Star Trek: Beyond (2016) – Movie Review

star trek beyond

The third mission of the U.S.S Enterprise in the rebooted alternative timeline version of the original “Star Trek” goes a little less boldly than its two predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The most notable change is that J.J. Abrams abandoned the captain’s chair (for the other franchise starting with “Star”) and handed duties to Justin Lin of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. On scripting duties, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and Doug Jung take over from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof. Orci and Abrams still retain roles as producers, but that’s a pretty significant creative shift, and “Star Trek Beyond” ends up with a much different look and feel.

Tonally, 2009’s “Star Trek” and also “Star Trek Into Darkness” were a bit darker, more dramatic and theme-driven blockbusters. This was in following with the mold of most franchise reboots at the time, which demanded more grit and maturity to elevate ‘geeky’ pop-culture source material for 21st century sensibilities. “Beyond” jettisons that notion into the vacuum of outer space.

This should come as no surprise given Lin’s proclivities with the “Fast & Furious” movies, which made their fortune on wowing audiences with outlandish action sequences and a familiar, lovable ensemble cast. The formula works for the “Star Trek” universe, because nothing seems too ridiculous in space, plus most audiences are familiar with the current crew of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and John Cho. They’ve earned a chance to just have some fun.

“Beyond” is definitely fun, maybe bordering on mindless. It trades in the dramatic elements and character-building conflict of the last two films for a standalone outer space adventure. In that sense, it’s more in the tradition of older “Star Trek” movies, which operated independently and felt like long “Star Trek” episodes.

After a few years of status quo space exploration, the Enterprise crew docks in a snow globe-like starbase called Yorktown. There, the Federation picks up a distress signal from an alien who says her ship and crew are in danger on the far side of a treacherous nearby nebula. The Enterprise springs into action, but after they navigate to the other end of the nebula, they’re viciously attacked by an alien force and stranded on the aliens’ planet.

This first major action set piece is a pretty exhilarating launching pad into the bulk of the story, and it comes not a moment too soon. In classic fashion, it splits the crew up into small groups, and the second act sees these teams trying to reunite and escape from the clutches of Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for a weapon of mass destruction in the crew’s possession. A bit of a “Mission: Impossible” factor (another Paramount franchise with Simon Pegg) sneaks in here as well, though the plot isn’t quite as clever.

The movie really hearkens back to “Star Trek” episodes and memorable films that take place off-ship and bring the crew to a strange new world where the audience gets to discover a new species right along with them. No knowledge of “Trek” lore required to enjoy this one, yet it’s still immersive like any good sci-fi movie should be.

This shift away from narrative continuity between films, diving into important themes and shooting for emotional catharsis is almost a relief. No film should shy away from that challenge, but there’s something pleasant about the way “Beyond” lets go of those notions and opts for a classic form of geeky science fiction that’s more about dazzling fun, witty banter and big action.

By the same token, “Beyond” lowers the “Star Trek” franchise’s ceiling. It’s still possible to have an action-filled, funny sci-fi romp that challenges its characters and tackles universal ideas beyond merely that unity is better than divisiveness. Pegg and Jung’s script is fun, but it’s clear that they were encouraged to go simple.

So the “Star Trek” franchise has traded ambition for a little more reliability. Three films in, that’s not necessarily a bad swap. Ambitious blockbusters can fall flat, and some would argue “Into Darkness” already did. When you consider that “Star Trek” is not a series that’s ever had neatly packaged trilogies or other overarching narrative structures, switching to a more episodic format helps maximize longevity. In other words, we got a slightly lesser “Star Trek” film that’s better for the future of “Star Trek.”

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek (2009) – Movie Review

star trek

It’s a little-known fact that none other than Lucille Ball is responsible for the birth of “Star Trek”. As the titular head of Desilu Studios in the 1960’s, she green-lit former LA cop Gene Roddenberry’s idea of an intergalactic western and championed the series during its brief three-year run on NBC. It is amazing to consider how the franchise continues to thrive 43 years later, so much so that director J.J. Abrams (“Lost”) and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have been able to re-imagine the legacy of the series without sacrificing the fidelity needed to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans who pushed the grosses north of the $200 million mark in its first week of release. As someone who is not remotely a Trekker, I have to admit the creators have done a fine job of reincarnating the familiar characters into their youthful counterparts and concocted an engaging, time-traversing plot that smartly avoids heavy exposition in favor of action and pyrotechnics. The result can be sometimes mind-numbing and trivial, but the 122-minute movie is never dull.

The densely populated plot throws us forward to the year 2233 (or backwards depending on your perspective on “Star Trek” lore) as the USS Kelvin confronts a major alien vessel captained by an embittered Romulan named Nero. An alternate timeline is revealed, and inevitable tragedies ensue. Years later, we meet the familiar characters from the TV series culminating in the USS Enterprise’s maiden voyage. James Kirk is a cocksure hothead with obvious Starfleet Academy potential, but he is haunted by the father he never knew. The half-human, half-Vulcan Spock is a brilliant student-turned-control freak by his nature but sometimes unable to reconcile the two sides of his identity. Their initially hostile relationship provides much of the film’s spark, as they one-up each other in the face of a common enemy in Nero. This provides a good excuse for the CGI-enhanced action sequences with a plethora of explosions and characters zooming in and out of frame. By the time you start to feel the excess and redundancy in this approach, the story wraps the viewer up in its core ethos – that the Enterprise crew is an extended rainbow coalition of a family even as entire civilizations are destroyed.

Abrams and crew are smart enough to recognize that the movie has to capture the heart of the original series in a way that doesn’t patronize fans yet engage us non-Trekkers. Most of the casting choices are solid, although a couple of them are rather distracting. With the lightweight veneer of a tween idol, Chris Pine captures the braggadocio and roughhewn manner of a youthful Kirk in a way that tethers him to Shatner’s real-life personality without doing an outright imitation of the elder actor. Even better is Zachary Quinto who has little latitude to vary Spock from fan expectation, yet he brings subtle but palpable currents of humanity to his stoic character. The rest of the crew is painted in broader strokes with Karl Urban coming closest to caricature as “Bones” McCoy; Anton Yelchin, laying on a thick, Cold War-era Russian accent as the extremely young Chekhov; and Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”) pulling out all the comedy stops as exiled engineer Scotty. Somewhat more subtle are Zoë Saldana (“Guess Who”) as linguist specialist Uhuru, who has a surprising relationship with Spock, and John Cho (“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”) showing that he can handle action sequences with dexterity as neophyte helmsman Sulu.

Covered with latex, Eric Bana is hardly recognizable as Nero, although he makes the most of his character’s stock vengeance motives. It’s genuinely odd, however, to see Tyler Perry (“Madea Goes to Jail”) as the head of the Starfleet Academy and especially the still-doe-eyed Winona Ryder trying to look maternal as Spock’s human-side mother. Among cinema’s comic book franchises, this one is closer to “The Dark Knight” than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on the quality scale. Visually, it doesn’t disappoint with Daniel Mindel’s dazzling, kinetic cinematography and Scott Chambliss’ creative production design that mixes retro and futuristic elements seamlessly. At the same time, the convenient timeline jumble doesn’t really give rise to any complex moral quandaries beyond the importance of building friendships and trusting your colleagues. Nonetheless, the movie is propulsive entertainment which doesn’t tamper with its genesis and focuses squarely on the humanity of the familiar characters. For that accomplishment, we should all be grateful.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Hulk (2003) – Movie Review

hulk

I know the current “Avengers” movies are popular right now, and everybody digs Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk (myself included), however I still consider Ang Lee’s 2003 “Hulk” to be one of the finest comic book based movies ever made, and contrary to popular belief, one of the most faithful. Being a true fan of the Hulk comics from the 70’s to now, I think I can say this with credibility. I’m also coming from the angle that the 70’s TV show is not the real Hulk.

First, Ang Lee’s film is extremely faithful to the comics. Watching the movie, it was as if some scenes were lifted right out of the Stan Lee stories. Hulk fighting army tanks in the desert, Hulk leaping over canyon cliffs, Hulk touching the reaches of space, and yes, even Hulk dogs are from the comics. Hulk’s father in the movie is directly based on Bruce’s father in the comics, Brian Banner, who was abusive and allegedly had a hand in Hulk’s origin. The many villain incarnations that David Banner takes on at the end of the film are not just the Absorbing Man, but are an amalgam of many of the Hulk’s villains including Zzzax.

Second, Ang Lee’s film was less about simply showing “Hulk Smash” and more about the idea of the Hulk. The idea of evolution, the idea of repression and subsequent freedom from that repression. It’s interesting that every Ang Lee film is similarly about this idea of repression. Repressed gay cowboys, repressed women in China, a repressed slave finding freedom after the Civil War, etc. The evolution idea is expressed in the food chain of “Hulk” creatures we see in the movie. First a frog, then dogs, Hulk himself, and then a near “Hulk god” in David Banner. Evolution is also cinematically expressed in the morph edits seen throughout the film. Contrary to popular belief, the multi-frame editing was not just about mimicking a comic book, it was about expressing the idea of freedom from repression, of seeing something from different angles, different points of view, different sides, much like Bruce has a “different side” to him. If you notice, the multi-angles many times show us the same subject but from a different camera angle. The idea of the Hulk is also metaphorically visually expressed through the imagery of atomic mushroom clouds and jellyfish, two visually similar objects. It expresses the idea that this Hulk was born of two of the greatest known forces in the universe, genetic and atomic force.

It’s Ang Lee’s masterful filmmaking, strong use of visual metaphor, and faithfulness to the original comics that really sets his Hulk film apart for me. Perhaps the one scene that really spells out what Ang Lee is doing and also brought me back to the old comics was that first close-up we see of Hulk free and jumping through the desert to Danny Elfman’s haunting music. Classic.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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