Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Another quick break from posting Fantasia reviews (and, sort of, seeing Fantasia movies) because nobody else at EFC gave the new Star Trek a full review and I've got strong opinions about the reboot series (see 2009 and 2013) that I can't be expected to hold back.

(The timing of this being released mid-Fantasia isn't great for me, and I know that there are one or two programmers on the festival staff that probably shook their fist when Paramount not only moved this from the May releases the first two movies had to July, but then bumped it a couple of weeks later. When announcing the 2016 festival's date last year, King-wei Chu mentioned it as "the week after the new Star Trek comes out", and I wouldn't be shocked if he tried to finagle a special Canadian premiere.)

Anyway, I liked it, enough that I'm looking forward to seeing it in 2D at my local theater when I get back home (though new director Justin Lin mostly keeps it looking like part of the same series as J.J. Abrams's first two films, this is the first time in a while that I've had issues with 3D making things too dark to see well). I'm a bit worried that my opinions on it were a bit colored by things I read beforehand, even if they have been things that led me to appreciate what the folks involved were doing. It's fast, good-natured, and generally upbeat and exciting even as it throws a lot of destruction around. It does a bit of fiftieth-anniversary fanservice (how many remember that the Enterprise was named the Yorktown in Gene Roddenberry's early drafts of "The Cage"?), but does so fairly organically rather than stopping to point out that thing you might remember from the original series and movies.

One thing that I couldn't help but notice is that a cast of characters that works very well for a television show where not everybody needs to be inovolved in the plot every week winds up a bit unweildy in movies where, because they only come about every three years or so, nobody should be sidelined. There are moments in this where you wonder why the doctor and xenolinguist are being pushed into action beats beyond wanting to use those characters/actors, and it doesn't quite fit.

The other thing about the cast that you can't help but notice is that Zoe Saldana is the only recurring woman. Though a fourth movie is by no means a sure thing, I'm kind of curious how the cast will evolve in it. Given that on the one hand producer J.J. Abrams has said that they don't intend to recast Chekov after Anton Yelchin's tragic, far-too-early death, and on the other he has talked a fair amount about increasing representation in Star Wars and other Bad Robot projects, I really hope that he will seize the opportunity to make the series reflect the 1960s mindset that wound up with a 6:1 male:female ratio. Further, I hope that involves bringing back Rachel Nichols (whose character has semi-canonically been established as alive in the comics), Alice Eve, and/or Sofia Boutella, so that these character(s) feel like legit, regular parts of the crew rather than just rotating guest stars. It's akin to why the writers opted to give Sulu a husband rather than adding a new gay character, much to George Takei's understandable chagrin - it would be really easy for these additions to something that's been around for a long time to be swept aside if you don't dig them in deep.

Still, that's a thing to watch out for as the next movie hopefully comes together, and as the cast of next year's Star Trek Discovery TV series starts forming. As much as I love the reboot series when it's hewing closest to the spirit of the original show, there's no need to be stuck in the 1960s when it comes to representation, and I think the folks involved realize this. Yelchin's death a terrible reason to have an opportunity like this (and from a logistical standpoint, I wouldn't blame the filmmakers if they just took the opportunity to breathe easier with a smaller cast), but it is in some ways a thing they should have been looking at anyway.

Star Trek Beyond

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2016 in Scotiabank Theatre Montreal #13 (first-run, Imax 3D)

2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek's first broadcast, an occasion that would normally be the time for retrospectives and a special event that brings back old favorites. The thing is, the incarnation of Trek that has been running for the past seven years has been built on so many of these callbacks that more would not be special. As a result, the 2016 film is forced to go the other direction, doing a stand-alone adventure that looks to recall the unshackled nature of the original series even as it maintains the relentless action of the current film incarnation. It's not always a perfect fit, but that's okay - New Trek is better when it's being a bit reckless.

Things pick up midway through a five-year mission to explore uncharted space, and U.S.S. Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds that it is starting to wear on him even before a diplomatic mission goes bad, though in a mostly harmless manner. He and the crew can use some downtime at Federation Starbase Yorktown, but they have barely left the ship when an escape pod arrives, with its alien survivor Kalara (Lydia Wilson) whose ship disappeared deep inside a nebula. When the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of small fighters, they're forced to abandon ship, with the bridge crew sent in different directions: Kirk, Kalara, and navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) trying to recover the artifact Krall is searching for; Doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) tending to a wounded science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto); chief engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) meeting former prisoner Jaylah (Sofia Boutella); while helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew are held prisoner at the camp of protean warlord Krall (Idris Elba).

Justin Lin takes over in the director's chair from J.J. Abrams, who shepherded the first two films of the new series and is still on board as a producer, while Doug Jung and cast member Simon Pegg take over writing duties from Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, and while the film looks the same at first glance, it is clearly playing to the new team's strengths. Lin, the veteran of the Fast & Furious series, gets a lot of slam-bang action to work with; this movie is full of things smashing into other things or chasing each other down, and that's probably the thing that will rankle the long-time fans the most; Star Trek evolved from an action-packed show that nevertheless couldn't afford truly massive battles to something more overtly utopian and pacifist over time, and while I'd argue that Lin's fast-paced, large-scale action would fit the original series just fine if that show had had a couple hundred million dollars to play with, and maybe fifty years of people growing used to faster pacing. He mostly retains Abrams's "bright future" aesthetic, although he'll play with it - you can see the corridors of the Enterprise grow darker as Krall's boarding parties make their way through. He doesn't have quite the natural comfort with 3D that Abrams does, though; see this one in 2D.

Full review on EFC.

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