismissed them had they been depicted in “everyday society” and not “fantasy.” Over the decades this spirit of mirroring socio-political changes to our worldview through the lens of science-fiction would lead Star Trek to many new frontiers, and with it a call to action from its viewership to do the same. Starfleet is, after all, a progressive idea, and as we look at our own climate today, the need for Star Trek feels just as heightened as it did in the sixties.

Filtered through high concept action set-pieces, Star Trek Beyond successfully evokes Roddenberry’s spirit without skipping a beat. Immensely entertaining, and packed to the brim with countless nods to the original series, Beyond is a definitive step above its predecessor, 2013’s Into Darkness, and a true spiritual sequel to Abrams 2009 film, Star Trek. Taking over the helm is Justin Lin, director of several Fast and the Furious franchise films, whose seamless handling of Abrams pre-established base actually pales in comparison to the vision he brings in on his own.

Scripted by Trek co-star Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, Star Trek Beyond is at its best when its highlighting the ideaological differences between the Federation/Enterprise Crew and the film’s mysterious alien villain, Krall (Idris Elba). These dynamics are perhaps the most relevant exploration on our current state of affairs I’ve seen in media this year and questions how we will handle these warring idealogies in order to know how best to move forward as a society. In a globalized world, the actions we take both as individuals and as collective bodies immediately impact others across the planet. This relationship is more refined and fine tuned in the universe of our Enterprise crew, but it wasn’t so for Krall and his movement, which has its foundations in the past. Star Trek Beyond depicts the Starfleet mission of ‘unity through inclusivity,’ as a powerful deterrent against messages of fear, hatred, and reverting back to a “time before” this current philosophy was set in motion.

At the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, we find the Enterprise crew three years into a five year mission exploring unchartered space. Their mission to explore new worlds and new civilizations, bringing messages of peace and unity to willing participants in a federation meant to symbolize the diversity we aspire to have on Earth, has been mostly successful. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows listless in space, desiring stability and a chance at a real life, and we hear him debating with himself and Bones (Karl Urban) about his lack of purpose. After docking on the Federation space station Yorktown, Kirk all but accepts a position as the station’s Vice Admiral and plans on leaving the Enterprise after one final excursion into a nearby uncharted nebula. This simple task becomes immediately dangerous as Krall and his forces emerge to destroy the Enterprise and strand the crew on a nearby planet, where dozens of other former crews are being imprisoned by the warlord.

Dismantling the Enterprise is something we’ve seen before, but Justin Lin manages to make the experience of seeing it again feel hyper kinetic and distinct enough to justify its inclusion. Symbolically, the ruination of this vessel spells immediate threat to its crew on the basis of ideology and purpose. Scattering the crew across a foreign terrain evokes some of the more classic examples of Star Trek: The Original Series most compelling installments and as a kind of classic setup, its episodic format raises the stakes within this film to be resolved by its conclusion. So rare is it to find a summer blockbuster intent on fulfilling its own storyline without a need for planted seeds and overarching micro plotting.

Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) both weigh out existential quandaries in their approach to leadership. Bones and Spock quibble over their approach to life’s purpose and what duty calls them for. Sulu (Jon Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) face off against their enemy and defy his will in favor of protecting the imprisoned populace. Scotty (Simon Pegg) cedes control to a fellow survivor, Jaylah (Sophia Boutella) in order to learn from her experiences in dealing with Krall and rebuilding a first generation Starfleet vessel. These moments give the crew significance and counteract the brute force models of their enemy, which would seek to dismantle unity over the need to retain control. Lin confidently reintroduces these characters to us, but each has grown immensely since we’ve last spent time with them, and much of what we see throughout Beyond feels like a natural extension of where we’d expect them to be at this time. While most of the character work was done very well, the two exceptions are Sulu and Uhura, who are both great in their roles but lack adequate screen time and dialogue to really make much of an impact. I would have wanted to see just a little more from Sulu’s home life as it related back to the ship and would have liked a bit more conflict between Uhura and either Spock or Kirk in dealing with the situation at hand.

I had a blast watching this film and by its final sequence I was reminded of the power this series can have when its reaching for grand ideas. Some may not agree that Star Trek Beyond accomplishes any, but as I’ve laid out, I would find it very difficult not to associate these depictions with how our country is currently handling the election process. How we move forward, particularly here in America, will determine how our future generations will judge our current legacy. While siphoning our personal values and expectations into individuals (re: candidates) is indeed foolish, the call to embrace knowledge and the pursuit of achieving true equality will always produce a path ahead. We need not return to a glory period where strength is determined by a very different definition than it is today, as Krall suggests verbatim, but instead need to find purpose in unity through inclusion of all walks of life. This is what a great Star Trek story does, it leads the way towards a new frontier and asks us to engage with it in seeking knowledge along the way.

Star Trek Beyond may not be the best Star Trek film ever produced, but it certainly raises the bar from its predecessor and manages to come across as a really solid middle entry into an ever growing franchise. I am excited for where things are headed, and hope that we witness an even greater stride towards a true reflection of our ever changing world into this franchise for the betterment of the property and the impact it can have on our daily life.

Live long and prosper.

Star Trek Beyond is playing in theaters worldwide.

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