Third time’s a charm? After the standard-action-fare of the 2009 movie and the misguided attempt to use Khan in Into Darkness, can Beyond find a successful balance?
Pre-Existing Prejudices: It’s the most recent of the three Abramsverse movies which means that there’s not a lot of scope for historical distance. But as with the other two Abramsverse movies I had generally warm feelings towards it on its release and I’ve watched a couple of times since. I like Idris Elba a lot but don’t remember him making a vast impression, and of course it’s hard to view Anton Yelchin’s performance objectively since his death. Neither a stand-out classic nor a total failure, I remember this as fine. We shall see if that’s still true…
What’s It All About, JG?
After screwing up a diplomatic mission to hand over a McGuffin, we find out that, three years into the five-year mission, Kirk is bored. Arriving at the space station Yorktown, the Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission into a nebula. The mission is a trap, the Enterprise is destroyed by a swarm of small but lethal drone ships and the scattered remains of the crew must come together to stop Krall, This Movie’s Wasted Bad Guy. Kirk unites with a local scavenger, Jaylah, who lives in the wreck of an old Federation ship, the Franklyn. They must work together to stop Krall who, it turns out, is the Franklyn’s former captain – the prosaically named Balthazar Edison – whose life has been extended by Alien Tech and who now wants to take his revenge by using a bioweapon weapon to wipe out the Yorktown. After working out how to defeat the drones Kirk and Edison have a slap-fight which results in him getting blown out into space and consumed by his own weapon. Then a new Enterprise is built in stop-motion and time lapse, before heading off for more adventures (possibly)!
Any Other Business:
- The pre-credits mission, with Kirk delivering the McGuffin to some unexpectedly small but somewhat aggressive aliens is pretty well done and gets us off to a suitably humorous start. I’m not sure having the McGuffin as part of the ceremony was terribly sensible, but oh well it gets us underway.
- It’s a strange choice to jump forward three years into the five-year mission without bothering to show us any of, you know, that actual mission. Kirk’s sense of ennui fits how the character is used, and it’s genuinely quite funny to have Kirk complain that his life has become “episodic”.
- The Enterprise at warp in this film is the best at-warp shot any ship has ever had in Star Trek’s history.
- Previously the Yorktown was the sister ship of the Enterprise. Now it’s a vast, almost MC Escher-esque space station. It looks absolutely amazing on screen, and contrasts vividly with Kirk’s boredom.
- Uhura and Spock’s relationship – such as it was – comes to an end here. McCoy is about as tactful as you would expect on the subject…
- Sulu’s gay! This is – in canon and on screen – the first time that we see an unambiguously gay character on Star Trek. I would just like to point out this film was released in 2016 (!). The shot lasts for about four seconds.
- So, is Commodore Paris’s name meant to be a Voyager reference? Because Shohreh Aghdashloo doesn’t look like someone who’s family lineage would plausibly lead to the none-more-white Robert Duncan McNeill. But if it’s not a Voyager reference then why use a surname that’s bound to evoke that?
- The conceit of Kalara speaking in her own language while over the top we hear the Universal Translator is remarkably successful. It raises larger questions (specifically, why we never hear it again or whenever anyone else is being translated) but in isolation it works.
- Why are the movies so obsessed with destroying the Enterprise? The destruction here – putting aside the usual questions of dodgy Starfleet design – looks spectacular on screen, but every movie sequence has done it now. TOS did it in The Search For Spock (evoked here with the saucer crash, since this is also the third film in the movie sequence), TNG got it out of the way in Generations (and had a second near-miss in Nemesis), and now we have it for the Abramsverse too. Weird. Do they not like this ship?
- But yes, the actual destruction is phenomenal on screen. Though that “we can’t reroute power until the saucer is separated” seems like a phenomenally stupid piece of design, unless the designers were hoping it would lead to some extra tension, just in case the ship is unexpectedly cleft in twain because some nutter needs to steal a McGuffin.
- Yes, the handling of the McGuffin – OK, fine, it’s called the Abronath – is messy. It’s a bit of a co-incidence that it just so happens to be the peace offering Kirk is delivering at the start of the movie (or if it isn’t a co-incidence the film needs to do a better job of explaining it), and the constant shuffling of it about the story does have a slight feel of “we can’t let the bad guy get this too early, otherwise the movie’s over”, so round and round the film it goes, where it stops nobody knows. Although “inside someone’s head” probably wasn’t on anyone’s guess list.
- The “desiccated husks” look of the people Krall kills to absorb their life energy is the same effect as happens to crewmembers who stray too near a Shriek in the Voyager two-parter “Equinox”.
- Idris Elba, one of the most charismatic and magnetic actors of the moment, is cast as Krall and promptly buried under so much latex and dodgy dentures that it could be literally anyone behind the mask. He can hardly even speak through his fake teeth (never mind the halting attempts the character has at speaking English) and he joins the ignoble ranks of the likes of F Murray Abraham at being a fantastic actor completely wasted in the bad guy role.
- The Spock/McCoy material here is fantastic, and Quinto and Urban do a great job of recreating the Nimoy/Kelley rapport. It’s great to see them get some proper screen-time together.
- Ditto Pine and Yelchin, as Chekov gets a chunk of action alongside his captain.
- Sofia Boutella seems to have gone to the Lori Petty School Of Acting, not so much speaking the language as giving it a good chew (she’s pretty solid though). Petty herself, of course is a Star Trek alum, having appeared in the (rather great) Voyager episode “Gravity”.
- The motorbike chase to rescue the crew is… well. It’s decently shot, but the “hey the captain of the Yorktown kept this around so we can have a handy chase sequence!” is terribly clumsy. If you have to have the bike chase – and it is good – then it would have been better to have it be Kirk’s and recovered from the wreck of the Enterprise, especially as he has a pre-established love of both old vehicles and bikes (the car he stole as Ickle Kirk, and the bike he gave away before entering the shuttle to join Starflet, both from the 2009 movie).
- Once again “away team” is used instead of “landing party”. I know I should let it go, but I really can’t.
- One of the pleasures of the Abramsverse movies – and one of the ways they most successfully evoke the spirit of TOS – is their willingness to embrace the corny. The defeat-the-bad-guys-via-the-Beastie-Boys is unbelievably corny, especially having McCoy ask Spock if it’s, “classical music”. But it’s also absolutely bloody terrific, and it doesn’t go on too long and milk it. Defeating the bad guy by radio rather than bafflegab or future tech is also strikingly old-fashioned which fits in with the authentically TOS feel of this movie.
- Krall’s assault on the Yorktown is suitably great, and this film does a far better version of landing it’s “big spaceship crash, then the bad guy gets away on foot” than Into Darkness managed with Spock and Khan, even although it’s functionally the same sequence (bit of an oversight, that). The “screwy gravity” fight between Kirk and Krall is also well handled – again it’s silly and a touch corny, but in a way that’s very true to the spirit of TOS.
- Saying that, Krall’s final defeat (almost absent-mindedly kicked aside by Kirk into his own weapon before being jettisoned) is just a touch anti-climactic, though him being consumed by the bioweapon at least feels appropriate.
- The picture of the Prime crew, in their movie outfits rather than from the original show, packs a surprising and big emotional punch at the end of the movie, much more than the early reveal that Ambassador Spock had died.
- And then we get an Enterprise-A and blast off to more adventures. Which we are, at time of writing, still waiting for…
Every Abramsverse movie has its frustrations. The 2009 movie is a competent sci-fi action-adventure movie in Star Trek drag – solidly enjoyable, but largely for the cast. Into Darkness has some good ideas at its core but fritters them away with a Wrath Of Khan redux that was wholly unnecessary. And now we have Beyond. The frustrations of Beyond, thought, are as much as what it doesn’t show as what it does. Into Darkness ended with the launch of the five-year mission. You know. The five-year mission. The one whose significance has rung out like a bell at the start of every single episode of the TV show this sequence of movies pay fealty to. And how much of that five-year mission do we get to see?
None of it. Well, technically I guess the opening couple of minutes of this movie must be part of it, but they’re played strictly for laughs, and the events here aren’t part of the mission they’re just triggered by some rando flying out of a nebula. Kirk is bored and frustrated at Starfleet’s mission, questioning why they’re even out in space. That’s not a million miles away from Shatner’s movie version, who goes through doubt and questions his own self-worth before the bonds of friendship pull him back from the brink. But with Shatner’s Kirk we have three seasons of television and a handful of movies to understand what might have brought him to that point. For Pine’s Kirk, we’re simply told that this is the case without further illumination. It’s not that this is a bad place to take Kirk’s characterisation, but we need a lot more than a short birthday scene with McCoy to make it land.
Indeed, it’s fair to ask why not give us one of their missions? There’s obviously no need to replicate any of the TV episodes (especially after the drubbing the production team got after the whole Khan fiasco) but give the crew a proper mission! One of the things people love about Star Trek – especially the TOS incarnation of Star Trek – is the fact that they get to, “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations”. And this incarnation, with a fresh new cast, is uniquely positioned to do just that. The movies always seem to skip over that “explore” bit even though it’s a core component of what people love about the show. Instead we get a disillusioned Kirk on the verge of chucking it all in without doing any of the requisite work to make that land. Then when this adventure does finally kick off you’d be hard-pressed to know Kirk was ever unhappy with this life in the first place. Moment to moment, these films are great at handling Kirk – and Pine remains as terrific as ever here – but the overall arc of his disillusionment before coming to appreciate what he loves about his job is a complete bust.
This is getting mentioned at the start of the review because the great curse of the Abramsverse movies now stands revealed – now that we’ve had three of them to review, the word to describe them all is “muddled”. Kirk’s through-line here is certainly muddled, not a bad idea just not delivered as clearly as it should be. That’s true of Krall’s motivations as well. Up until about three-quarters of the way through the movie he’s simply The Bad Guy, with no other characteristics being present or obvious. Then we get the reveal that he’s actually a former soldier from the precursor to the Federation, promoted out of fighting and asked to, “break bread with the enemy”, something he finds unconscionable. Well… Okay. It’s not awesome motivation but at least it’s not another dead family. But it takes way too much of the film to get to that reveal, and when we do get there, we find out he wants to take his revenge on the Yorktown and the rest of the Federation by killing all of them. But… why? There’s not nearly enough character work done with Krall to make this motivation land. How does wiping out millions of innocent people who exist more than a century on from his perceived slight balance out what happened to him? He gets one off-handed line about still needing to carry on fighting because he’s a soldier but it’s not even fractionally convincing. I mean, it could be a side-effect of the Alien Tech he’s using to extend his life, twisting his mind as it twists his body, but if it is then it’s never communicated to us. It’s… well, it’s muddled. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, necessarily, it’s just not thought through enough. You could do a Colonel Kurtz riff on that easily enough if you wanted to, or simply let us find out something about him earlier on so we have a reason to care later on, but that’s not to be. Instead we have Idris Elba doing his best to act through make-up that sucks much of the life out of his performance.
It’s not just the characters that are muddled though – the film’s McGuffin, the Abronath, gets similar treatment. When first we hear of it Kirk is handing it over as a peace offering, and its description as being “part of a weapon” is so off-handed and underplayed that it could have been literally anything. Later on, we get a couple of (very de-emphasised) lines about the Federation database being tapped into so as to explain how Krall knew it was on board. Then we get lots of scuffling about over it before finally finding out its part of a bioweapon. On and on the chase for this thing goes but it takes so long for the reveal as to why anyone is even supposed to care that when it does come it’s a very shrug-worthy moment. There are plenty of other examples in the movie, but this muddling of something that it should be easy to make clear is what all three Abramsverse movies are linked by and it’s a great shame because some clarity would make all the difference in the world. A little editing would give Nero the chance to actually be interesting, Khan being Harrison would tell a better story, and here Krall actually become a compelling villain rather than Just Some Bad Guy. It’s very frustrating.
And the reason it’s frustrating is that so much is done right here. This film makes a concrete step to improve the overall structure of the script from Into Darkness’s stuff-just-happens smear of a plot, and the movie breaks down in to three separate chunks – the runup to the Enterprise being destroyed, On The Planet and Defend The Yorktown. That’s fine. Good, even. This is a clear improvement in structure over either of the two previous films and, while not exactly innovative, helps keep things moving. There’s even a prelude and a coda, which ties in quite nicely to how a TOS-era episode would have been structured. That structure goes some way to helping the pacing of this movie, which is also noticeably improved. Switching between three solid, well-defined locations means we never linger too long in one to get bored, but equally spend enough time in them to explore and get a feel for those environments. It’s much easier to care about the fate of the Yorktown in the third act when we’ve actually spent some time in it during the first one. We see how people live, we have an (albeit somewhat tenuous) familial connection to it with Sulu’s husband and daughter (who are seen running in fear during Krall’s attack), and we get a sense of the scale of the place so we understand just how many lives are at risk without it just being some abstract number on a computer screen.
The planet the Enterprise crashes on, Altamid, feels like a real location too, with different geographies and regions, but which make sense in relation to each other. We get to see mountain ranges and, nearby, forests which can plausibly be part of the same area without some hand-wave sci-fi explanation (see the Genesis planet for more on this) and so just instinctively feels right. The Enterprise saucer crashes – rather excellently, in fact – into some fields after skipping off mountains (seen in the background) so that all looks correct as well. The pacing on the planet is a bit slack, but the character work that happens there, especially with Spock and McCoy, is top-tier so even while the plot takes a bit of time to gear up again after the ship’s destruction there’s still plenty of character-relevant stuff going on to hold the interest.
And once again the core cast deserve much praise here. One of Beyond’s big strengths is giving McCoy rather more to do. Karl Urban is, needless to say, still terrific at playing McCoy, but the sad birthday scene at the beginning with Kirk, the careful admission of respect between him and Spock, even getting to see him do some “field surgery” with a phaser and some metal to cauterise a wound, give the character a much-needed shift towards the centre of the movie. It makes his human relationship with Kirk feel much more fleshed out than the mostly jokey one-liner quips we’ve had up to now, and it makes the much less explicit bond between him and Spock feel real in a way that neither the previous two movies manage. By giving McCoy the space to step forward and occupy as much of the screen as Kirk and Spock it cements the final part of the central trio in place.
And what of the rest of our regular supporting cast? Well, almost everyone gets a bump in their screen-time, and the biggest beneficiary of this is Chekov. Yelchin really does make for a great Chekov, excited at having time to explore with his captain while also clearly aware of how dangerous everything is. He and Pine have a nice rapport, and Yelchin channels the puppy-dog and slightly naïve enthusiasm of the Koenig version of the character very well. The accent has settled down a bit from the 2009 movie (where it was noticeably over-exaggerated) which helps a lot too. He’s just terribly appealing, basically, and while is very sad that we won’t be getting any more of this version of the character at least in his final outing he gets the chance to really make his mark. And, just in time, he even gets a “[Thing X] was actually invented in Russia”, just like the original (this time it’s scotch)! Scotty, too, gets an expanded role – nothing to do with the script being co-written by Simon Pegg I’m sure – but the most striking change here is, naturally, Sulu.
John Cho actually doesn’t have as much to do in this film as he did in the last two, but it’s four seconds of screen-time which make an impact because – and you knew this was coming – Sulu is in this timeline canonically gay. A big fuss was made over this at the time the movie was released, what with the producers thinking it was a nice nod towards George Takei’s sexuality (as well as finally getting some gay representation on screen) and then George Takei not feeling especially chuffed about that. Nobody came out of it terribly well – the producers really should have thought to check with Takei whether he was cool with it (though, to be strictly fair, they didn’t have any particular reason to assume he wouldn’t be), and Takei probably could have handled it with a little more grace. On the one hand Takei, through being openly out and a campaigner for gay rights, helped shift attitudes towards gay men and so a little here’s-a-small-thank-you seems like a sweet acknowledgement of that, as well as getting the aforesaid representation on screen. On the other hand, being reduced to nothing more than a walking example of your sexuality certainly can be seen as reductive. As far as this movie goes the scene is so short as to barely even be there and impacts very little. The other argument around this – why not introduce another character who is gay, rather than foisting it upon an existing one? – has a degree of merit to it, but honestly the movies probably aren’t the best place to do that. For all its problems, Discovery – and talk about an action-adventure story in Star Trek drag – has gone on to show that there’s plenty of space to handle and discuss sexuality and queer representation in Star Trek, but “space” is the optimal word there. Having multiple episodes and seasons to have characters and discussions play out over makes the whole exercise seem much less like just paying lip service to diversity. For what it’s worth, I find Sulu being gay here not remotely problematic, but it does still smack a bit of tokenism. Still, its significance is that it’s there at all.
And that’s us done with the Abramsverse movies. Beyond was not a great success at the box-office (it actually made a loss), but if this means that it’s the last movie in the sequence then it’s definitely fair to say that the series went out on a high. Qualitatively there’s not that much difference between the three movies that make up this sequence, but by having a stronger structure and a better sense of pace, Beyond noses into the lead while still carrying many of the same flaws the previous two films had. The 2009 movie was good at what it did, but beyond the cast it’s hard to say that it felt especially like Star Trek. Into Darkness felt more like Star Trek, but then again it also imported the most well-known bad guy from the original series so it could scarcely feel like anything else.
Beyond finds a balance between these two extremes. The action-adventure work here is still as enjoyable as it was in the 2009 version, but it feels a bit more anchored to the original series. This isn’t Any Action Film with a few familiar names slung about the place, it’s actually Star Trek. There’s no iconic bad guy here – the right move – and no further attempts to replicate plot beats from the original series of TOS movies, which is also the right move. Yet this feels more like Star Trek than either of its two predecessors even although this is the movie that leans on the past the least. No cameo from a former cast member, no recurring villain, just a story which seems like it could easily have come from the original show, yet doesn’t. All our characters get something to do, we get a (brief) frisson of social inclusion, and there’s a few moments of real wonder, such as the sweeping shots of the interior of the Yorktown. They look spectacular and that wonder helps the movie connect with the past without straightforward replication. As ever, some character motivation remains muddy and poorly explored, and Idris Elba is completely wasted. Seriously,it would be great to see a movie where Elba gets the chance to actually be the villain – for all the impact he makes here the head he’s stuck inside might as well be animatronic (not that Elba carries the blame for that). It’s a shame but it’s also symptomatic of these movies, none of which especially get this right. Still if these movies have any legacy it’s this – we have an absolutely amazing cast here, dedicated to their roles, and who have successfully breathed new life into characters that were otherwise entirely moribund, and I would love to see a series starring this cast. Some of the five-year mission. All of the five-year mission. That’s really the greatest compliment I can think to pay these movies. They’ve done an amazing job with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura and I’d love to see more of them. That’s absolutely not certain at the moment, so if this is the end of the road then at least it’s a good one.
And if we do get more from them – hurrah!
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
It’s a slightly strange one this time out. I think generally speaking the film spend a bit too long faffing about on the planet while getting the straggling parts of the crew back together, but I wouldn’t quite want to lose any of it either. Kirk and Chekov’s adventures are good fun (and the flipping saucer section is legitimately great), Spock and McCoy finally get some proper screen time together, and so on. But it’s a bit rambling in a film that seems to try to not be that. We could probably trim some of the at-the-concentration-camp material, and probably a bit from both of the big space fights. I guess you could also lose Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Commodore Paris – she’s only in two scenes and was a post-facto addition (why anyone thought this necessary I have no idea). I mean, I really like Aghdashloo but it’s tough to claim her scenes add anything beyond some minimal expository dialogue. Let’s go with a relatively slender 3%, more the odd trim than anything that’s in serious need of editing.
How Shatner-y Is Pine?
There is no moment in any of the three Abramsverse movies where Pine is more William Shatner than, after hearing the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” strike up, he intones, “good choice”. It’s lovely. Overall though, the Shatnerisms are kept pretty much in check but still present. Kirk’s despair early on in the film is a nice match for the Kirk we saw at the beginning of The Wrath Of Khan, unsure of himself, resentful of his ageing and unsure of what to do. Pine underplays these scenes almost to the point of mumbling, leaving Urban’s McCoy to shoulder much of the emotional weight (which he does very well, though in full drawling-Southern-gentleman mode). There are hints of Shatner in there but it’s all very much under the surface. Down on the planet, Kirk’s adventures with Chekov (especially returning to the destroyed Enterprise) feel very Shatner-y, though it’s hard to imagine Our William roaring around a quarry on a motor bike. Basically, and for the third time in a row, Pine finds space to suggest the previous version of this character while still having more than enough room to stamp his own take on it.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
Of all things, the Xindii get a shout-out. This makes fans of Enterprise very happy, since it “proves” Enterprise is still canon in this timeline but none of the other shows are (why this matters is a separate issue). But it’s a curious thing to reference indeed, since even that show’s fans generally tend to admit that the Xindii arc was not the strongest thing it ever did. We also get a line – from McCoy – about a big green space hand which is, of course, a reference to “Who Mourns For Adonis?” Though this does invite speculation as to whether the events in that episode happened to this crew? The green hand itself can be seen in the closing credits of the movie, if you care to look for it, so I’m going to go ahead and assume yes, Chris Pine’s Kirk had to put up with all that (though hopefully Yelchin’s Chekov had better hair than Walter Koenig had in the original. Koenig looked like he was wearing a poorly-chosen mop). Of course, the biggest shout-out here is the photo Prime Spock passed onto this Spock of the original crew. It’s a touching, sentimental moment that’s both sweet and heartfelt. If this does indeed turn out to be the final movie in this sequence then having it more or less end on the reminder of the old crew – all of the old crew, not just Nimoy – while allowing the new crew to have primacy and blast off to further adventures is a sold, convincing way of ending the run.
I haven’t talked about Justin Lin yet, have I? Well this isn’t really going to be the place it happens either. He’s a solid director, not really any better or worse than JJ Abrams, though obviously with substantially fewer lens flares. Well, zero in fact (though Into Darkness noticeably toned this down from the 2009 movie, to almost acceptable levels). He proves adept at handling big effects sequences with a nice clarity – not a given, since we have vast swarms of ships that could easily have overwhelmed what we see on screen – and the intimate moments are calm and composed. He’s fine. I don’t want to do another “whole cast” thing again either, though they’re all great. And giving it to Yelchin, since he’s no longer with us, feels a touch mawkish even although this is his best outing in the role. Eh, you know why not, Yelchin can have it. Chekov here really helps prove the value of utility players in the Star Trek universe, and Chekov’s deployment here gives a solid reason to use more than just the usual Kirk-Spock-McCoy default. He can ask all the audience but-why-Keptin questions without it just seeming info-dumpy, he’s got great screen presence on his own and opposite Pine, and just generally serves the movie very well indeed. If there is to be another movie it’s been made clear that Yelchin won’t be recast, and that feels like the right decision. Whatever else he is, Yelchin is this universe’s Chekov and it would be wrong to simply replace him.
- The Undiscovered Country
- First Contact
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- Star Trek Beyond
- Star Trek Into Darkness
- Star Trek
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture