I think it’s time to end this.
After an outstanding outer space action thriller reboot in “Star Trek” (2009) and a mediocre, if valiant, attempt to redo the gospel standard of all Trek films in “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013), here we now have “Star Trek Beyond,” a tepid, bland exercise that recycles some familiar Trek tropes but is, in the end, just another sophomoric action movie.
The trouble is apparent from the first scenes, as Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, still bravely soldiering on in the role he made his own), meets up with some CGI beasties offering a former weapon from another species as a “token of peace,” which the confused diplomats rightly call out as both an ironic and empty gesture. These aliens, who at first appear to be giant, menacing creatures, then attack Kirk and are revealed to be tiny little furballs in what is surely a reference to the classic Trek tribbles.
Yeah, it’s gonna be that kind of film.
Actually, no, I take that back. What starts out as pure silliness then segues into outer space ennui, as Kirk, in his opening log, waxes — or rather, whines — about the loneliness of the Enterprise’s ongoing five-year mission, now in its third or fourth annum (whether that is Earth or space time we are never told). Apparently not one to take the joy of discovery as its own reward, Kirk mopes how the crew have devolved from high adventurerers into a day-by-day malaise of manning the ship, taking orders and hooking up with their shipmates.
In other words, being people.
Oh, and it’s also Kirk’s birthday, which is meant to not-so-subtly trick us into linking this franchise — again — with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), in which Kirk (then played by William “the conqueror” Shatner) has been relegated to a desk job as an admiral, is turning 50 and naturally meditates on his mortality and past mistakes. That Jim Kirk was a natural, older outgrowth of the brash space cowboy Mr. Shatner portrayed in the television series, but dealing with midlife regrets and the pain of meeting his now-adult son, whom he has never known.
However, such humanity has no place in “Beyond,” which within its first 30 minutes has set up its schlocky premise, and all photons and phases are a-blazin’. As the Enterprise docks for some R&R at the space station colony Yorktown, a cry for help comes in from an alien being. Kirk volunteers the Enterprise to check out the danger — alone, with no backup and no scouting missions first — with predictable results.
My friend Steve says he appreciates when a character makes the wrong choices, and while it is temping to give screenwriters Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung credit for a perhaps brash move on Kirk’s part, rather it’s the excuse needed to get the Enterprise back into action lest audience attention wander.
As with the two previous entries in the rebooted Trek universe, “Beyond” is an action movie. But unlike the 2009 film, it’s not a particularly good one. Sci-fi depends on disbelief of any and all logic for its appeal as fiction, but “Beyond” never makes any real attempt at even internal coherency — or freshness. There’s yet another mad, evil, megalomaniacal heavy, this time in the form of Krall (Idris Elba), who lures the Enterprise to his secret planet base hidden behind a nebula — perhaps the “beyond” the title promises — to enact his mad schemes.
Both “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” relied on doomsday weapons and/or rogue Starfleet officers to move their plots along. I am revealing nothing here but letting on that “Beyond” contains at least two of those same elements.
Like I said, it’s getting old.
Mr. Pegg, who as a writer and actor, unleashed some of England’s most acerbic comedies of the 21st century in “Shawn of the Dead” and others, tries to write in as much humor between the characters as he can, but only some of the gags land. Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Bones still have the best dynamic, but the odd couple routine is here because it has to be, not out of a natural outgrowth of plot or circumstance. Messrs. Quinto and Urban do their legacy characters well, as does Mr. Pine, who has anchored the three films despite the hanging collective memory of Mr. Shatner, and has even elevated it to an interpretation entirely free of the previous incarnation of Kirk.
And yet everyone involved seems so bored. It’s what I called “Trek Tiredness Syndrome,” which was evident in the latter “Next Generation” films of Patrick Stewart et al. The vibrancy and charm the new cast displayed in “Star Trek” 2009 have all but evaporated, and only token sentences are thrown in to hint at character development. Little is ever really at stake.
Even the able direction by Justin Lin, who injected new life into the “Fast & Furious” universe, seems rote and by-the-numbers. Mr. Lin is no stranger to staging action, and yet his “Beyond” set pieces involve little more than classic gun, er, phaser play and tried-and-true karate battles.
Oh, and a motorcycle. Because even in the 23rd century, a hog might still come in handy now and again.
I did get a small chuckle at 20th century hip-hop being referred to in one scene as “classical music,” but the sheer temerity it took to sit down and write on the page that rock ‘n’ roll would effectively save the day — in a literal, not figurative sense — leaves one to ponder if all those hippies and their counterculture were onto something they could never even comprehend.
It’s also a cliffhanger as far as how much more beyond this the franchise can still go. Granted, SpongeBob SquarePants once also saved the world via rock ‘n’ roll, but he’s also an animated sea creature inhabiting an undersea milieu created by stoners.
It was a great experiment, and “Star Trek” 2009 was a truly grand adventure film on its own merits, but it’s been a definite slide since. There’s more fiction now than science in the rebooted Trek universe, and it can’t help but be noted the irony of Kirk declaring that the Federation stands for peace in a film that is two hours of stuff blowing up.
There may yet be another great Star Trek film out there waiting to be made. But as Luke Skywalker so potently observed, “Beyond” lives on the planet farthest from.
Now playing at District theaters.
Rated PG-13. Contains stuff blowing up real good, scenes of peril and a meditation between Spock on McCoy on the figurative meaning of hores***.
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