There and Back Again

I’ve been a Trekkie since I watched the first episode on NBC when I was a kid. Maybe because of that, the original series was always closest to my heart. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out I watched it, but my reaction was they’d bleached out what I loved about the original series (even though they recycled an episode’s plot). It didn’t have the banter and emotional bond between the crew that made the original fun to watch. It also lost its humanity of exploring worlds for the benefit of all. While there were phasers and proton torpedoes in the original, the best episodes were where Kirk, Spock, et al used their intelligence rather than their weapons to overcome obstacles. While the subsequent movies (at least the even numbered ones) recaptured some of the original’s flavor, they were more action adventures and the message was lost.

With Star Trek Beyond, screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung have gotten close to the original’s perspective. They’re assisted by director Justin Lin, who took a third movie in a series with none of the original actors in major roles and turned The Fast and the Furious into a billion-dollar franchise with the three subsequent films he directed. While moving from hot rods to outer space may seem strange, the two series are surprisingly similar: a multi-ethnic crew that is like a family travels the world(s) on their mission that they accomplish because they work together in the face of huge odds.

In Beyond, that mission takes them physically beyond their known universe. The Enterprise is midway through its 5-year mission, and the long duration has caused some fraying of the bonds between the crew. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling the stress of the mission, especially after an attempt to establish relations with a planet goes horribly – and humorously – wrong. He’s applied for the position of Vice-admiral on the Starbase Yorktown, a huge snow-globe in space whose artificial gravity has created a real-life M.C. Escher world. In his interview with the base commander (Shoreh Aghdashloo) he recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his replacement as captain, unaware Spock is considering leaving the Enterprise as well.

When a lifeboat ship arrives at Yorktown, its passenger asks for help. She’s the captain of a ship that’s been disabled on a planet at the far side of an unexplored nebula. They need help to survive, so Kirk and crew, including Bones (Karl Urban), Zulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Pegg), head out to save them. But when they arrive a brutal trap is sprung by Krall (Idris Elba), the violent warlord who controls the planet. Marooned, the crew is split up – some captured by Krall, others seeking a way to rescue them. Scotty is saved by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who had escaped Krall herself and survived as a scavenger.

Boutella is an excellent addition to the Trek Universe. She’d had a memorable performance as Samuel L. Jackson’s sharp assistant in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here her physical skills, honed as a dancer, are even more on display, though she also makes you feel for her character. Elba’s power as a performer communicates even though he’s hidden under extensive makeup and prostetics. The crew’s characters have been set between the original series and the reboot, but Pegg and Jung’s script lets each of them shine a bit brighter since they’re broken down into smaller units rather than all sharing the same space. In particular, Saldana’s Uhura plays a more pivotal role than in the past two films.

Just as with the Fast and Furious, Lin keeps the action moving at a, well, a fast and furious pace. The set pieces and special effects are awesome, but whenever they seem to teeter close to overwhelming the story, he brings it back from the edge.

The original Star Trek series had its staying power because, although the scene was set in space, the stories dealt with conflicts and problems that related to a person’s everyday life. Episodes like “The Devil in the Dark,” “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” and “The Savage Curtain” retain their power to this day. Beyond follows in those original footsteps with a message that works as a space story, but also talks to this world in which we live now.

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