Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

As I prepared myself in the Edwards Cinemas in Ontario Mills, the screen went black for approximately 30-45 seconds before the intro of the theater and its subsequent trailers. "It's still better than Into Darkness," a random fellow behind me assuredly preached. This comment reinforced my view of the current state of affairs for J.J. Abrams: he is officially a Hollywood filmmaker. Now, this may seem like a redundant, blatant observation, but I do have a point with this. Through most of his career, his primary forte was television, merely producing films to hand over to the more experienced directors, but over the past few years, his demand as a director has been triumphantly bestowed unto him, along with the all the bullshit he gets to experience.

In particular, the excessively technical, pretentiously analytical diatribes he has had to unfortunately confront. While his prior dual directional efforts (Star Trek: Into Darkness and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) succeeded critically (86 and 92% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes) and financially, Into Darkness received a sudden, furious backlash involving sexism, whitewashing, and recycling a previous Star Trek film to exploit the nostalgia of Trekkies, and Force Awakens, while not as reviled, still has a growing, militant collective of detractors, claiming creative cloning of the original Star Wars film. While I would rather not summarize all backlashes simplistically and while I do understand certain perspectives, I can't say I personally agree with these criticisms.

I bring up all of this as a means of setting context. There does seem to be a demographic, a certain audience looking to see the demise of Abrams. So, when he handed the reigns to the Star Trek trilogy to director Justin Lin, it could have easily played to Abrams' downfall, seeing how Lin's notoriety stems from the Fast and the Furious films, which, let's be honest, aren't exactly revered because of thematic innovation or emotional integrity. However, watching this film, it's surprising that he didn't direct Furious 7, because the solemnity and sensitivity of how Leonard Nimoy's passing is incorporated in this film is more emotionally resonant than the Paul Walker tributes over the past year-and-a-half. It establishes his imprint on the franchise: one that doesn't elevate, but continues its, in my opinion, entertaining streak.

The film begins three years into the five-year excursion of the starship Enterprise. Their mission being to travel to various planets, establishing friendly, diplomatic ties. While both Kirk and Spock are wrestling with the worth of their mission and aspiring for other goals, an alien, Kalara, sends the Enterprise on a rescue mission, claiming her ship is stranded on Altamid. It turns out she has ulterior motives, which leads to the Enterprise being under heavy attack by one commander Krall. While the crew escapes safely, albeit becoming stranded on Altamid in the process, the Enterprise is destroyed. However, Jaylah, a scavenger who escaped Krall's clutch, eventually reunites them in the USS Franklin, an early Starfleet vessel that disappeared years ago. After successfully repairing it to its state of glory, the Enterprise crew and Jaylah band together to take down Krall, who is conspiring an attack against the Federation, using the hazardous technology of an alien artifact, the Abronath.

The intriguing facet about the world of Altamid is that for such a full-bodied universe, its geographical display is surprisingly limited. It's beautiful aesthetically, but its underlying mood is one of desolation and claustrophobia. And honestly, that's the most precise approach and tone with this particular story. It isn't a convivial, simplistic journey on this planet. It's a mission of exigency, uncertainty, and mystery. The fact that a heavy emphasis is placed on the conditions of the starships renders them into full-fledged characters themselves. They are, in themselves, iconic staples of pop culture established for over four decades, but this film hones in on the whopping awe and larger-than-life majesty of them, preserving the tone of significance and dignity of the Star Trek universe that Abrams laboriously sought to capture in the first two films.

Outside of the committed veneration for its material, this film, in addition, more than delivers on the basics. The boisterous visuals exhibit a pomp uniquely its own. They are a tremendous fit to the intoxicating action sequences. Every one of them have not a wasted minute and are beautifully rendered in IMAX 3D. Yes, I just realized that preceding IMAX with "beautiful" is redundant. The ambush of the Enterprise by Krall near the beginning of the film delivers an exhilaration, an intensity, and a rigorous, gripping rhythm on a level I haven't seen since, hell, the Battle of Normandy in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. They deliver that same height of an unexpected, visual kick-start that impeccably places itself at the right point, to where the intro delivers exposition that isn't perfunctory, but it doesn't allow you to rest comfortably either. Oh, and there's also an action sequence with the most brilliant utilization of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" I've ever witnessed in a film. 

Additionally, writers Doug Jung and Simon Pegg imbue the film with a perfectly prescribed dose of comedy as well, never coming across as contrived or discordant in tone. Oh, and one of the jokes involves one of the most hilarious usages of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" that I have ever witnessed in a film. I don't know whether the song choices were of Pegg or musical demi-god Michael Giacchino, but they leave a deeper impact than the score does. If only Rihanna was that lucky, but I digress. In addition to Pegg's typical comedic sensibilities, I was surprised by the competence and heft of the dramatic moments. I already discussed the pitch-perfect incorporation of Ambassador Spock, but I also found myself invested with Kirk's plight, as well. While its coda is predictable, the motivation and pathos rooted in Kirk's initial sensibilities lend his character a taciturn humility. Krall, while menacingly imagined, is rather thinly written with melodramatic speeches about betrayal, strength, and other adjectives presumably added in for purposes of the trailer, but his overall arc and revelations about Krall in the final third transform a vaguely empty villain into a multi-layered antagonist with hopeless humanity.

The actors also step up their abilities, as well. Chris Pine effortlessly immerses himself back in his role as Captain Kirk with a charismatic valiance and a controlled, quiet brood. Zachary Quinto as Spock delivers more shrewd nuances and beats that emits a Spock struggling between his stoic, unaffected penchant for logic and the almost insultingly rudimentary quality of emotion. The supporting cast, as well, all put in their best efforts to solidify their place in the cast. Karl Urban's frantic temperament as Dr. McCoy makes a marvelous comic foil against every character. The late Anton Yelchin's performance as Chekov feels eerily prescient, submerging into his character with every ioda of his heart, as if he knew it was his swan song. Cho and Saldana are serviceable, despite being massively underused. Idris Elba as Krall shows a proficient flexibility, being able to glide between being campy and humane.

In ranking the films, I feel that the process of ranking is irrelevant, as all fire on all possible cylinders to convey each of their distinctly amiable intentions. The first film was excellent in establishing the identity and image of this new franchise, as well as pleasing itself and us as a popcorn film experience. The second film, in my personal opinion, focused more on weaving thorough, complete emotional tapestries. This film takes the traits of the first two and meshes it with an ambitious, meticulously crafted story with thought and soul. It delivers on the nostalgia and vigor that Trekkies hope to be presented with. Now, off I go to woefully procrastinate watching the original Star Trek shows. I mean, the animated one counts, right? Right...?

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

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