Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The Waste of Khan

trekdarkStar Trek Into Darkness is exactly what its trailer advertises: a bunch of men doing cool things, and then a shot of a woman in her underwear.  I am less inclined to trust J.J. Abrams with Star Wars, despite his ability to direct large groups of characters (and on that topic, the bigger the group becomes, the thinner each individual character grows, reducing them to stock characters reliant on tropes, as seen here).  He’s also gotten his mitts on the Spielberg family-alien-movie genre (see Super 8), so with 2015’s galaxy-far-far-away installment on the celluloid horizon, Abrams could be thinking, “Star Wars, Star Trek, and E.T. are mine!”  I know sci-fi blockbusters are a slick slope, but leave the megalomania to the cretins at HBO.

The formula plot follows Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and crew, including Spock (Zachary Quinto), heading to the Klingon homeworld after the so-generically-named-it-must-be-an-alias Jon Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trusted Starfleet agent, lays waste to Starfleet HQ and kills Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in the process, rendering the events of the first Star Trek film completely null, since the main conflict there was whether or not Kirk could rescue Pike from Eric Bana’s hammy Romulan villain.  Kirk, blinded by the desire for vengeance, accepts a dubious mission from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, aka RoboCop) to torch the area of the Klingon world where Harrison is hiding, which will hopefully destroy him.  Before too long, Harrison is revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh, a reimagining of one of the most famous Star Trek characters.  Here, he still embodies a flawed interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (superman), but he’s been transformed from Ricardo Montalbán’s nuanced, developed, sympathetic ethnic antagonist into a whitewashed anime ninja whose chief concern is making sure to wear long, flowing black leather whenever he has do to anything that requires strenuous movement.  He forms a short-lived alliance with Kirk in order to take care of Weller’s “magnificent bastard” villain, who turns on Kirk to get his hands on Khan.  The rest of the principal cast from the first movie – Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho), and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) – all reappear alongside the newcomer Carol Marcus (Kirk’s eventual wife if the old story is to be followed, played here by Alice Eve, complete with a dumb bob haircut that makes her look like a doll), and each gets roughly one short scene to remind us that they’re in the movie and to say their trademarked one-liners (Bones, of course, gets his obligatory “Dammit, man; I’m a doctor, not a __”).  Pegg is great as Scotty, so it’s a wonder that he receives a bit more material here than the rest.  Uhura, portrayed as a tough and confident woman in the first film, bickers with Spock in some truly funny scenes, and gets to fight a few times, although she’s never allowed to look like she knows what she’s doing, and yelps like a child when an enemy shows any resistance.

The best parts of the film occur when Abrams acknowledges the elements of the old series and movies that made the franchise (there’s that ugly “F’ word again) great.  At some points, the film re-imagines the entire Wrath of Khan mythos (Kirk’s temporary death-by-radiation, etc).  There’s also an encounter with Klingons (finally!), setting up a possible third film, which the fatcats in Hollywood will surely greenlight after such a big opening weekend.

Throw logic out the airlock here.  The film’s biggest problem is now Kirk.  Virtually every terrible thing that happens in the story is a direct result of Kirk’s negligence, lack of care for his crew, and refusal to follow the rules of Starfleet.  We are supposed to root for him when he makes controversial decisions that get his engineers sucked into space to suffer unspeakable deaths, and we’re expected to sympathize with him when he is caught.  Why would Abrams make this decision?  Is he trying to harken back to Josh Holloway’s “Sawyer” character on LOST?  There was a reason Sawyer was never in charge, friends.  Kirk is not only reckless and arrogant in this second installment, but he’s also sexist to the point that he briefly turns the Enterprise into a bit of a frat house (encouraging Bones to use pickup lines on Carol, etc).  Other questions arise: how exactly does one become instantly revived from death-by-radiation?  Why is Khan given the most powerful ship in Starfleet, hyped up throughout the film, and then not allowed to actually operate it?  Why is Khan completely invulnerable to Kirk’s attacks, only to later bruise and bleed after being knocked around by Spock?  Why don’t any of the women do anything?  How is the Enterprise able to function after dozens of crewmembers are sucked into space (read: redshirts)?  Who becomes leader of Starfleet after its longtime top Admiral is revealed to be a snake who gets their most powerful ship destroyed?  Why do the alien races all look like humans with weird growths on their faces?  Why are so many scenes, weapons, and uniforms 100% carbon copies of material from the Mass Effect series?  Isn’t there enough to work with in the Star Trek universe?  Where the f- is the colon in the title?  The most gripe-worthy bit is the new Khan, such a one-note antagonist that he makes Voldemort look three-dimensional.  The decision to make him a white Brit is beyond comprehension.  I understand the compulsion to cram every atom of vintage Trek into the new films, especially if there are only (!) two or three, but as Dennis Hopper once said, “Slow it down, man.”  You’re not doing anyone a favor by rushing through characters and events to the degree that the film series resembles a Wikipedia page.

I will concede that I had fun at this movie.  This may be because I saw it with my mother, the only true Trekkie I know, and we had fun predicting what would come next.  If you’re a fan of any kind of adventure film, action, and spectacle, this movie might do it for you.  You’ll just need to fit a nice black patch over your third eye for purposes of ignoring the boys’ club nonsense and gaps in logic.  “Enjoyment” is a word that gets thrown around far too often when describing what makes a piece of media “good.”  Enjoyment is subjective.  It has nothing to do with writing, story, originality, character depth, production quality, or anything else that determines artistic value.  Understand the difference.  Enjoy movies, but think about what you saw.  If thinking makes you unhappy, congratulations!  You are Hollywood’s target audience.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013); written by Damon Lindelof (big surprise!); directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, and Simon Pegg.

* I considered using the underwear shot as the photo at the top, for the sake of the automatic hits it would generate, which while proving a point, would be ultimately against what I do here, wouldn’t it?

*Hey, I’m working on another indie film.  Please support our Kickstarter here!

Unstoppable

Thank goodness the word itself is never spoken in the film

My father worked on the railroad during most of his early years of employment.  He was out on the tracks repairing switches, one of the more dangerous jobs in the field.  He’s told me countless tales of his railroading adventures.  As a sort of homage to the old days, he keeps an ever-expanding model train set (Lionel O-Gauge) in the basement of his house.  Back to that in a moment.

My love for the films of Tony Scott is no big secret.  True Romance is one of my favorite films (see my discussion of that film), and if you haven’t seen Spy Game or Domino, I’d urge you to do so.  Do I even need to mention Top Gun?  This year’s lick from the younger Scott brother is Unstoppable, a fairly straightforward thriller concerning a runaway train.  The cast includes Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who recently received his 90-day notice; Chris Pine in his second-ever leading role as Will Colson, a young conductor paying his dues; Lew Temple in an excellent supporting role as Ned Oldham, lead railroad welder and “country boy;” and Rosario Dawson in a mature turn as Connie Hooper, a train dispatcher.  Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram and T.J. Miller also appear, as does Kevin Dunn as the greedy railroad boss more concerned with property than personnel, though whenever I see him I can’t help thinking of his role as the annoying Joel Hornick in the early seasons of Seinfeld.

What keeps Unstoppable from becoming popcorn pre-holiday movie fare is the heart behind it and the attention to realistic detail when it comes to the railroading profession.  Train 777 runs away fairly early in the film, and from there on it could have been nonstop shirtless Chris Pine action, but the film actually goes against the grain.  Colson isn’t an action hero: he has issues at home that eat away at him throughout the workday, and he genuinely tries to learn from Barnes.  Barnes has his own sob stories, including a dead wife and apathetic daughters (who work at Hooters).  These back-stories serve as little more than ways of setting up reasons for Barnes and Colson to survive the ordeal, but the characters introduced are interesting, almost becoming the audience ourselves as we watch the crisis unfold on the faux news reports (though the fact that a single news chopper is following the 70+ miles-per-hour train the entire time becomes a bit silly).  The opening of the film does not concede to the trappings of the action genre, as we slowly pan over the yard, watch the trains rotate on their platforms, and witness the mundane grit and grime of the workday.

Scott’s unique visual style really shines here, with arguments between characters escalating into choppy, curse-laden montages, and shots of train 777 barreling along the Pennsylvania tracks take the form of morphing, multiple-shot images from the underside of the moving behemoth.  Leave it to Tony Scott to say to a camera crew, “I’d like a shot from under the train, while it’s moving.  Thanks.”  Where this could have been a standard autumn thriller to hold us over for True Grit and the obligatory holiday blockbusters, each little facet of Unstoppable goes above and beyond.  You may even get a laugh or two before you leave the theatre.

A film like this reminds me of my dad’s train set.  It’s full of visual candy and rapid movement, but it draws a deeper interest in how the railroad works.  Of course, it is not the railroad itself, in fact little more than a complex diorama, but it’s an entry in a proverbial museum, facilitating the process of chronicling the history of a vital and beloved profession.

Unstoppable (2010); written by Mark Bomback; directed by Tony Scott; starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and Lew Temple.

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