25 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond review

Like a lot of people my age, JJ Abrams' Star Trek was pretty much my introduction to Star Trek as a franchise. However, unlike a lot of people my age I've never been overly impressed with that film - it's a decent action/adventure movie, sure, but it's as dumb as a brick too, a film reliant on its own momentum to power through a bunch of huge logical leaps that the audience are required to take just for the basic story to hold together. I may not know a lot about the Star Trek franchise, but I know it isn't meant to be stupid, which is why JJ Abrams was always the wrong choice for these films. At best, his work as a director can be classified as "superficially intelligent"; at worst, "entirely brainless". We like to pretend that JJ Abrams is this visionary science fiction auteur, but even a cursory look at what he's done in the genre is proof that he isn't even close to earning that status.

That's the main reason why I wasn't outraged when Justin Lin (best known for his work on the Fast and Furious franchise) was announced as the director of Star Trek Beyond, something I'm now very thankful for considering that he's now helped make the best film of the rebooted franchise to date. Gone is the convolution and conspiracy of Abrams' first two films, instead replaced by a relatively simple story that - again based on my limited knowledge of Star Trek - seems to embody what the Star Trek franchise was always meant to be about: the idea that unity will always triumph in the end.

This theme of unity is present throughout all of Star Trek Beyond, but in my eyes it's best represented by the film's increased focus on its supporting cast. Characters like Scotty, Chekov, Bones and Sulu have a lot more to do here than they did in either of the preceding films, and although the film's most notable character arcs still belong to Kirk and Spock, everyone else still very much has their part to play. It's clear that writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung understand that the best way to present audiences with the ideas that Star Trek has always stood for is in an ensemble piece, which also goes a long way towards explaining why Justin Lin may have been chosen to direct this film - after all, he has a lot of experience with ensemble casts.

He also has a lot of experience with large action set pieces, another advantage that Star Trek Beyond has over the film preceding it. Even on a purely visceral level, the action is more satisfying here than it was in previous films, but it's also markedly more restrained in some ways. Yes, there is a lot of stuff blowing up - the attack on the USS Enterprise is amongst the most exciting, tense and visually stunning pieces of destruction I've ever seen - but importantly, it never feels excessive. Every action scene in Star Trek Beyond is fully earned, forming an important part of the story being told without over-staying its welcome, and with the added bonus of being a ton of fun too. How many summer blockbusters can you really say that about?

Likewise, the lack of connective tissue between Star Trek Beyond and the previous two Star Trek films is oddly refreshing in a landscape of extended franchises and cinematic universes. Everything you need to know about these characters and this world to enjoy Star Trek Beyond is delivered by the film itself, meaning that for all intents and purposes, the previous two films may as well not exist. Some may find that frustrating, but it only added to the film's appeal as far as I'm concerned - those saying that Star Trek Beyond feels like a big budget episode of Star Trek: The Original Series aren't wrong, something only added to by the episodic feeling that this film gives off.

None of this is to suggest that Star Trek Beyond is perfect - I can't help but feel that there is a slightly longer version out there with a smoother opening act, and Kirk's oddly weightless character arc feels a little too consequence free for my liking - but it's certainly one of the better blockbusters released in 2016 so far, a more than capable science fiction action/adventure film that should please Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. It's fun, it's smart, and it's got a ton of heart - and it does it without a single lens flare in sight.

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