There is a delicate relationship between science and philosophy. Too much of the former and you potentially unlock doors that were better left sealed. Too much of the former and you only speak in abstracts, never moving the needle at all. There’s a balance, in other words that must be struck, even though the two sides might seemingly be at-odds (the practical and the theoretical).
It happens in film too, especially where science fiction is concerned. Often explosions are forsaken for exploration of themes and ideas. So what to make of a science fiction film that wants to be both existential and action-packed?
The crew of the Enterprise have been exploring deep space continuously for over three years. The time has affected every member of the crew differently; some are punchy, some are weary, some are falling in love, others out of it.
Upon docking at the moon-sized space station of Yorktown, the ship’s two most-senior officers attend to personal matters that seem poised to shape both their immediate and long-term future. Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), starting to feel worn-down by the tedium of captaining the U.S.S. Enterprise has applied for a position as Yorktown’s vice-admiral. Early indicators are that his application is being held in high regard. Meanwhile, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is given news that his mirror from a previous timeline, ‘Spock Prime’ (Leonard Nimoy) has died. Couple that with love woes between he and Lt. Uhura (Zoe Salndana) and you have one woebegone vulcan.
Neither has time to linger, however, since Enterprise is tasked with a mission to accompany an alien into a nebula where her ship has become stranded. Seems like a simple enough task until the ship is engaged on the approach. As a hive of tiny ships tears the Enterprise limb from limb, its crew is forced to bail out – though each escape pod is snatched and gathered by the commander of the hive; a curious rogue named Krall (Idris Elba).
As the ship crash lands on the planet, the crew is fractured. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) commandeer one of the alien craft and use it to get to the planet’s surface; Spock suffering a debilitating injury upon impact. Lt. Zulu (John Cho) and Uhura tend to the bulk of the crew who are Krall’s captives. Meanwhile, Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters an alien on the planet’s surface named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). She escaped from Krall’s clutches years ago, though she couldn’t help her family do the same.
Ever since then, she’s been working on fixing up her home; a home that might just help Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise fight back against Krall and save many lives…provided they can all work as one.
STAR TREK BEYOND seems obsessed with the theme that the one is no match for the many (or, as Scotty likes to put it, “That you canna break one twig in a bundle”). On the surface, this may seem like a facile moral to put on a story…but let us consider the age we live in. Now is the age that we all seem most consumed with our individual wants, our individual rights, our individual needs. We break promises and torch friendships because for one intense moment, the mindset of someone we care about does not line up with our own.
Star Trek likes to refer to our times as “ancient history”…and perhaps to future societies, such individualism that many of us spent so much of our days consumed with will one day seem quaint. But at the moment, it’s timely. It’s timely to remember that just because we want something doesn’t mean we should get it, and just because we don’t get our way doesn’t grant us license to subvert progress from within.
Instead, we need to learn to come together as one and adapt to changing times. Otherwise, as the film puts it, we keep fighting the same fights over and over.
On a storytelling level, there’s something wonderful going on with this new tangent that Star Trek has been taking since 2009. From film to film, there has been a continual shift in focusing on particular characters and creating subgroups within the crew. So where the original film might have spent a long time with Kirk and Scotty together, this time Kirk finds himself largely buddied-up with Chekov. Everyone is given something to do – some big, some small, but always with a greater good in mind.
In this age of films bent on building expanded universes and franchises, this seems to be an incredibly tough trick to turn. And yet here is Star Trek; the old veteran in a dugout full of young hot shots, bringing balance, focus, and harmony to its various stories with ease.
From time to time though, this film struggles with its visuals and direction. As much as people like to joke about J.J. Abrams’ fetish with lens flares, his ultimate point was that the future was supposed to be immensely bright. Large swaths of BEYOND take place in the din (or even dinnier if you’re wearing 3-D glasses). Adding insult to injury is the way much of its action seems frenetic and claustrophobic. It’s hard to tell who is fighting who sometimes and who is landing what blow. Sure, this is the state of the modern action film, but Trek is supposed to be a different beast where brightness and action is concerned,
Most importantly though, at fifty years old, STAR TREK seems to have legacy on its mind. Time and time again, legacy is the theme as the story of BEYOND plays out. More than once, its hero reflects on how he got there. Spock becomes consumed by the news of his doppleganger’s death, and channels it into worries of his own mortality. The very hopes of the crew’s survival rests on the possibility of reviving a relic of their past. These are all natural feelings and human qualities. Every now and again we find ourselves on a particular place on the path and wonder how we got their, and where we’re going. The question is whether we want such existentialism in a big summer movie.
Those that don’t might be left feeling blue by this story’s obsession with continually questioning its place in space and time. Those that do might feel distracted by the film’s compulsive need to return to chases and phaser fights. Like most things in life, it requires a little bit of looking inside of one’s self and asking what’s most important.