The new “Star Trek” rebooted film series, which began in 2009 with J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek”, seem to have a common theme: What happens to a utopia when it is threatened from both outside and within? How can a just society be maintained when it has enemies who want to either undermine or destroy it? In a sense, this isn’t really a new question. The Federation in the original continuity faced threats from different species all the time. I suppose the difference here is that, in the original continuity, the Federation was in danger of being conquered, by Klingons or the Borg or the Romulans. This new series is not so much about being conquered by outsiders, it’s about threats the to the very structure and ideology of the Federation, which is an Atheist, Socialist utopia with no money, no scarcity, and each citizens needs are met. Some of my fellow Socialists argue with me that the Federation can be called Socialist because Starfleet exists and has ranks. My argument is that the ranks are truly based on merit and ability, and that Starfleet is not an imperialist military organization (a line in this new film specifically states that Starfleet is not a military organization), even though it by necessity serves defense purposes, but is rather a diplomatic and research organization that is a mix of the United Nations and NASA. Hell, the Prime Directive of Starfleet is pretty much a law against imperialism. In any case, the world of “Star Trek”, or at least the Federation, is an egalitarian utopia that doesn’t discount external enemies or interpersonal conflicts.
In the 2009 film, a Romulan from the original timeline brings a weapon back in time and causes a 9/11-type event to the Federation, the complete destruction of the planet Vulcan. This is a massive tragedy which did not happen in the original timeline, and sets up the challenges this new timeline faces that the previous one did not. The 2009 film was unfortunately not really interested much in the political and social commentary “Star Trek” is known for, and what makes it better than it’s simplistic, action-based cousin “Star Wars”, but it did justice to the original characters and had good moments of humor and a decent story despite having a weak villain and being overly concerned with action sequences and lens flares.
I actually preferred the much-derided second film, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, to the first film. That film was chock full of political commentary regarding how the Federation responds to fear of more terrorism in a way the first timeline didn’t have to deal with. In that film, cryogenically frozen people from Earth’s more violent past are thawed to create new and terrible doomsday weapons (drones and nuclear war are given symbolic representations in the film) to thwart potential enemies. Even worse, factions within the Federation become a form of hawkish, Dick Cheney-Hillary Clinton secret society within the Federation that wants to actually provoke a war with a power that didn’t have anything to do with the original attack (so the Klingons become Iraq in this metaphor), and this faction actually performs false flag terrorists attacks on their own infrastructure to try to convince the more traditionally dovish Federation to go along with the now-unusual militarism. Okay, that false flag shit is because one of the screenwriters of that film was a moronic 9/11-conspiracy theorist, but using tragedy as an excuse for hawkishness and undermining a society’s key values is still a very interesting parallel to our modern times to see in a “Star Trek” film and so, whatever its flaws, I liked that “Into Darkness” did what “Star Trek” is supposed to do.
I was worried about “Star Trek Beyond”. The director this time is Justin Lin, whose filmography consists of four shitty “Fast & Furious” films and a couple other pieces of crap. Well, I’m happy to report Lin does a pretty good job staging the different scenes of action, humor, drama, and character in this film. I suppose he really is good at juggling an ensemble and staging action, and his previous films were more their scripts’ fault than his. Luckily, the 9/11-truther didn’t work on this film, and instead writing duties went to Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty and has co-written good stuff like “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”, and Doug Jung. The result is that “Beyond” ends up mainly being a solid action movie that doesn’t forget to focus on characters, has plenty of moments of humor, and finds time to throw a political message in too. Honestly, it’s a good “Star Trek” film that, unlike the “Ghostbusters” reboot, understands the franchise and treats it with the respect it deserves.
The crew of the Enterprise is three years into a five year mission. Kirk (Chris Pine), is about to have a birthday, and is wondering what he’s doing with his life when reflecting on how he’s finally be older than his late father ever got to be. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is saddened by the loss of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and is reevaluating what is best for him and his species, and has broken up with Uhura (Zoe Saldana, who isn’t given enough to do in this film). Scotty, since he’s played by one of the writers, gets a lot of screentime this turn, while other crew members like Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are relegated to shots showing they are womanizers, or, if you’re Sulu (John Cho), married to a man with an adopted child. Sulu’s new homosexuality is dealt with in the background, but for a series about social justice and acceptance, it’s about time we had an openly gay character in the universe. Oh, and McCoy (Karl Urban) is pretty much just comic relief, but man is he funny.
After a stop at a fancy new Starbase, they get a mission to navigate into a tricky nebula to rescue a stranded ship. When they do, they are beset upon by tiny ships that are able to penetrate the Enterprise’s shields, and they destroy the ship and kidnap whichever members of the crew haven’t escaped to the inhabitable planet in the middle of the nebula via escape pods. These tiny ships, and the army of aliens piloting them, are lead by Krall (Idris Elba), whom I will discuss later.
When Scotty crash lands on the planet, he is found by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a scavenger who has been trapped on the planet since childhood, and has rigged up holograms to make invisible the very old Federation ship that is derelict on the planet’s surface, and in which she lives. Later on, we’re left to wonder why Krall, who must absolutely know where this ship is, never bothered to look for her there, but whatever. Jaylah and Scotty work to get the ship up and running again while Kirk and Chekov look for the MacGuffin that Krall is after (an alien bioweapon), and the rest of the crew tries to escape the internment camp Krall keeps them in.
The film is funny and has good character moments while on the surface in the second act before the action-packed third act, and Jaylah is a very cool character to be introduced to. She is smart and likes “classical music” (“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy), and talks like an overly literal person with no idea of how to understand humor. I hope they find room for her in the inevitable fourth film.
The politics aren’t introduced until the third act, and for a while I thought we were going to have a film that was completely lacking in commentary and was merely a better spin on the 2009 film, where the humor and action worked, but it still didn’t feel like “Star Trek”. But no, “Beyond” still found time to be smarter than the average sci-fi blockbuster. *Spoilers Follow*
It is revealed that Krall was actually a Starfleet officer from when Starfleet was first a thing, after the Earth military was disbanded following a peace with hostile alien races. Krall has been a solider who fought well in those wars, but with soliders no longer needed, he was given command of a starship, the one crashed on the planet that Jaylah calls home, and he couldn’t quite adjust to a world of peace. So a good solider who feels out of place without a war. He’s basically “Star Trek” Rambo, or at least partially a comment on PTSD or how hard it is for soldiers to become integrated back into civilian society. Of course, being trapped on the planet in the nebula and not being rescued by the Federation gave him a chip on his shoulder, and he now harbors a personal and ideological anger with the Federation and Starfleet. His belief is that a society without conflict is weak and cannot last, and it is only through struggle and conflict that we find out what we are made of. Yes, Krall is the kind of guy who would believe hitting a kid makes them better and stronger, that war makes boys into men, and that a peaceful world is unsustainable because war is strong and peace is weak. He’s your basic reactionary, ra-ra go-military Republican suburbanite who, in our modern day, would hate the Iran Nuclear deal, support every neo-Conservative foreign intervention, want to bomb all of the Middle east into oblivion, and have a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker on his car. The world of “Star Trek”, where people are stronger for using their brains instead of their guns, and the Ayn Randian concept of human beings as selfish and cruel creatures above all else no longer is taken seriously by anyone (except the Ferengi), has no place for a man like Krall. He wants to undo the peace and enlightenment of the Federation to, I dunno, Make Earth Great Again (sorry, I had to). Krall is the uber-reactionary, and the film indicts him and military fetishism. “Better to die saving lives, than to live taking them”, Kirk says. It’s rare for a big budget action movie to argue against conflict and for peace/ Most films may argue against war, but they also argue it is necessary. “Star Trek” argues war is not necessary, and it’s only backward-thinking assholes who think it is. The world of Trek will defend against enemies, they are not weak as hawks will portray doves in real life, but they don’t see any honor or usefulness in war either. “Star Trek” has always been refreshing in this manner. Thankfully, Krall is defeated and the utopia lives on.
With this film, I think “Star Trek” is doing a good job of balancing the smarter commentary and intelligence with the need to please the rubes with action scenes, bright colors, and loud noises. I maybe wish the commentary was more in quantity and explicitness, but I’m surprised this film was able to fit in such an anti-military (as a concept, though maybe also insofar as many soldiers probably carrying Krall’s philosophy about conflict being good in molding men) message without turning studio heads of causing the right-wing blogosphere to pop a hemorrhoid. The world may be a different place where we can’t have the explicit religion-and-capitalism-and-xenophobia-are-evil messages of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, but at least we don’t need to turn “Star Trek” into just another bland sci-fi action franchise, as the 2009 film seemed to threaten it would be. I applaud “Beyond” trying to find a good mix of the highbrow with the lowbrow people-pleasing content. B+