Friday, 22 July 2016

Beyond the Review


Three years ago I walked out of the cinema feeling a little deflated.

BE WARNED - POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD

Star Trek Into Darkness had not delivered. It borrowed too much material, it tried to rewrite an almost untouchable area of Star Trek lore and just felt like a bit of a car crash. At least for fans it did because with an impressive box office return and decent reviews from the general movie-going public/critics it helped guarantee a third in the series. Help.

Star Trek Beyond therefore had a lot to balance. Keep the masses happy and try and regain trust and support from a fanbase that was hurt by a sloppy sequel and is brutally divided over the 2017 series and how fan films should be handled. And that's the easy part.

With a production schedule that was fraught with difficulties from day one including the removal of the original director (Robert Orci) and writing team (Orci and cronies) to be replaced with Justin Lin in the chair and Simon Pegg and Doug Jung on scribing duties, it was a race to get to the already announced and cemented release date of July 22nd 2016 - right at the heart of the summer and of the franchise's 50th anniversary.

Where to begin? Well, the start is usually a good place. As has been reported all over the shop, Beyond takes place well into the legendary five year mission of the good ship Enterprise. as Kirk ironically notes, life has become episodic, the crew have become a close community and life is perhaps becoming a little too average for his adventurous tendancies. Indeed, when Spock receives some overwhelming news even he is contemplating his future aboard the flagship.

If this was how the movie proceeded we'd have all fallen asleep by the hour mark but luckily things take a turn for the worst after the Enterprise is dispatched into a shady unknown nebula on a rescue mission that ends in the starship being swiss-cheesed and the crew marooned on the planet Altamid ruled over by the sinister Krall.

That initial space conflict lasts for a good while and must be the longest starship death sequence in Star Trek history and is simply amazing to watch. It's not an overawing piece of screen time but the way in which Krall's ships take her down is very believable and well realised on the screen. Why they actually needed to make the Enterprise look more vulnerable around the neck and nacelles I don't know given the power of his swarm vessels.

OK, I'm not going to nail the plot anymore than that and amazingly it takes a good half hour to get to that point. Beyond does a lot right. It's a much more classic style of Star Trek adventure with the crew dispatched to a planet to deal with an alien baddie and save the day. All it needed at one point was Kirk to outwit a computer and you'd have been right back in the mid-second season of The Original Series. The plot is fairly ABC without too much of the politics and twists that wound themselves around the throat of Into Darkness and is easy to follow from the opening beat to the closing credits. OK there are some character pieces in here - Kirk realising he's now older than his father was when he died and Spock wrestling with a turning point in his career but that's about it. This is a simple Enterprise crew versus the Big Bad with no frills or whistles.

As noted, Kirk and Spock are both handled well and given decent background material to work with. Their partnerships with Chekov and McCoy respectively are certainly highlights of the movie and seeing the doctor and the Vulcan get into a bit of verbal sparring harks nicely back to the characters we adore. Kirk and Chekov is much more action-packed with fire-fights galore hounding their progress to recover an artifact and avoid Krall's swarm troops.

Talking of Chekov there is a wonderful nod to actor Anton Yelchin early on plus a couple of nods to not just Leonard Nimoy and Spock but also to the original crew and in some respects these are real highlights of the movie and so beautifully done. None of them feel shoehorned in and work within the script rather than against it.

Scotty at least has more to do than worry about the engines exploding in Beyond once he's planetside with Jaylah and this odd pairing works really well on screen. Potential for her to return in the fourth movie given circumstances at the close? Absolutely and I can't see why she won't be signed up. 

Sulu and Uhura meanwhile are left to lead the remains of the Enterprise crew at Krall's prison camp. There's the expected escape attempt and eventual rescue but their characters have little more to do than that. The "outing" of Sulu isn't as brash as people are making out and is shown a couple of times but its more in passing and not at the expense of the movie. Uhura and Spock's relationship is however played down even though they're having troubles (again). I felt better that this took more of a backstep and that the Spock/McCoy team was built as a stronger element to the movie.

One oddment in here is Shoreh Agadashloo's Commodore Paris. Literally she has two scenes in the movie that were done as part of the reshoots. One to send the Enterprise out to the nebula and a second to welcome them back and help Kirk make his decision on his life path. They are essential motivators for the captain and the mission but whether these were scenes originally set for the fleetingly seen Commander Finnegan (Greg Grunberg) is possibly speculative. It's just weird how stand alone they are as she doesn't appear anywhere else and only with Kirk on both occasions. 

So to the aliens and firstly, Jaylah. With a classy intro in which she saves Scotty's life, Sofia Boutlella is a great addition to the movie bringing a deadly naivety to proceedings as she joins the crew in their mission to rescue the Enterprise survivors from Krall. Her background is simple and as the loner, Jaylah is the survivor who has learnt a few tricks to remain alive and one step ahead of Krall.

Which leads well to Idris Elba's main villain. With a superb arrival on the scene, Krall pounds his way through a few scenes seemingly with one purpose to create a weapon of mass destruction and obliterate the Federation. He rumbles threats at anyone who happens to be in a Starfleet uniform and it's only close to the end that we really understand what he's all about. Elba is buried under a lot of makeup but with one real direction he's not needing to give a lot to portray his end goal. Is he the best villain of the reboots? Probably is given that Nero sulked a lot and Khan wasn't Khan. At least he's giving it his all in the effort stakes. The final revelations however are a little flat but do mean we have the requisite fist-fight to tie everything up.

Solidly this is a movie with a very tight main cast consisting of the Enterprise regulars, Jaylah and Krall but the background characters with a few lines here and there are a bit of a mixed selection. Lydia Wilson's Kalara turns out to be a nice surprise while Krall's right hand man Manas - hyped as a hard b*****d gets his behind handed to him far too easily. Lin did say that there were scenes planned to explore the nature of Krall's soldiers but that never made it to screen and we're left wondering just who the heck they are under all the armour? Why are they fighting for him? What are they all about? It's actually just one of the few puzzlers that I was left with after my first viewing.

The other thing is....well...I just don't think it's justified with a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; 85% perhaps but not over 90. There's absolutely, unquestionably no doubt that this is a mile away from Into Darkness and most likely better than the 2009 starter but it will never be The Wrath of Khan for example. It's a steady movie that tells a straight line story and is packed with new aliens, exciting places and wonderous spaceships spinning through the cosmos - or the Yorktown in combat but it's still no where near the character heavy classic movies. However, given today's movie audiences it's had to change but it's still not a sensory-overloading experience a la Independence Day yet it felt like there were a few times it could have just stepped up into another gear and really have shut up the critics. Character is still there but blended at a lesser level into the action sequences and maybe sacrificed for "what the audience wants" if you will. In fact at some points it did feel like we were moving from Krall set-piece to Kirk set-piece to Yorktown set piece for example. That's not a bad thing and I'm sure it will mean that more people enjoy it because it's playing on the success of the summer blockbusters it has to compete with plus the popularity of things such as The Avengers, Suicide Squad and the like.

One thing I am thankful for (and I saw this in 3D) was the utter lack of lens flare. Jeez does it make a difference to the movie. Well, at least it did after the first 20 minutes because it was dark. Not bottom of my soul dark but visually dark as though Scotty was operating the Enterprise on minimal reserve power. I thought Generations had the monopoly on poor lighting but seriously, the first bit of this film was almost unwatchable because it was so poorly lit.  I love a bit of atmosphere but I might have to ask for the Braille edition on DVD. It did get better and easier to see (my eyes just adjusting?) and some of the visuals are great especially the vistas through Yorktown. In 3D, they really jumped out.

The Franklin is a bit of a star too. Registry NX-326, the warp four starship literally saves the day and gives us some of the best visual sequences of the movie when she's powered up. In fact the motorcycle sequence is even pretty good and it just shows how a Beastie Boys soundtrack on a trailer can really skew your concept of a movie. It's a bit different, perhaps a little gimmicky but again works well within that section of Beyond. I would add that at times Lin's action sequences are a little too cut-and-burst chopping from one angle to another very quickly although the pacing does seem much more dynamic than in the first two reboots.

When I left the cinema, I was certainly more uplifted than I had been for Into Darkness because there were some wonderful moments, great homages and a couple of real blink-and-miss mentions that reveal Pegg and Jung have done their research and know where the timeline split. Beyond does a solid job of delivering the goods for the 50th anniversary. The characters are settled and solidly formed by the cast. It doesn't stray from a basic formula, the script keeps things on an even keel and stays safely out of trouble. It's not a rubbish film and a couple of scathing reviews are, I think a little too much but I wouldn't go to the other extreme and be begging to see it multiple times or waxing lyrical over how it's saved the franchise. It's a good film that proves this reboot is capable of something better and more fulfilling than Into Darkness and can be both action film and something that long time fans will enjoy watching. 

Two hours did just roll by as we moved briskly from one aspect of the movie to another. Having the team split into their partnerships certainly kept me engrossed but it was clear that some were treated to more development than others (see McCoy and Spock's interactions during their journey for example against any of the other combinations). While Into Darkness took a bit of time to kick in, this film starts off well and with a touch of unanticipated humour before sweeping through a range of emotions, flashes of action and bringing us to a majestic final scene that did actually cause my jaw to hang a little loose. 

Actually, sod it. I'd have to say those last five minutes are some of the best Star Trek moments we've had for ages. I wouldn't be surprised if we're talking about them for many years to come.

What did you make of Star Trek Beyond? Was it the blockbuster we needed it to be? Or was it the film we didn't want?

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