Magazine | August 29, 2016, Issue

To Not-So-Boldly Go

John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Karl Urban, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Simon Pegg in Star Trek Beyond (Kimberley French/2016 Paramount Pictures)

The original Star Trek movies, the ones with Shatner and Nimoy and the rest of the ’60s cast, were distinguished by their straightforwardly descriptive titles. If you went into Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you knew you were going to get a movie about a vengeful guy named Khan. The Search for Spock? Self-explanatory. The Voyage Home? No surprise that it was set on Planet Earth. The last two were more metaphorical, but they had clear referents in the specifics of the plot — The Final Frontier described the quest for God; The Undiscovered Country was the promise of Federation–Klingon peace.

The titles in the new, rebooted Trek franchise, whose third installment bowed into theaters this month, are not nearly so pellucid. The last one was called “Star Trek into Darkness” (no colon, note); its sequel is called “Star Trek Beyond.” Both titles are portentous, and both are empty. The only “darkness” in Into Darkness is conventional villainy, the only “beyond” in the newest installment is just a normal outside-Federation-territory venture by the Enterprise, and honestly you could have switched the titles without anybody noticing.

“The vaguer the title, the weaker the plot” isn’t an ironclad rule, but it isn’t a bad assumption. If you know exactly what you’re doing with a story, you’ll feel more comfortable distilling it; if you don’t, you’ll want to hide behind something vague or car-commercial-esque. (“The Nissan Pathfinder: Go Beyond.”)

And the stories in the new Trek movies fall very much into the latter category. Into Darkness was a dog’s dinner — a J. J. Abrams special, all plot twists and no plot, which wasted Trek’s most famous villain (the wrathful one) on a plot that didn’t make a lick of sense. Beyond, helmed by Justin Lin of the Fast and Furious franchise, is better but only by comparison: It tries to meld the themes and structure of a classic Trek episode with the arc that’s required of every FX blockbuster these days, and the shotgun marriage is a botch.

We begin with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) having — well, not a midlife crisis, surely, since he’s just turning 35 and presumably life expectancy is a little longer three centuries in the future. But he’s got ennui, at least; partway through his ship’s five-year deep-space mission, the eternal silence of those infinite spaces has him longing for terra firma.

Instead he gets the next best thing: shore leave in Yorktown, which is the movie’s best use of computer animation, a floating city in space where skyscrapers bristle at impossible angles to one another.

But no sooner has the Enterprise docked then help is requested from inside a nearby nebula, where a stranded ship needs rescuing. Of course in reality it’s a trap, sprung by aliens whose swarming spacecraft slice and dice the Enterprise and send its saucer spinning down to the planet’s surface. There the crew is scattered in pairs: Bones (Karl Urban) with a wounded Spock (Zachary Quinto), Kirk with Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho) with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) with a tough-but-sexy alien, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who help fills him in on the nature of their common enemy.

His name is Krall (Idris Elba, sadly unrecognizable beneath prostheses), and he wants an artifact their ship collected recently to complete his superweapon, with which he intends to undo galactic peace. That undoing is Krall’s only plan and purpose: He believes that all good things emerge from strife and struggle, and that a weak piping time of peace is a tragic waste of the human race’s Nietzschean potential.

This is not the most original setup — it steals Kirk’s ennui from The Wrath of Khan, the saucer crash from the Kirk–Picard hybrid Generations, the rejection of peace from The Undiscovered Country, and so forth. But it is recognizably Trek-ian, pitting Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s utopianism, his vision of interracial and interspecies progress and cooperation, against a foe who basically hates Starfleet’s End of History and wants to bring the old days back.

But in a TV episode (especially on The Next Generation, the longest-running of the shows), this kind of conflict would usually end up resolved peacefully, through some brilliant maneuver or personal appeal. In the older movies, there were more explosions but the climaxes were still somehow intimate — Kirk versus Khan, the Enterprise versus a Klingon Bird of Prey, a foiled assassination attempt, or a special delivery of whales.

Here, though, the inexorable logic of the blockbuster takes over. Krall gets his superweapon and turns it against Yorktown’s teeming millions, only the Enterprise can stop him from Destroying the (artificially created) World, and what happens next will be totally predictable to anyone who’s seen Guardians of the Galaxy or The Force Awakens or any other recent sci-fi or superhero movie . . .

. . . including, of course, the last two Trek movies, the first of which blew up Spock’s home planet, Vulcan, and threatened to do the same to Earth; the second of which leveled a big chunk of San Francisco.

Going to that world-destroying well yet again makes the Roddenberryesque theme seem a little ridiculous. On the evidence we have, Krall isn’t actually threatening a galaxy at peace. Instead, he’s threatening a Federation that seems totally in denial about its own vulnerabilities, that suffers the equivalent of 9/11 plus Hiroshima every few years but still doesn’t bother to give its huge, expensive, densely populated space station adequate military protection.

Give me Star Trek: The Search for a Sustained Defense Build-Up next, though, and all will be forgiven.

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