Hello, dear readers. It feels strange to be back in the driver’s (poster’s?) seat after a month away, but I am glad that the reason for my return is Star Trek Beyond.
Despite its flaws, I dearly loved the first Star Trek reboot film. It wasn’t particularly Star Trek-y, and it was full of weird nonsense science, but it had heart. Then they made Star Trek Into Darkness, which, well… the nicest thing I can say about that was they could only go up from there. (I actually had to go back and reread reviews of STID to remember what happened besides like, sexist racist garbage.) The first trailer for Star Trek Beyond didn’t really reassure me that the people behind the movie knew anything about the franchise, but I figured maybe it would at least be a return to the original: a space action movie that accidentally had Star Trek characters as its cast. Instead I am delighted to report that the actual movie was probably the Star Trek-iest thing Hollywood has gotten close to in quite some time.
Major spoilers for Star Trek Beyond after the jump.
The movie begins in space, with Kirk actually doing a genuinely Star Trek thing: acting as a neutral go-between for two Federation planets who hate each other. Amazing! We underscore from the beginning that the Federation’s strength is in unity and negotiation rather than shows of force. However, when all is said and done, Kirk is feeling a bit lost. They’re two years into the five-year mission, and the sheer size of space compared to the scope of the mission is beginning to weigh on him. He’s considering leaving for a vice-admiralty elsewhere; meanwhile, Spock, reeling from the news that his older counterpart has died, is considering resigning his commission to go help repopulation efforts on New Vulcan.
However, trouble is not far off. When the ship stops at the fantastically massive Yorktown space station to resupply, the station intercepts a lone alien woman named Kalara in a science vessel gone adrift. Yorktown is situated near a nebula (or as “near” as things are in space) and the survivor reports that her crew has been stranded on a planet inside the nebula’s asteroid-filled outer cloud. The Enterprise is the clear choice to go help them, but—surprise—it’s a trap!
A fleet of weird bee-like spaceships attacks and destroys the Enterprise, making off with most of the crew as prisoners and leaving Kirk and Chekov to crash-land the saucer on the planet below. We soon discover that the attackers are after a totally random object that featured in the cold-open negotiations, and Kalara led the Enterprise crew there on purpose (shocker) so that the Big Bad, an alien dude named Krall, could get his hands on it.
Of the bridge crew, Kirk, Chekov, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty manage to escape capture based on where their escape pods crash land. Scotty runs into an alien woman named Jaylah who escaped from Krall’s prison camp who has been hiding out on a different crash-landed Starfleet starship, the USS Franklin. The Franklin is two hundred years old, but many of its systems are still functional and Jaylah has been working on fixing it ever since she escaped the camp so that she could leave the planet. Scotty agrees to help her, and they shortly reunite with first Kirk and Chekov, and then McCoy and an injured Spock.
Meanwhile, in Krall’s prison camp, we learn that Krall kills his enemies by draining life energy from them, thereby extending his own life. This is thematically tied to his disdain for Starfleet’s principles of unity and friendship. Sulu and Uhura, who are stuck in the prison camp, try to negotiate with him to convince him otherwise and protect the crew while also attempting to gather information about Krall’s plans. However, Krall is able to play the crew’s affection for each other against itself by threatening to kill people if the location of the Random Object is not revealed. Getting his hands on the Random Object only allows him to Murder Everyone much more efficiently, as it turns out to be one half of a bioweapon. (Krall obviously already owns the other half.) Although the mostly-reunited bridge crew is able to stage a rescue and get Sulu, Uhura, and the remaining Enterprise crew back to safety on the Franklin, Krall escapes with Random Bioweapon and heads for the nearest source of his disdain: Yorktown.
The Franklin now operational and staffed, the Enterprise crew (plus Jaylah) is getting ready to pursue Krall when Uhura puts two and two together from the Franklin‘s old captain’s log: Krall is the Franklin‘s old captain, Idris Elba! (AKA Sir-I-Forgot-You-Were-In-This-Movie!) He was a hardened and bitter war veteran from before the Federation was founded who despised the Federation’s peaceful founding principles and resented the captaincy he was given in honor of his war record. Somehow, his ship ended up on the planet in the nebula and he slowly became unrecognizable as the energy he fed on made him less human.
Armed now with both knowledge and a very old starship, Kirk and co. head for Yorktown to intercept Krall before he can release the bioweapon on the station.
They are thwarted at first by Krall’s fleet of murderous bee ships, but they quickly determine that the ships’ movement is dependent on a psychic link. This is where the Beastie Boys come in. The crew uses The Power of Music to disrupt the ships’ link and cause them to crash into each other, and then the chase is on for Krall.
Kirk tracks down Krall, who’s devolved from being alien-looking to looking kind of like if you put a balloon-full of slime over Idris Elba’s head. I guess he’s getting low on stolen energy? The transformation thing is never really explained. After a tense battle both in the literal sense and in the sense that their two worldviews are clashing, Krall gets launched out an airlock with the Random Bioweapon in tow and the Day is Saved. Everyone celebrates, Jaylah gets into Starfleet Academy, Kirk’s sense of purpose is renewed, and Spock decides that his time is better served on the Enterprise than on New Vulcan. Yay!
So. Was it a good movie? Well, the plot was a little simplistic, and until it was revealed that Krall was Idris Elba, I couldn’t really square myself with his motivations. It seemed like he was just an evil guy who hated nice stuff. Hell, even after the big reveal, it still sort of seemed that way. From a consumer point of view, it was a delight to learn that I didn’t have to remember anything about Into
Whiteness Darkness to follow the plot of this movie. There’s literally nothing that carries over from the previous film that has any weight in this one. From a writing point of view, though, this is a little shady. You shouldn’t be able to skip (or totally forget) the central installment in a trilogy entirely without missing out on something.
More to my satisfaction, though, and despite these flaws, this movie really felt like a Star Trek movie. The first two movies were very much mired in the faulty cultural stereotype of Kirk as a smooth, alien-bedding rebel. They also focused on the daddy issues Kirk suffered from as a result of losing his father to the exclusion of any of the other rich worldbuilding and character-building opportunities tied to the alternate TOS universe; first, his quest to prove his worth, and second, his quest for vengeance for the death of his father figure Admiral Pike. Star Trek Beyond offers a more classic Kirk—he is still smooth and intelligent, but he’s contemplative. He cares deeply for his crew, and doesn’t make careless decisions or act recklessly in the moment. Even when he grows frustrated with his mission, he still takes his responsibilities as an emissary of the Federation seriously. There’s no poorly-justified Prime Directive bashing in this movie.
Above and beyond (heh) Kirk, the movie also gets back to the core values of the franchise: strength in inclusiveness and unity. It’s stressed over and over again that the Federation is not an engine of war; that the strength of the Federation lies in diverse peoples coming together to work for peace, justice, and knowledge. Although the movie still ends in a dramatic battle sequence, the representatives of the Federation never strike offensively—only to defend themselves or the peaceful space station that is under attack. Even on a micro level, Spock and Bones, despite being personally at odds, are able to pool their skills throughout the film to help save the day.
From a feminist point of view, this is in a completely different ballpark, from its predecessor, even though there is still room for improvement. Not only are there four entire women with named and significant roles, (Uhura, Jaylah, Kalara, and an Ensign named Syl, whom Kirk trusts to hide the Random Object), none of them are shown in their underwear! And while the latter two die, neither of their deaths are a vehicle for a man to feel pain! And, the film may not pass the Bechdel test, but it certainly passes the Mako Mori test in Jaylah! Even though I felt for certain that Jaylah and Scotty were going to end up in a shoehorned-in romance, the only remotely romantic storyline in the movie was tied to Spock and Uhura’s already-established relationship. Kirk doesn’t even have sex with anyone!! It’s like you can have a movie without any of the gratuitous missteps of the first two parts of the franchise! On top of that, we got the first canonically gay character in the fifty-year history of Star Trek in Sulu, who we see with his husband and daughter when the crew stops at Yorktown in the beginning of the movie…. even if they did cut the actual kiss between the two husbands, leaving the relationship still open to interpretation by those who don’t follow the movie’s press. Compared to the rest of the franchise, however—hell, even against most of Hollywood—even with all these “buts”, this movie is still doing pretty darn well in terms of representation.
All in all, Star Trek Beyond isn’t a fantastic movie, but it is a very good movie. More importantly, it’s a return to form for the Star Trek film franchise, and I hope the creators of Star Trek 4: Return of Chris Hemsworth are taking notes.