In 2009, they rolled out Star Trek: The Only Reboot You Ever Wanted. In 2012, they brought us Star Trek Into Darkness: Dark Knight Knockoffs Can’t Melt Steel Beams. Now, from an entirely new writing and directing team after Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman broke up and J.J. Abrams dumped the franchise for its hotter cousin, prepare for Star Trek Beyond: What the Fuck is Going On?
Remember the first trailer that everyone hated that conveyed no information and probably left you asking, “What the fuck is going on?” Well, for the most part, the movie follows it shot for shot. You know that the movie leaves new-Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew stranded on an unknown hostile planet matching wits with a rubber-faced Idris Elba, who clearly has the upper hand because he’s the villain, he’s got a rubber face on AND he’s Idris Elba, but for the most part, the movie is sure to have you asking, “What the fuck is going on?”
The movie has three consistently applied strategies to make you ask this question. The first is constant, inane Techno Babble. It’s a writing technique common among science fiction movies with very smart characters and very dumb writers who think that making up words the audience doesn’t know because they don’t exist is workable shorthand. It never works, and Star Trek Beyond’s extended sequences of it largely function as bathroom breaks.
The second is lighting. It feels like in most of the movie, and certainly most of the action scenes, 85-90 percent of the screen is covered in pitch-black shadow. Many movies these days have action scenes that you can’t really follow because the camera is going bananas to try and imitate Batman Begins or the Bourne movies. You can’t see because it’s too blurry. In Star Trek Beyond, you can kind of tell that it was all shot smoothly, but you can’t see because you literally can’t see. It’s too dark. The lighting crew must have taken all those days off or something. You can see that some sort of action is going on, but you can’t see what. The movie begs the question — “What the fuck is going on?”
The last way the movie makes me ask, “What the fuck is going on?” is through its unbelievably, hilariously bad plot devices. Spoilers to follow, but before we get into those I want to make something clear — I had a blast watching this movie. I was cackling the entire time. A lot of poorly made movies, particuarly this summer, are poorly made to the end that they’re boring. Star Trek Beyond is pants-on-head retarded, but boring it is not. It is still a very enjoyable experience, and if you enjoy bad movies, this one is for you.
At the same time, it’s difficult to recommend because of some of the comparisons it begs. Just like the other two new-Star Trek movies, Beyond constantly references Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, the movie that single-handedly revived the franchise in 1982 by being maybe the best submarine movie ever made. Star Trek Into Darkness is famous for lifting primary plot devices and characters from the movie, but Star Trek opens with Kirk taking the Kobayashi Maru test, which debuted in Wrath of Khan and was only made famous by that movie’s success. Beyond similarly opens on a scene of Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) privately celebrating Kirk’s birthday with him and giving him a talk about what it means to be Jim Kirk, another scene lifted directly from Wrath of Khan. For all the laughs Beyond drew unintentionally, Galaxy Quest drew many of the same ones deliberately, and I thought of it frequently while watching the newer movie. So, while I enjoyed it, there’s two movies it directly competes with that I’d much rather watch.
You can’t sum up this movie without talking about its many short-bus plot points, so, thorough spoilers below.
- In order to put up pit stops in space but avoid showing favoritism by renting space on a particular planet, the Federation has built massive artificial planets. Star Trek Beyond opens with the Enterprise headed to one such starbase, Yorktown, and it’s a trip. Best I can tell, it’s built around a spherical core, from which all the base’s systems are operated, with a helix of massive, several-blocks wide and miles long city streets spiraling outward from it. The streets are also hollow, and large enough for a starship to dock and resupply. It has a massive civilian population and enough gravity to maintain its own atmosphere.
This structure, conceived for maximum awe, is shot for maximum confusion. It’s nearly impossible to orient yourself in these scenes or understand what you’re looking at. They use the core’s wonky gravity for the final fight scene, but what could have been a super-cool place is undermined by the movie’s inability to show you how cool it is.
So, when I was writing this piece yesterday, I tried to make a joke about how since they’re making new-Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) gay in honor of George Takei, they were going to make new-Spock (Zachary Quinto) dead in honor of Leonard Nimoy, but I thought that would be a little tasteless.
Well, immediately after the Enterprise docks into Yorktown and they have the #gaySulu scene, a couple of Vulcans pull Spock aside and tell him the Spock Prime, who was of course played by Nimoy in the earlier two movies, has died. Now, for those of you who don’t remember, Vulcan was destroyed in Star Trek, and all surviving Vulcans were ordered to jump on each other like rabbits to save their race from extinction. However — and this is a completely real thing — when a population bottlenecks like that, the raw amount of genetic material is more of a limiting factor than the number of women capable of carrying a child, so the duo of genetically identical Spocks were redundant. So, Spock Prime pulled new-Spock aside and said, “We need babies, but we also need sequels, so you go have dangerous adventures aboard the Enterprise and I’ll have sex with all the remaining Vulcan women in the universe.”
So, new-Spock’s entire character arc in Star Trek Beyond — and I swear, I am not making this up — is struggling to choose between his relationship with new-Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the Enterprise and his obligation to have sex with all the remaining Vulcan women in the universe, driven by Leonard Nimoy’s real-life death. That is an actual, major plot point in this movie.
- Let’s talk about the writing in this movie.
Generally speaking, it’s just bad, aimed at pleasing the stupidest viewers with snarky one-liners and hoping no one else is really paying attention and frequently using shortcuts like Techno Babble, but the thing that really sticks out is how the main characters are treated.
The new-Star Trek characters come with built-in foils in the form of their classic characters, and Orci and Kurtzman carefully used this in the first two movies to great effect to examine who these characters really are. The new writing team of Doug Jung and Simon Pegg, who also stars as new-Montgomery Scott, seem to be writing their favorite fan fiction here. All characters of the main cast are cartoonishly exaggerated, none moreso than Spock, who doesn’t resemble his Prime universe counterpart as much as he does Sheldon Cooper. Kirk, who’s Prime universe counterpart is famous for cartoonish overacting, is ironically dull and muted.
- So the way they get off the planet is they stumble across the U.S.S. Franklin, a long-lost ship from when the Federation first formed. They get it up and running, but don’t have the ability to achieve escape velocity — starships like that are, like real-life battleships, built in space and not designed to pass through an atmosphere either way. But fortunately, it’s teetering on the edge of a cliff, so Kirk and/or Sulu have the idea to push it off, and hopefully the fall will bring it up to a high enough speed that its engines will start working, because
I seriously still don’t understand this plot point. There are machines in real-life that will seize up and blow a gasket if they’re not going fast enough, but that’s not what’s going on here — the engines won’t even turn on until they’re about to crash into the ground and die.
Elba is one of the best working actors, and he gives a pretty good performance here as long as you stipulate that the goals of his performance are to simulate someone who forgot how to walk and talk and is trying to remember. However, we find out later that this is exactly what he’s going for, so it’s great!
- Let’s talk about Krall’s (Elba) plan.
It turns out Krall is actually Balthazar Edison, a hero of the Romulan wars before the Federation was formed and captain of the long-lost Franklin. He and his crew were stranded on Altamid hundreds of years before the Federation had explored that far, and their distress signals went unanswered. Krall has used his warlock powers to survive this long and harbors a grudge against the Federation and wants to kill all of them — centuries of isolation will do that to a guy — and he wants a MacGuffin aboard the Enterprise that will allow him to do that.
The thing is, there’s nothing stopping him from doing that already. He’s got a swarm of ships that were impervious to the Enterprise’s weapons and tore through it like tissue paper. Also, he has actual fucking warlock powers. This guy’ll steal your soul and eat it. There was absolutely nothing stopping him from enacting his revenge years ago.
Also, let’s pause for a minute and understand that his “conflict breeds strength” motivation is pretty much exactly the same as the Star Trek Into Darkness villain’s “conflict breeds profits” motivation.
- So, the way the Enterprise ultimately saves the day is they figure out how Krall’s fleet is communicating and hack the frequency to disrupt it. The thing is, the have to disrupt it with something loud and obnoxious, so the whole climax of Star Trek Beyond is build-up to a playing of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” It’s a good choice, it’s just so…
That’s it. That’s what the fuck is going on. If you feel you have to see it to believe it, I won’t discourage you.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.