At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I must say I watched “Star Trek Beyond” to get away from the “Kabali” fever that’s pervading every conversation this weekend. At least far in the uncharted nether zones of the universe, I thought, I might find something new and different.
And when Chris Pine’s Captain James T Kirk muses on a certain routineness of the USS Enterprise’s mission at the start of the film, I do wonder if “Star Trek Beyond” is going to live up to its name. He says that after a point he can’t tell where one day ends and the next begins, that it’s all starting to feel a bit ‘episodic’, and I find myself in agreement.
The feeling is only heightened when we find out that Zachary Quinto’s Spock is considering leaving Starfleet because he’s feeling more than an acute episode of anxiety about the Vulcan species’ future.
And then director Justin Lin (from the “Fast and Furious” franchise), working off a script by Simon Pegg (who also plays the excessively Scottish Montgomery Scott), rips the Starship Enterprise to pieces and crashes it on a remote planet in uncharted space. And suddenly I wonder if the film’s makers are serious about rebooting the franchise and changing course irrevocably.
Sadly, no. A more suitable name for the film might have been “Star Trek: In the Same Rut”. The dully straightforward plot, involves the Enterprise going in search of a crash-landed ship only to be drawn into a trap by an army of villains led by Krall (Idris Elba) and flying a swarm of single-pilot spacecrafts. What does the villain Krall want? Predictably an ancient weapon he can use to destroy the Federation and life as we know it.
The heroes of the Enterprise have to find another ship (the USS Franklin, conveniently crashed on the same planet and needing only a bit of a spit-and-polish job), and stop Krall. Along the way they’ll rehearse tired lines about how unity not division makes us stronger, how the fear of death drives us to stay alive, and so on.
Close to the final climax, a key detail about the villain Krall’s identity and purpose tumbles out, one that could have made for a very different and far more interesting film. That narrative would have involved the crew of the Enterprise finally confronting the fact that – for all of its vaunted mission to seek out and understand new life forms – the benchmark for these species rarely departs from its own all-too-human standards.
With the director and cinematographer of “Fast and Furious” putting their heads together on the film, you expect vehicles (and the humans in them) doing things you wouldn’t expect them to: and some of the battle sequences involving the swarm do give you that vertiginous rush. But much of the action is too frenzied, too muddied to rev up the adrenaline, considering that the “Transformers” series has already done pretty much all you can do with machines battling each other.
What’s missing from “Star Trek Beyond” is a sense that the series has moved somewhere since the original version from the 1970s. That original series could get away with its heady optimism because the popular culture of its time still retained a distinctly humanist flavour that was primed to such optimism. But since then, pop culture has done its cycles of cynicism, self-awareness, and more. To try to revive that naïve, uncritical self-confidence now feels much like the mid-life crisis of a series that was fun and entertaining in its youth but is just going through the motions now.