I’ll start off with a minor point about this movie. A lot has been made of the film’s decision to make Sulu gay. For what it’s worth, it’s a very minor point in the story. It’s a glancing reference, really, and it’s pretty clearly designed to be a nod to George Takei, who played the character originally. When you consider what Gene Roddenberry was up against when he started Star Trek; the world divided by cold war tensions, the fact that he was kicked off the air in the south for having Kirk kiss Uhura, it seems like an attempt to one-up the man by making one of his original characters gay. George Takei has stated Gene Roddenberry would have liked to do a gay character, but didn’t want to take on too many barriers at once. For the movie to come along now, not facing anything close to the level of institutionalized bigotry that he did, it feels like an insult to all the messages the show did take risks to put out there. As Takei put it, I would have liked to see a gay character, but an original one that didn’t feel like taking a red pen to Roddenberry’s work.
The reason I bring all that up is because Star Trek: Beyond does so much to reference its source material. There’s so much fan service that it makes its failures all the more surprising. Star Trek, as a series, is what’s known as “Hard Sci-Fi.” That means it’s Science Fiction, but it has a stronger emphasis on science than franchises like Star Wars, which fall more under Science Fantasy. Its technology is fake, yes, but it’s meant to have enough of a basis in scientific theory that it’s easy to imagine there being a time when it could be real. Star Trek: Beyond gets lazy in that, settles for throwing a bunch of scientific-sounding word-salad at us, and that’s a thing that’s destined to drive its core audience absolutely insane. Star Trek is a franchise that inspired the generation of engineers and physicists who are currently steering vehicles on Mars and taking photos of Jupiter. For them, it isn’t enough to see and hear things that look and sound cool.
The movie spends a lot of time aiming for gravitas. In the opening, it’s a lot of monologues and heart-to-heart conversations that are meant to spoon-feed us the philosophy of the film, and not only is it awkward, it’s wasted time that should have been spent developing its villain. For what it’s worth, I’m still not entirely sure what the villain’s motive was. I’ve settled on “crazy dude went crazy.” It’s not necessarily unbelievable, but it’s a backstory we’re tossed in the movie’s final act, and just expected to swallow.
There’s plenty to criticize about Star Trek: Beyond. It’s easily the weakest of the new films, but for all its flaws, it didn’t bore me. Even when it was preposterous, it threw in an occasional (intentional) laugh, and tried not to take itself too seriously the whole way through. Whenever the next installment rolls out, I’ll still see it. This movie wasn’t nearly bad enough to make me quit on this generation of films, but I question how essential this one will have been to my understanding of the larger story.
Jim avoided spoilers in his thoughts, but I won’t, so consider yourself warned: spoiler alert.
In many respects I’m still the small, mixed kid who grew up in the Deep South, so I can’t help watching films through that lens. I also can’t tell you how much I wanted Idris Elba to be an alien instead of a human. I was actually chanting under my breath, please let him be an alien, while watching the movie. Star Trek: Beyond preaches “unity” throughout, it shoves the message down our throats, and anyone who has experienced racial discrimination in the United States can’t help but draw a line from this message of “unity” to the Black Lives Matter movement and the controversy associated with it—specifically, but by no means limited to, the Deep South.
Star Trek: Beyond moves our human race into the future. It shows humans of all shapes, sizes, creeds, color of skin, gender identity, and sexual orientation living together in harmony. These same humans even build friendships and more with alien lifeforms. Star Trek: Beyond’s reality is Martin Luther King Jr’s dream. The one being in the universe opposed to this “unity” is the token black man from a Federation starship. What the actual hell?
I love Idris Elba as an actor. I think he deserved an Academy Award nomination for his work on Beasts of No Nation—you should watch it on Netflix if you haven’t seen it yet. But I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I found out Elba’s character went crazy because of how his nation (or Federation) treated him, and how he lashed out violently, prepared to kill all life in the universe, peace be damned. That is the antithesis of Black Lives Matter. Sure, you could write it off and say “crazy dude went crazy”—and I think that’s what the writers want us to do—but you can’t preach “unity” all movie long and have this be your plot device, Star Trek: Beyond. It’s tone deaf.
I can let the Sulu thing slide. Were Gene Roddenberry alive today, I believe he’d be fine with that minor story line (this is an alternate timeline Sulu, the climate of the United States toward homosexuals has changed since the 60s, and Roddenberry loved and accepted George Takei), but Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy, another activist, would roll over in their graves from the main plot device of a black man’s plan to destroy a utopian future.
See. That’s what can happen when you don’t develop your villains, Star Trek: Beyond. I’m sure this wasn’t the movie’s intent, but they cheated by presenting Elba’s character as an alien, switching him to a human at the tail end, and not giving us a plausible reason for why he’s doing what he’s doing. For being a 50th anniversary celebration, Star Trek: Beyond betrayed its fan-base in a similar fashion as George Lucas did with his Star Wars prequels. And the main villain cheat isn’t the only transgression.
I assume director Justin Lin added a Kirk on a motorcycle scene as a nod to his tenure on the Fast and the Furious franchise. It looked cool, but in a Venn diagram of Star Trek and Fast and the Furious fans, you’ll see little to no overlap.
The Beastie Boys “Sabotage” as a secret weapon against the baddies was pilfered from Mars Attacks, but Mars Attacks was supposed to be a comedy and it made more sense. Sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space. You could say that Spock hotwired into the alien’s sound system. But how does he do that in 30 seconds and no prior knowledge of this technology? How are these aliens (or humans turned aliens) exploding when Jaylah cranks up the volume to her interstellar iPod?
Speaking of Jaylah, the actress who portrays her (Sofia Boutella) was fun and gave a great performance, but she’s Algerian and she’s in whiteface the entire movie. I’m not sure what kind of message that’s supposed to make—most likely no message at all—but it’s a bad look when you pair it with the angry black man plot.
Then you have the actors forgetting how to lean, jerk their bodies, or fall down to portray the ship getting pelted by missiles and lasers. Instead, Director Lin had the actors grimace and the camera man shake his camera to produce a vomit-inducing effect. I couldn’t follow the action and reached for my popcorn bag for something to puke into during half the movie. If I wanted a shaky camera, I’d watch home videos.
After all this, I’m still a fan of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: Beyond may be forgettable, but there were some good one-liners—these one-liners were marred by the writers elbowing us in the ribs and saying, “See what I did there,” but they were good one-liners. I’m still going to watch the next film in the series, but they have a lot of issues to address.