Posted Saturday morning, December 17, 2016.
I think tonight’s feature for Mannion Family Movie Night is going to be Captain America: Civil War. Last week, though, we boldly went where we had gone before, back in July when it hit the theaters. Here’s my review:
“That cunning man…the great tactician…the resourceful” Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) marooned amid the wreckage of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: Beyond.
Saw Star Trek: Beyond today. Better. Much Better.
I don’t know what producer and director J.J. Abrams thought he was doing with Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second of the now three installments of Abrams’ reboot of the original Star Trek series of TV shows and movies. I’m not sure Abrams knew either. Into Darkness opens with a rousing mini-movie that could have been an interesting full-length Star Trek movie and promises more fun to come but instead it’s followed by a series of mini-TV episodes each with the theme of Kirk learning a lesson in leadership and Spock learning a lesson in friendship and teamwork. That could have worked out fine. There are many good moments in the sequences. But they’re connected by a story arc about a sulking madman with minor superpowers that seem to come and go and an inexplicable grudge against the entire planet Earth who happens to have the same name as the original TV series and movies’ greatest villain.
It’s almost a category error to call Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh a villain. It’s like calling Hector the villain of The Iliad. From the Trojans’ and Hector’s own points of view he’s the hero. The tragic hero. And that’s what Kahn is, if you see things from his point of view, a tragic hero who unfortunately for him and his devoted followers goes up against a straight-forward romantic hero who---Watch out, there’s an abrupt switch of literary references coming---is as charmed and protected by his virtue as King Arthur.
But the Khan of Into Darkness is a run of the mill action-adventure movie bad guy bent on world domination. The only thing that saves him from being boring is that he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch who, smartly having decided not to make even a gesture toward recreating Montalban’s lordly, high-minded, Milton and Melville-quoting anti-hero, Cumberbatches his way through the part with sinister charisma and a saturnine charm that I wish Peter Jackson had allowed him to show much more of as both Smaug and Sauron in The Hobbit movies. Actually, Cumberbatch is almost the only thing that saves Into Darkness from being only a mildly and intermittently enjoyable but forgettable time-waster. In the end, there just wasn’t much point to it, either in bringing in any version of Kahn or to the movie itself, except to unmake the best of the original series’ original series of movies. Maybe Abrams thought he was doing an homage to Wrath of Khan but all he accomplished was a travesty of Spock’s death and rebirth and to turn the love of Kirk’s life, Carol Marcus, one of the Federation’s most brilliant scientists, into a pin-up.
There wasn’t much humor in it either.
Star Trek: Beyond includes truly heartfelt and affecting homages to the original series and more than a fair share of humor. In fact, it begins with both, with Kirk alone on a diplomatic mission that doesn’t go quite as hoped and ends with him having to be beamed out of there in a hurry---a scene that’s an homage to an homage that many wiseacre fans regard as the best of all the Star Trek movies.
I’m not kidding.
Abrams is spending the greater portion of his creative life these days in that galaxy long ago and far away, overseeing Disney’s Star Wars franchise, where Abrams has admitted his fanboy’s heart truly lies. Star Trek: Beyond has a new director, Justin Lin, who manages to give the movie the feel and tone of an extended episode of the originals while still turning out his own lively and fun 21st Century action-adventure film.
The Enterprise is lured into a deep space version of the Sargasso Sea where among the wrecks and hulks of old spaceships it’s swarmed and boarded by insect-like space pirates. The Enterprise is destroyed, again, although for the first time in the reboots. The crew abandons ship, escaping to a nearby planet where most of them are taken prisoner by the pirates. Only Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov evade capture. The better part of the rest of the movie follows their attempts to rescue their crewmates, find a way to get themselves off the planet and back to Federation territory, and thwart the evil plans of the pirate captain, Krall, who has gone Khan one better in holding a grudge. Khan just had it in for Earth. Krall’s grudge, which goes back a hundred years or more, is against the entire Federation of Planets. It’s not clear how much of the Federation he plans to destroy or conquer but he intends to start with the space station Yorktown which is essentially a city in space populated by thousands of innocent civilians including children, all of whom must die!
Krall, even though he’s played by Idris Elba, isn’t as compelling a villain as Cumberbatch’s Khan, but he makes more sense as a villain within the Star Trek universe than Into Darkness’s version of Khan, despite Khan’s canonical heritage. We’ve seen Krall before, other versions of him, at any rate, and once his motive is revealed, the reaction of most fans of the original series is likely to be a delighted “Well, of course!”
There are many “Well, of course!” moments in Star Trek: Beyond. The script was written by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, and they know their Star Trek lore. Their affection for the original TV series and the movies and for the rebooted franchise is palpable. They are true to the spirit of the original while advancing the vision Abrams brought to the first of these new movies. The script contains many allusions,references, quotes and echoes---visual and verbal---and tropes and themes that call up vivid memories of the original---there’s even a great “I’m a doctor, damn it, not a [fill in the blank] joke---but it still tells a new and interesting story of its own.
The most important thing J.J. Abrams did when he rebooted the series was assemble a cast who could simultaneously remind fans of the original cast while making us forget them---that is, he gathered together an ensemble of talented actors who didn’t simply stand-in for William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest but who, while capturing aspects of those stars’ performances, captured the essences of their characterizations while still making the characters their own.
Zachary Quinto looks a lot like a young Leonard Nimoy (although he’s now four years older than Nimoy was when he first took on role of Spock) but he acts like Spock without acting like Nimoy acting like Spock. As McCoy, Karl Urban, who really doesn’t look that much like DeForest Kelley or sound like him, somehow looks and sounds exactly like Kelley’s McCoy. It’s downright spooky. And Chris Pine just is Kirk.
Much along the same lines can be said of Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin. In their performances they pay homage to James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig, but they each add their own special touches and nuances that make Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov their Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov.
Down on the planet, our heroes are separated into teams of two. Kirk and Chekov, McCoy and Spock, and Uhura and Sulu.
Scotty, to his chagrin and exasperation, finds himself paired with a new character, Jayla, a teenage castaway who has been living a Swiss Family Robinson adventure but all on her own as a Swiss Family of one since the spaceship she was on was brought down by the pirates and her parents were killed when she was a child.
Jayla, played by hip-hop and street dancer (which is to say extremely athletic dancer) Sofia Boutella, turns out to be an engineering prodigy who has taught herself all the tricks of the trade she’s needed to construct and maintain high-tech weaponry, build fiendishly cunning man traps, and make a comfortable home and a fort out of a wrecked spaceship she calls her house. She’s also taught herself some formidable martial arts skills. She has not, however, taught herself manners or how to control her temper. That’s up to Scotty, who becomes a proud although wary surrogate father to this brilliant but ferocious wild child, who, I hope, is going to become a new series regular, playing something of the same role in the crew as Worf in The Next Generation and Seven of Nine in Voyager, the outsider of uncertain temper for whom acting “civilized” according to human standards is a continual challenge.
They’re a fun couple, but so are Kirk and Chekov, a pairing I wouldn’t have thought of as working as well as it does until I saw them in action together, and then it made perfect movie trope sense---the cocky, devil-may-care popular jock taking under his wing the nervous and insecure nerd who gains courage if not confidence in following the jock’s reckless lead. Chekov is a science nerd. He’s the Enterprise’s second science officer. So the nerdiness was there. Yelchin, who died in a freak car accident in his own driveway back in June, plays up the nervousness to delightful and funny effect and it’s sad to think what the future movies will be like without him.
As fans would expect, the pair who are the most fun to watch and whose actors seem to be having the most fun playing off each other are Spock and McCoy. Their scenes together could have been cribbed straight from the TV series, and Urban and Quinto capture the antagonisms and grudging affections that underlie McCoy and Spock’s prickly friendship. This is exactly what they---Spock and McCoy and Nimoy and Kelley---are like in the originals when Kirk isn’t around to referee or, as he often enjoyed doing, egg them on in their bickering.
The pair who are the least fun are Uhura and Sulu because they’re given the least to do. But it’s also the case that they’re ill-matched.
They’re too much alike, strong-willed, highly competent, can-do lieutenants---that’s not just their ranks, it’s their fictional type.
A lieutenant is the character who steps into the role of hero when the story’s main hero isn’t available. This is how I’ve seen Sulu since I was a kid and, as I wrote in my warm-up post Captain Sulu, it was Gene Roddenberry’s plan for Sulu if the original series hadn’t been cancelled for him to become more of a leading man and do some Kirk-like swashbuckling and romancing on his own. But Oliver Mannion tells me it was also part of the plan for Uhura to become more active and adventurous. Never mind her red uniform, she was part of the command crew and although we never saw her do it in the original series Roddenberry intended that there would be times when Kirk would say to her on his way off the bridge, “Mister Uhura, you have the con.”
For some reason I have the idea that in the 23rd Century space navy, female as well as male junior officers are called by the traditional “Mister”.
Where’d I get that?
At any rate, Oliver adds that in an episode of the Saturday morning cartoon series Uhura does get handed the con. So it’s good to see that side of her at work in Star Trek: Beyond.
The trouble is that Uhura and Sulu spend too much time together sharing the same role in the plot, taking turns doing and saying what only one of them needs to do and say. In other words, for a good stretch they’re pretty much the same character. The script eventually splits them up and gives each their own goal to accomplish, but I think it would have been better if they’d each been on their own from the start, with Uhura having to engage Krall in a war of wills and words as she pretends to be trying to talk him out of his evil plans---after all, she is the Communications officer---while in the meantime Sulu engineers a Great Escape by the captured Enterprise crew, showing himself to be the future starship captain we know he is.
And for all its virtues, Pegg and Jung’s script continues one of Abrams’ egregious mistakes from the first two installments. Abrams made Uhura more assertive and physically active than she was in the originals but at the same time demoted her to the stock character role of the Girlfriend.
Basically her job was to be supportive while at the same time try to rein in the boys’ egos and put a damper on their enthusiasms. Even though he has more to do this time out, she’s still mainly there to humanize Spock, and I swear she’s referred to more often as “your girlfriend” than she is by her own name.
This does lead to some great McCoy jokes at Spock’s expense, however.
Finally, though, it doesn’t matter as the crew reunites and sets to work to defeat Krall in one of those classic “It’s going to take the whole team” plans the original set of movies made the basis of the plots of each of the films after Wrath of Khan. This is true to the spirit of the original TV series and its follow-ups in which a connecting theme was that everybody matters, everybody contributes everybody has individual worth.
It’s just that one character matters just a little bit more because it’s his story, after all.
Like I said, Krall isn’t as compelling a villain as Khan. In fact, he’s not very compelling at all except as a threat. And since his face is basically an animated mask and his voice is electronically altered, he could have been played by any halfway decent character actor. The reason he’s played by Idris Elba is to make the point that Krall, before he turned evil, was once somebody we’d have been happy to see played by Idris Elba. He was once a hero, a vain and temperamental hero, like Achilles or, to again to switch literary references in a hurry, this time from Homer to Shakespeare, Coriolanus, but still a hero. And this is important because of what it reminds us about Kirk.
The original series insisted on the possibility that as talented and smart and heroic as Kirk was he could still fail, either within an episode or in the end. It did this by having Kirk make mistakes---his rectifying a mistake was often more important to the adventure than defeating that week’s villain---and by routinely introducing talented, smart, and heroic Starfleet officers and starship captains, scientists, adventurers of different types, and one-time or would and could-be heroes of various other kinds, who not only made terrible mistakes but went wrong---who became villains.
The idea that Kirk was potentially a tragic hero was always in the subtext.
Pine’s Kirk has Kirk’s essential intelligence, driving curiosity, and sense of mischief that Shatner gave to the character but this time out Pine also includes that touch of melancholy that was an implicit in Shatner’s Kirk in the TV series and became more and more explicit in each of the movies, a melancholy that seemed to stem from Kirk’s awareness of the end for which he was heading.
“I’ll die alone,” he tells Spock and McCoy in The Final Frontier.
That day is still a long way off when the story picks up in Star Trek:Beyond. Kirk is in a thoughtful and somewhat sorrowful mood when the movie opens, but it’s his birthday and in this timeline the day is more meaningful to him as the anniversary of his father’s heroic (and lonely) death than as a celebration of his own birth. In a scene that’s a real homage to The Wrath of Khan, McCoy and Kirk share a drink to toast the occasion and reflect on the meaning of it all. In Wrath of Khan it’s established that the birthday toast is long-standing tradition with them. In Star Trek: Beyond the tradition isn’t as long-standing yet but its purpose is the same. Bones sees it as his job to try to cheer Jim up.
By the way, this scene and the scene in Wrath of Khan it foreshadows reinforce a fact about the relationships of Star Trek’s three main characters. Bones is Jim’s best friend. Spock is his brother.
But back to the story. Kirk is brooding about his career as a starship captain. At the moment, he doesn’t see the point. He’s wondering why he even joined Starfleet to begin with. McCoy suggests it might have been to prove he’s a worthy son to his heroic father. But Kirk seems doubtful of that.
Of course we know why he joined or we ought to know. He tells us in the speech that began every episode of the TV series.
When the first of the movie reboots was on its way into theaters back in 2009, I wrote that the TV Kirk started out as a Boy Scout who needed to find his inner pirate while this new version of Kirk seemed to be a pirate who needed to find his inner Boy Scout. But it doesn’t matter which way he got there, Kirk is a blend of both pirate and Boy Scout and he needs to be both in order to be good at what he truly is, not simply a great starship captain, which is just something else he needs to be in order to be what he truly is.
An adventurer and explorer.
And that’s what he’s on his way to becoming in Star Trek: Beyond or, rather, realizing that’s what and who he is, the Jim Kirk we know from the originals, the one whose last words, for all intents and purposes, are the ones he says at the end of The Undiscovered Country when Chekov asks what course to set for what will be the Enterprise’s final voyage: “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”
Probably shouldn’t push the allusions to Homer too hard but then all epic adventure tales derive from Homer, so…
The Star Trek universe extending across all the series and movies features its Hectors and Achilleses, Ajaxes and Agamennons, Nestors, and various versions of Patroclus, Paris, Menelaus, Priam, Diomedes, Troilus, Philoctetes, and Aeneas. If I really wanted to stretch it I’d make the case that Harry Mudd was a Pandarus and their Thersites would be a Ferengi. But there’s only one version of Ulysses otherwise known as Odysseus. The “resourceful” Odysseus. “The great tactician.” “That endlessly cunning man.”
It’s easy to imagine a Star Trek movie based on The Iliad with Kirk in the role of Odysseus, playing the diplomat between feuding Starfleet captains and coming up with a 23rd Century version of the Trojan Horse to save the day. In fact, he did just that in several episodes of the TV series. It’s also easy to imagine the last Star Trek movie…
Maybe Kirk dies alone in this timeline. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he doesn’t in the other one either. I think fans generally agree that Generations was a big mistake and that Shatner himself corrected it with his novel. Shatner, you may know, is a pretty good sci-fi writer. I don’t like to let myself imagine past the end of The Undiscovered Country. But when I do I don’t imagine the story all the way to Kirk’s death. I end with Kirk, having finished a great adventure, making his last voyage...home.
Accompanied now only by Chekov and possibly Uhura but maybe only by Jayla, he makes his perilous way past Sirens, past Scylla and Charybdis, escaping the Cyclops and Circe and resisting the lotus-eaters---whom he’ll have dealt with before---and leaving behind Calypso, back to wherever his Ithaca lies where his Penelope, Carol Marcus, waits, not patiently but busy with her own work in the lab, and the tale ends where it ends with Odysseus and Penelope, with our hero finally home and the two of them alone in bed, telling each other the stories of their days.
Star Trek: Beyond, directed by Justin Lin, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yeltchin, Sofia Boutella, and Idris Elba. Rated PG-13. Still in some theater