In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the “Star Trek” movie franchise by making a “Star Wars”-style movie with “Star Trek” trappings. The second entry, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” was perhaps closer to “Star Trek,” but it cribbed so liberally from “The Wrath of Khan” that it barely registered as a distinct movie. And now we have “Star Trek Beyond,” which – aside from superficialities — is so far from being a “Star Trek” movie that I scoffed out loud at the conclusive “These are the voyages …” voiceover.
To kill time during a tennis tournament rain delay, I made the mistake of seeing “Beyond” in an IMAX 3D theater, so everything was louder than it needed to be. But the best I could say about seeing it in a traditional theater is that its obnoxiousness will be toned down a bit. Our heroes resolve to jam the bad guys’ communication system by playing the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (“classical music” in the future) “distractingly loud” over their frequency. It’s ear-splittingly annoying, especially coming at the “Can’t this be over already?” point of the film. And there’s still another big action sequence after that.
For the third straight movie, the basics are in place: Chris Pine does a good Kirk, Zachary Quinto does a good Spock, Karl Urban does a good McCoy, and the banter between the three of them hits the requisite notes. The death of Ambassador Spock is duly acknowledged, thus explaining why Spock won’t be getting further advice from him and also tipping a cap to the late Leonard Nimoy. And in a real-world nod to George Takei, Sulu is gay now.
The design of the Yorktown space station is impressive; this is the type of artificial gravity sphere we’ve read about in sci-fi books where one person’s ground is the sky to a person on the opposite side. An example that comes to my “Star Wars”-fan mind is Centerpoint Station. “Inception” also captured this concept on film, albeit in a dream world. The planet where the Enterprise crash-lands is also neat, featuring floating flowers but also feeling like a real place. A “Star Trek Beyond” art book wouldn’t be a bad purchase for someone who loves production design.
Beyond that, “Beyond” is a mess. It’s co-written by Simon Pegg, who has penned some masterful comedies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” but doesn’t bring anything fresh to “Star Trek.” This is despite the fact that he famously ripped the “Star Wars” prequels (before later appearing in “The Clone Wars” and Disney’s “Episode VII”). For all their flaws, the prequels at least had ideas worth chewing over; they at least tried to engage the brainy side of the genre.
“Beyond,” by comparison, doesn’t make sense. Part of it is because, after we glory in the design of Yorktown, it’s a non-stop nonsensical action movie. The Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of drill-ships while on the way to a planet where a Federation science crew had been likewise ambushed; naturally, everyone except the main characters dies. Director Justin Lin, of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, and his editors bludgeon viewers with quick cuts of hundreds of zooming CGI drill-ships, then they repeat the process with the stunt performers, delivering tightly cropped lightning-fast martial arts fights that are impossible to make sense of.
It’s also impossible to care about what’s going on. I nominally like the good guys, but villain Krall’s motivations are weird and boring. Something about teaching the Federation the value of warfare, mixed in with good ole revenge. And there’s a magic artifact maguffin that allows him to suck out people’s life energy. Krall is the second sci-fi villain this year (following the title character of “X-Men: Apocalypse”) to be played by a renowned actor buried under makeup – Idris Elba in this case, following Oscar Isaac. To show his alien nature, his words are often garbled; Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises” is easier to understand.
The planet where Krall and his followers reside also has one good-guy character from another alien race: Jaylah, who has stark white skin with black stripes and is good at repairing old technology. She’s the classic “Star Trek” alien whose customs and manner of speaking are just a bit off from Earth normal, thus allowing for some light comedy, like when she thinks Scotty’s full name is “Montgomery Scotty.”
I don’t doubt that there are explanations for Krall’s motives, why there is only one member of Jayla’s race, and how our heroes win despite Krall having much better technology – or magic, or whatever. Some confusing sci-fi movies, such as “Tomorrowland,” are engaging enough to make me want to look up a blow-by-blow account of what the hell happened. With “Star Trek Beyond,” that’s not the case.
It’s beyond bad, and the franchise is in need of someone to come along and rediscover the “Star Trek” aspect of “Star Trek.” Perhaps the 2017 TV series from Bryan Fuller, “Star Trek: Discovery,” will fit the bill and we’ll look back at movies like “Into Darkness” and “Beyond” as nothing more than big, loud and stupid spectacles.