I USED TO enjoy the new Star Trek movies significantly more than I currently do. As kind of popcorny adventure movies they were actually pretty good. But as I have gone back and actually watched the various tv series, I find myself increasingly let down by the newer movies. Star Trek is set in such a rich universe, and has a great history of exploring social and philosophical issues, so much so that my overwhelming feeling about the new movies has become “you could do so much better than this with this IP”
Admittedly this is my personal taste. I tend to like my scifi if not “hard” then at least thought provoking or emotive or even just expressive. As much as I know scifi settings can make great setups for lighter, more action-based fare, a movie like that tends to feel to make like a hamburger made of Kobe beef, still good, but also somewhat of a waste of something that could have been truly incredible.
Unfortunately Star Trek Beyond has done nothing to win me over. It has got spadesful of visual spectacle, some really well done action scenes, but overall not only does it feel somewhat empty, but in a number of places it feels poorly constructed and not entirely as well thought out as it could have been.
The premise is fairly simple: after crash landing on a planet in an uncharted nebula the crew of the enterprise becomes separating into a number of groups who must all struggle to re-unite, escape the planet and save the day from the villain who had made the planet his home who threatens to destroy the united federation of planets. While the film manages to use this premise to deliver a fine action-based summer movie, it misses out on a lot of the opportunities it creates for itself.
For example, throughout the film we are treated to scenes that look like they are setting up themes or sub-plots that never early materialize. There are quite a few of these, and some of them could have been really interesting to explore, like the lack of direction and detachment crew members can face on extended missions away from their families, or professional burnout or even the cliché, almost lifted out of a Saturday morning cartoon, theme of strength through unity. The film even comes dangerously close to offering some thoughts on post-traumatic stress disorder. But all of this is undeveloped to the point where it is profoundly disappointing. Most of these notions are mentioned once, or maybe twice if the film really wants to hammer it home, but nothing is explored. One of these concepts, which forms the key motivation for the villain, seems to have been so poorly handled that it undercuts the entire film.
But of-course, as it seems clear that the film does not aspire to be particularly thoughtful, it is perhaps wrong to judge it as though it were. However even in terms of what it is trying to do it still manages to be far from excellent.
Firstly, just in terms of visuals: avoid seeing this film in 3D. While some people feel that action scenes can be enhanced by the use of 3D, it simply isn’t right for some films, and is often handled poorly. Particularly notable in this case is that 3D often has the effect of overall making an image darker. This is usually fine and can be compensated for, but in this case it doesn’t seem to have been compensated for, and thus makes the film much worse. Not only does the film spend a lot of time in fairly dim environments, dark rooms, space, and caverns, which renders any scene in those locations almost impossible to follow as its almost impossible to see anything, but the rapid editing techniques the film tends to use, especially during action scenes, when combined with this darkening effect, make these scenes incredible disorientating and hard to follow almost to the point of being nauseating.
And being disorientating is already a fairly big problem for this film. The premise, while it sets up a lot of potential for some interesting stories dealing with the relationships between individual members of the crew and their dynamics, never really pays off. Instead it feels much more like the film is actually trying to jam a number of different films together, and edit them together, switching so quickly between them that one hardly has time to absorb what they are seeing and what the characters are doing before we switch to something completely different.
All of which can be momentarily forgiven, as soon as the film actually starts doing the only thing it really seems to be both interested in and good at; surprisingly enjoyable action. Unfortunately this doesn’t really kick in until the final third of the film. While there are some fights and action before this, it is confusingly edited and mostly in dark rooms rendering it unspectacular and difficult to follow, difficult to watch and difficult to enjoy. But once it gets going, the two actually good action scenes it does offer are really quite good. There is some interesting stuff going on with architecture and gravity, nothing ground-breaking but enough to make the scene interesting. Similarly while it don’t necessarily get all it could out of the set-up one scene involving the use of a material than can construct walls almost instantly manages to be enjoyable and visually interesting. Despite all its many flaws and predictability, these scenes actually had me really quite tense. Of-course I knew what was going to happen, what had to happen, but certain moments were so well done that I found myself caught up in the moment despite myself.
Is Star Trek Beyond worth seeing? It kind of depends on what you are after, but its probably worth seeing if you are interested in the continuation of this series of films. I don’t regret seeing it, but if you are after anything thoughtful or even with a consistent message or theme that doesn’t totally undercut itself this film may not be for you. But so far as scifi action without anything deeper goes, its nothing revelatory or even particularly interesting, but you could probably do worse.