starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Idris Elba
screenplay by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung
directed by Justin Lin
by Walter Chaw The cultural watershed isn't when it's revealed that Sulu (John Cho) is gay, but rather a moment just before that, when an interracial couple--an Asian man and a white woman--are used as an example of a "good" relationship. I'm Chinese, my wife is a tall redhead. When my kids watch Star Trek Beyond, it'll be the first time they see their parents reflected in a major American tentpole. There are a lot of things wrong with Star Trek Beyond, which at its best is great in the same way that David Twohy's The Chronicles of Riddick is great--and at its worst is bad in the same way the last film in this reboot series is bad (that is, self-conscious and fan-pleasing, torturously so). But when Sulu is given the one, true, rousing hero moment in the piece, it speaks not just to the vision of a multicultural United States that Lin's The Fast and the Furious movies proposed, but also, perhaps, to the real impact of an Asian-American director behind the camera. It makes sense that a Lin-directed Star Trek would make Sulu the hero; I just wasn't expecting to be so affected by it.
In this instalment, our heroes are marooned on a rocky planet where the evil Krall (Idris Elba) holds sway. He has plans to take over the universe, and it's up to the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to thwart him. On hand is Girl Friday Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), another in a kick-ass line of modern young women ass-kickers who has, like Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), father issues to avenge and a tale of rebellion embedded in her backstory. It's worth it to relate Jaylah to the history of anime post-WWII and our own evolving culture in which animated-cute rules the box-office and an app, Pokémon Go, distracts us, however briefly, from the horrors of arbitrary, capricious, and sudden atrocity. We are, essentially, a kaiju nation now, and with it comes these young girl heroes. Jaylah is basically Rey, but Rey is better because she isn't rancorous. Anyway, if Rey is a Miyazaki heroine, Jaylah is an Oshii heroine, trying to fix a derelict spacecraft to escape the barren landscape at the exact moment she comes upon engineer Scotty (co-screenwriter Simon Pegg). Contrivance, impossible-to-follow action scenes, and the most gloriously silly use of The Beastie Boys ever follow to fill the gaps between a couple of game-changing beats.
It's worth noting, too, that this reboot cast continues to gel in pleasant ways. The relationship between Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is given short shrift but still feels warm because of their chemistry, and though Karl Urban as Bones is still doing a DeForest Kelley impersonation, at least it's improving. I'm a fan of this franchise, I guess. I like its energy and its exuberance. I don't hold to the sanctity of the original TV series. I remember the one, after all, with the space pimp, and that other one with the tribbles. It's not a holy relic, "Star Trek". Mostly, it wasn't even that good. When it was great, though, it was great because of the chemistry of its cast of largely non-actors; Beyond is getting there. It makes the death of Anton Yelchin, who plays bright, earnest Chekov, so unrecoverable. He's the sense of delight in these movies. The others are various declinations of gravid. When Yelchin's at the centre, with his energy and guileless reactions, the film feels fresh. When he's not, Beyond is just a cult artifact. I don't know that I would have noticed if he hadn't died.
At the end of the day, the villain is the usual growly type who happens to have a pretty interesting last-minute twist that doesn't exactly play fair, but is fun to consider anyway. There's a try at relevance with Kirk comparing his worldview in a time of peace against Krall's upbringing during a time of war--essentially a First World vs. Third World argument that draws the line between colonist and terrorist--and with some cursory examination of how anyone can become radicalized. And there's a fairly amazing concept for a space station, plus artificial-gravity physics that haven't been used this well since 2001. Alas, there are missed opportunities, too, most of them having to do with the short supply of subtle moments, such as the sequence that shows Sulu's daughter in a photo on his console, then his wedding ring, and then his partner (co-writer Doug Jung), who's relieved to see his husband after a long deployment. It's markedly preferable to the eye-rolling bit where Jaylah proves herself a superior engineer, for a second, to Scotty, or, worse, the part where Kirk shows himself to be the better motorcycle rider on Jaylah's hog in a motocross sequence that goes on for so long, it tries patience and encourages deadly contemplation of all the holes in the script. Star Trek Beyond doesn't really believe in its feminism, see, although it completely believes in its message of inclusion for Asian-Americans in these white fantasies. Ultimately, then, it's an important film, just not a particularly good one. It's Fast and the Furious in space and all the good that that implies. All the bad, as well. But I'll see it again. And I'll take my kids.