The Fast and the Federated
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a SF and/or fantasy franchise to tear.
– Rudyard Kipling (almost)
The sleeping colossus of the genre stirs once more, and an uneasy stirring it is too (if you ask me). For, yea, it is Justin Lin's Star Trek Beyond, marking the 50th anniversary of the dearly loved series. Those who were less than delighted with JJ Abrams' crack at Trek and overjoyed when he pushed off to finally make the Star Wars movie he'd clearly actually wanted to do all along could perhaps have been forgiven a brief mutter of 'Oh no, not again' when the director's chair for this landmark was given to the gentleman responsible for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, along with several other films in that series. Was this to be a worthy and respectful tribute to one of the most successful media franchises of all time? Or just Star Trek: Qo'NoS Heist, or something of that ilk?
Well, the movie opens with the Enterprise three years into its five year mission (i.e. at around the point the original show finally got canned). Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is restless and considering his position, possibly because he's not allowed to wear nearly as many hats in this film as the last one. Mr Spock (Zachary Quinto) also has issues nibbling away at him, but being Spock doesn't really talk about them much.
Shortly arriving at the Federation outpost of Yorktown (presumably a reference to Gene Roddenberry's original pitch for the series back in 1964, when the ship was named the Yorktown, not the Enterprise), Kirk is given the mission of penetrating a nearby nebula (NB: probably not something you'd describe as a nebula if you were an actual astronomer, but I digress) and rescuing the crew of a crashed ship. Off they pop, confidently enough, but of course things never go smoothly for the Enterprise crew and they find a fleet of hostile aliens waiting for them under the command of the malevolent Krall (Idris Elba). Krall, for reasons which a) constitute a plot spoiler and b) don't really stand up to much in the way of scrutiny anyway, is determined to destroy the Federation using one of those alien superweapons which can be conveniently disassembled into portable bits, and the final bit he needs is somewhere on the Enterprise...
In the movie's first big set piece sequence, the alien fleet swats the Enterprise out of space with distressing ease, setting up the middle act of the film, in which the various crew have different adventures on Krall's home planet before coming together again to do battle with him at the end. And I suppose this is a solid enough structure for what is a competently assembled SF action-adventure movie, if a bit hard to tell what's going on at some points but what do you expect these days, fun for all the family with some not-bad jokes along the way (credit due, I suppose, to scriptwriters Doug Jung, whose only previous work I am aware of was the movie Confidence, and me ol' mucker Simon Pegg, who does double duty as Scotty as in the last two movies).
And yet, and yet... In interviews about the film Pegg talked about the studio's concerns with regard to it, and what particularly caught my attention was his revelation that 'the studio was worried that it might have been a little bit too Star Trek-y'. The studio producing a Star Trek movie, concerned that their Star Trek movie might have been too Star Trek-y? What kind of Bizarro World (or, if you will, Mirror Universe) have we accidentally slipped into?
Well, I imagine the studio people will be quite relieved, for I doubt anyone will consider Star Trek Beyond to be too Star Trek-y. For those of us who do like Star Trek to be Star Trek-y, however, and can't see the point of making Star Trek if it's not going to be Star Trek-y, there will be the problem of how to come to terms with a Star Trek film that is in various ways quite Star Wars-y (again) but particularly (in some ways) very Guardians of the Galaxy-y. The humour in this film isn't a million miles away from that in the Marvel movie, the plot is to some degree similar, and its use of music in particular seems very much drawn from James Gunn's film.
In short, for those of us who've (fairly) faithfully stuck with Star Trek since the late 70s, if not earlier, what's on screen here has very little of the look and feel of the franchise in any of its previous incarnations. Yorktown bears no resemblence to any Starbase we've seen before, instead looking more like the space station from Elysium or a screen realisation of one of Iain Banks' Culture Orbitals. There were claims that the script here would 'deconstruct' the whole premise of Star Trek and wrestle with the whole basis of the Federation and Starfleet's mission statement. I saw no sign of that – instead there's just a bad guy who's gone a bit mad and wants to smash stuff up – not many shades of grey or opportunities for moral inquiry there.
The film-makers seem to be under the impression that the essence of Star Trek is limited entirely to the seven most prominent characters of the original TV series and their interactions with each other, and I suppose on these terms the film is something of a success: Quinto and Karl Urban are highly effective in replicating the Spock-McCoy chemistry and banter, but you never really forget that this is just a very accomplished act of homage or replication: karaoke Star Trek, which only works because it's drawing on the work of other people long ago. All of the bits of the film which managed to genuinely move me were the ones drawing heavily on my affection for the old show and the old movies – how can you not feel a pang at seeing the Enterprise ripped apart? How can you not be moved when a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Spock appears, or one of the entire original cast? The fact remains that they feel weirdly out of place here, though.
The film makes a kind of stab at acknowledging Star Trek's heritage by inserting various references to things like the Xindi and Romulan Wars of the 22nd century, and including an old starship of a design that anyone who remembers Star Trek: Enterprise will find rather familiar. But even here I'm not completely sure the continuity hangs together, and it is kind of bizarre that the key acknowledgement made is to Enterprise, the version of Star Trek that got the franchise cancelled again after 18 years on TV.
Maybe it's just me, but as I've said before, the joy and magic of Star Trek doesn't lie in one particular set of characters, not even Kirk, Spock, and company – the great achievement of Trek is the sheer size and scope of its universe. Star Trek isn't just the original Enterprise on its five year mission – it's the Klingons, Genesis Device, and Sulu captaining the Excelsior, and tlhIngan HoL, and the battle against the Borg at Wolf 359, and Worf's discommendation, and the Q Continuum, and the Dominion War, and even (God help us) the Kazon-Ogla and the Temporal Cold War and...
Needless to say none of these things are even alluded to in Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it doesn't feel like any of them could even happen in the same universe in which this film is set. Star Wars is rock'n'roll, Star Trek is classical music – so goes the shorthand. This film feels more like hip hop.
Does any of this matter? To the wider audience and the suits at the studio, I suppose not: people will have a good time and the film will likely turn a tidy profit (a further offering bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk is already in the pipeline). If you don't especially like or care that much about Star Trek this is a jolly blockbuster which will not challenge you too much. But if you do love Star Trek – the first 40 years of it, anyway – I can't imagine it will do much for you, for it seems to me that it's just using the name-recognition factor of the brand to promote a rather generic space adventure movie.
I am probably the worst person to give this movie an objective review. A rather dismal trend has developed over the last few years where all the things I used to love have taken on strange new forms which I find it hard to summon up much affection for: Moffat Doctor Who, Disney Star Wars, the last couple of James Bond films and Abrams Star Trek. So it may very well just be me unable to accept that the world has changed. But what can I say? When you come to love something as a child, then that love has a purity and intensity that never completely goes away, no matter how old you grow. So I will just say this: is this a competently made contemporary SF adventure with moments of warmth and charm? Yes, absolutely. Is it a worthy tribute to fifty years of Star Trek? Um, no, not at all – but in a sense there was never any reason to expect it would be. Return to your slumber, colossus.