Tuesday, August 9, 2016

'Star Trek Beyond' review

After discussing the massive, soul-sucking disappointment of Suicide Squad at length last week, it feels good to review a blockbuster that I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, everything you've heard is true- Star Trek Beyond is one of the only big-budget action films to hit theaters this summer that I can recommend without any reservations whatsoever. Oddly enough, going into the season, the third installment in the rebooted series of Star Trek films was on pretty shaky ground. The first trailer (which premiered with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December) seemed to draw heavily off director Justin Lin's Fast & Furious style, a move that was maligned by the most devoted fans of the Trek franchise. After that, Paramount's marketing machine went quiet for over five months, a move that probably wasn't smart in retrospect (the box office for Beyond has been disappointing at best). They released a perfect full trailer in May, which seemed to ease the fears of some fans. But let's face it- going in, there was still a significant amount of doubt.

In hindsight, we probably should never have been that worried at all. The latest series timeline, which began in 2009 with J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, features one of the greatest casts in recent franchise memory, and they're playing iconic characters steeped in pop culture history. Although many seem to hold Star Trek Into Darkness as a "bad" Trek film, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a situation where a film with this cast would qualify as "bad." The performances are so stellar, the dialogue is rich and witty, and the characters are so thoroughly well-defined- it's a foolproof setup for blockbuster success. Star Trek Beyond is pretty much another adventure with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It follows Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) during a time of intense self-examination, which is interrupted by a new villain. It is nothing less and nothing more. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

After thwarting James Harrison (err.....Khan) at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, the crew of the Enterprise embarked on the iconic five-year mission. Star Trek Beyond picks up during the third year of that mission, and at this time, the crew is beginning to grow tired and weary. Kirk is questioning his motivations as a Starfleet officer, Spock is considering leaving the organization, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is planning to end her relationship with Spock, and the rest of the crew just wants to see their families again. After a quick stop at Yorktown, a Federation base, they head back out to continue to explore the farthest reaches of space. But shortly after their departure, the Enterprise is attacked by a mysterious force, crash landing on an unknown planet.

With the crew captured, it'll be up to the leaders of the Enterprise- Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones (Karl Urban), Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Sulu (John Cho)- to find a way to save them. They enlist the help of Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a local warrior, who informs them that their battle will not be as easy as they had hoped. They'll be pitted against Krall (Idris Elba), a vengeful monster who may or may not have a hidden reason for his pursuit of the Enterprise. Krall is after a specific device (pretty much this movie's MacGuffin), something that will help him unleash mass destruction across the universe. Stranded on a remote planet with no ship or crew,  Kirk, Spock, and their closest friends will have to unite to save the day from their most dangerous threat yet.

It feels weird to be praising Star Trek Beyond for excelling with what seem to be standard blockbuster elements, but in a summer where so many films have failed to manage even mild success, this flick feels like a breath of fresh air. For one, Beyond is exceptionally fun, moving through its fairly basic plot with a sense of momentum, wit, and a deft touch of humor. The script, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung (who also plays Sulu's husband, in a nod to original star George Takei), is refreshingly simple, managing to avoid the twisty, mystery box-style thrills of J.J. Abrams. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Abrams, but after some fans were left angry in the aftermath of Into Darkness, the direction that Pegg and Jung take in this one is very smart. Beyond's stakes are clearly defined for everyone, and everything is carefully and meticulously developed to perfection.

Pegg, Jung, and director Justin Lin take a very character-centric approach to this installment, and it's another move that I thought was incredibly wise. Each principle player has an established motivation, and I love the way that this film deals with the weight of the legacies that both Kirk and Spock are forced to deal with. Pine is brilliant in the role again, continuing to show the development of Captain Kirk in fresh new ways. In Into Darkness, Kirk felt a little too one-note in a way- he hadn't changed enough since the original. With this chapter, it's clear that the character has matured. Pine plays him as more thoughtful, pensive, and careful. He's still funny and charming, but there's a restrained intelligence that hasn't been there in the past. For Zachary Quinto's Spock, it's the opposite. As someone who started out as an unlikable alien, the character has continued to be humanized over the course of the series, with Beyond standing out as Quinto's finest hour in the role.

There aren't too many new additions to the already sprawling ensemble cast in this installment, but Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba are both standouts as Jaylah and Krall, respectively. In sequels, there's a trend to introduce characters that are totally superfluous to the story, but thankfully, that's not the case here. Boutella's Jaylah is a welcome addition to the Enterprise crew, and I would love to see her character in future films. On the other hand, while the hugely talented Elba might be slightly underused beneath the coatings of makeup, Krall is still perfectly terrifying. He has a clear plan and motivation as a villain, something we don't see too much in today's blockbusters. The film's supporting cast is also near-perfect, with Karl Urban's Bones, Simon Pegg's Scotty and Anton Yelchin's Chekov taking the spotlight during this outing. Zoe Saldana and John Cho felt slightly under-utilized, but in ensemble pieces like this, that's bound to happen. Ultimately, the cast makes this film click to perfection.

Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 4, 5, and 6) initially seemed like an unlikely choice to helm an installment in the more cerebral, less action-driven sci-fi franchise, but in the end, it was a great move. Star Trek Beyond emerges as a perfect blend of Pegg and Jung's character-driven, hard sci-fi elements and the big blockbuster stuff that Lin brings to the table. That's a line that the previous films in this timeline have walked very carefully, and Beyond is maybe the best melding of the two thus far. Lin's pacing gets bogged down in the early goings, but as the stakes elevate for both the plot and the characters, Beyond evolves into a smooth, slick, and altogether sharply produced ride. I loved his take on this series, and if Paramount can bring him back for more films, I would be more than glad to see Lin return.

Star Trek Beyond is simply an excellent movie across the board. Hardcore fans will gladly embrace this adventure, but for casual blockbuster moviegoers, Beyond is going to be regarded as one of the best films of the summer. In a season marked by mind-numbing, soulless, and brutally awful films, Star Trek Beyond is......the exact opposite of those things. Really, this one hits all the right notes. It's another worthy installment in this franchise (which is quickly becoming one of the best in Hollywood right now), and it stands with Captain America: Civil War as the best that summer 2016 has had to offer. It's rare to see a series like this consistently deliver such terrific results, but if this one is any indication, I don't see things slowing down for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise any time soon.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Image Credits: Joblo, Coming Soon, EWJoblo

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