It’s a shame that in today’s modern movie world, few big budget movies ever make it to the theaters without some kind of attempt at establishing or maintaining a franchise. Now don’t get me wrong, I love what Marvel has done with their cinematic universe, and I always look forward to what they make like some kind of fanboy (which I actually might be, all things considered), but that doesn’t mean that I want every single movie to be in a cinematic universe or an attempt at a franchise. That’s why when I saw the latest instalment in the Star Trek franchise, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it too didn’t care about the new alternate J.J. Abrams timeline that was established in 2009. Star Trek Beyond is focused on, and succeeds at, being a fun and energetic standalone Star Trek movie, that just so happens to take place in this new reboot-verse.
Read Darius Wallace’s review of Star Trek Beyond here.
Following the events of the previous Abrams-directed Star Trek movies, of which Beyond pays only fleeting lip service to, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the starship Enterprise are three years into their five year voyage. Life has become a little dull and routine, despite frequent interactions with alien species. When their very next mission puts them in the path of a vengeful villain, they’ll need to escape alive, while also doing tons of sweet sci-fi stuff – which they do, and everyone ends up happy.
If that plot paragraph seemed simple, then that’s because the plot of Beyond is simple. Unlike the last two Trek films, it spends very little time trying to set up some kind of new character arc or narrative twist. Instead, the film takes the pre-established characters, and pu
ts them through a rather straightforward adventure. It’s this simple (yet by no means dumb) premise, and the delivery of an exciting sci-fi romp with familiar characters, in interesting settings, along with plenty of time for cool action scenes and fun character interactions in between – that makes the film resemble the original Star Trek TV series more than the previous two films ever could. Beyond exudes with confidence in it’s characters, in that it doesn’t feel the need to re-explain these characters again or re-establish how the world works. It knows that the audience is comfortable enough with the characters, or that the audience can learn their quirks fast enough, to let the story play out without any unnecessary pauses.
While I would prefer that more movies strive to achieve something beyond cynical, money-grubbing franchise maintenance (I’m looking at you, fifth Ice Age movie), I’m also not opposed to movies just being entertainment as well. The caveat being, in this case, that the movie have some mixture of charm, heart, effort and that it doesn’t actively offend or insult me. Movies like Michael Bay‘s Transformers or most of Adam Sandler‘s recent bargain-bin fare are the ones I want less of. I want less movies that try the least just to make money or because they think (for good reasons, sometimes) that is just what audiences want. But if a movie also can’t be the height of narrative complexity or emotional stakes, I’ll settle for an interesting and fun adventure that doesn’t stoop to condescending lows.
The ‘simple and charming’ quality is a strength of director Justin Lin, who also directed the fifth and sixth Fast and Furious movies. I was one of many people who thought that the Fast and Furious movies were the poster child for dumbed-down action movies, but then a surprising thing happened: they started becoming genuinely good. Maybe they weren’t great, but they started having some charm and heart that felt in sync with the crazy car action, with just enough self-awareness to always stay on the same wavelength as the audience. I believe this was the work of director Lin; it’s a talent continues to show in Beyond. The outrageous action of, say, Captain Kirk having a dirt bike clone battle might be silly, but it’s delivered in a charming and confident manner that is both fun and just coherent enough in the story to make sense. Lin also knows how to earn these crazy action scenes, as well as shoot them for both readability and visual excitement. For example, the Beastie Boys iconic song, Sabotage, featured in one of the first trailers finds an actual use in the movie, and it’s silly, fun, all of the elements are earned, and its place in the movie ensures maximum impact at the right moment.
But Lin also has one other secret weapon in his directorial tool box: he knows how to wring actual emotion and humanity from even the silliest subjects. In Beyond, Lin finds both the time and place for a fond remembrance of the late Leonard Nimoy and the original cast of Star Trek. The moment lasts long enough to have an impact without needlessly weighing down the rest of the movie. The moment is neither pandering nor unwarranted, and finds a perfect place of peace among the high-octane action. It’s a skill that horror-director James Wan also utilised, with equally great effect, when paying tribute to the late Paul Walker in the seventh Fast and Furious movie. The characters and setting that are veiled over the sentiment may be silly, but beneath the over-the-top guns-blazing action and mile-a-minute pacing, lies an honest, emotional and authentic effort to wish a friend farewell. It’s a skill that few action directors lack, as more often than not, attempts at vying emotion out of a typically unemotional genre come off as emotionally dishonest or just plain dry. But not for Lin, he knows that even silly characters can be given humanity and that humanity can be cashed-in for empathy. Even the simplest stories can achieve that, with enough skill.
All things considered, Star Trek Beyond and other silly action flicks (specifically those directed by Justin Lin), can find a sense of enjoyment and emotion in their simplicity. Simplicity lets the audience easily understand and empathize with the characters, assuming that a genuine effort was given on the part of the makers. Isn’t that’s all that’s really needed to make a good movie?