When my Muse won’t shut up about Star Trek Beyond

Later Post.

I mean late, late. As in the why-the-heck-am-I-still-thinking-about-this type of late. Oh well. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Deep breath, and GO….

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I am a fan of science fiction. I love stories of space and/or time travel, of bending the rules of “acceptable realism” and credibility for the sake of a great tale of human, or nonhuman, adventure. I count myself a fangirl of many such franchises in this genre: Stargate (the movie) and its spin-off series, SG-1 and Atlantis, The X files, Terminator (yes, all of them), Firefly and Serenity, Farscape, Star Wars, and Star Trek., to name a brief few. I’ve had an on-going love affair with them all. So of couse, like most other self-proclaimed geeks, I was very excited to learn that Simon Pegg – another well-known and much loved geek – had taken the helm in penning Star Trek’s latest entry,  Star Trek Beyond.

The film, which is the third installment in the “Kelvin Universe” introduced in 2009 by JJ Abrams, was set to stand apart from its predecessors, however, as it is the first of this reimagined brand without Abrams in the director’s seat. (He was kind of busy with another Star-based franchise at the time.) No matter, because like most fans, I thought the Enterprise and her crew in the capable hands of Pegg and Justin Lin, the director credited with reviving the Fast and Furious franchise to unimagined success. And for the most part, Star Trek Beyond meets expectations. Unless you are one of those haughty critics who finds fault in every creative choice. Or unless you’re one of those die-hard purists who detested the new Kelvin timeline from its onset, in which case I have to wonder why they keep watching at all. Or unless you’re just not a fan of fun in general. If you fall into any one of these categories, then Star Trek Beyond is not the film for you.

Because above anything else, Beyond is fun. One would have to be brain dead to not agree. Simon Pegg’s script manages to capture more of the original spirit that fans grew to love back in Gene Rodenberry’s day, while its release near the 50th anniversary of the maiden voyage provides one of many nods and easter eggs to the original series. The crew of the Enterprise, now in year three of their five year voyage, have found their niche and work together like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes even too well for Captain Kirk’s liking, as he is beginning to find life on the final frontier monotonous.

Which is where we find him in the film’s opener – contemplating his life choices that now seem pale in comparison the legacy left behind by his father; and contemplating life in general. We learn that Kirk is nearing his birthday, significant for it would make him one year older than his father had been at the time of his death which occurred on the same day of Kirk’s birth. The state of mind is a bold choice for the writers since the James T. Kirk beloved by Trekkies across the galaxy had never, and would never, be seen considering a desk job outside of space travel. The notion was risky, and for many it failed to pay off, as even supporters of the Kelvin timeline found it hard to believe and out of character for Kirk.

The character arc didn’t bother me, however, for I found such questions of life and purpose an understandable and even relatable concept which would eventually meld nicely with revelations on the villain in the third act. The brilliance of altering the timeline on the day of Kirk’s birth breathed limitless opportunities for the story itself while also changing the core dynamics of James T. drastically. This timeline’s Kirk was not groomed for Federation service like the original; this version was not born into Starfleet, he was born on the ship that would claim his father’s life. To assume he would face the same challenges with the same relentless spirit after such a huge alteration would be absurd.

So, no, Captain Kirk’s characterization was not the problem I had with Star Trek Beyond. Nor is Justin Lin’s imagining of the Star Trek universe. True to Fast and Furious form, Beyond is a thrill ride from start to finish. Viewers feel like they are in a space race against the film’s resident ‘baddie,’ whose ambiguous origin and motives are saved for the final act. Which was fine for the most part, as we are too engrossed with the ship-eating mechanical bees wreaking havoc on the Enterprise and the vestige of problems facing the marooned crew members on an uncharted planet.

The division of the crew enabled the plot to finally shed light on its supporting cast members, which to date had left them unforgivably flat. Mr. Sulu shines in his position with Uhura and the remaining captured crew. And Chekov finally gets his moments of screen time which, though often upstaged by Kirk’s presence, allows for fans to enjoy Anton Yelchin’s final performance before his real life tragic death. I like to think the talented actor would be proud of the film; I know his friends and fans were.

Elsewhere in the movie, marooned apart from the others on the same planet, Spock and Bones get to flesh out their tense working relationship that never quite meets friendship, providing moments of levity and comic relief from the dire circumstances. I enjoy Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban both, but their banter at times feels contrived and lack-luster, neither finding the same on-screen chemistry that each shares with Chris Pine’s Kirk.

I’ll share one other delight before delving into the ‘problems’ I retained from my viewing of Beyond. That being the space cowboy sequence accentuated by the Beastie Boys “Sabotage,” which brought us back to our first introduction to young Kirk’s troubled youth in 2009’s Star Trek. I have no idea the so-called science necessitating the blasting of the song through the air waves, seemingly instrumental (pun intended) to the disruption and defeat of the villainous tech bees targeting York Town – the newest Federation colony / space station. But it sure as hell looked and sounded cool, so who cares? As Kirk remarks upon hearing the song, “good choice.”

Star Trek Beyond is filled with similar examples of good yet (arguably) unnecessary plot choices, culminating into an enjoyable and entertaining as hell movie overall. And I would have left it at that had it not been for the two instances in the film that stood out as something else entirely. I can understand why it might have been done, or what the filmmakers thought they were trying to achieve, but the inclusion of both moments respectively were strange enough to give me pause. Which should NEVER happen during a movie where the audience is expected to practice their ‘suspension of disbelief.’

Only a few minutes into the film, Kirk’s Captain log is the voiceover during a montage-like sequence highlighting various crew members on the ship, providing visual examples of the personal sacrifice he refers to. When the camera pans over Mr. Sulu’s station, we see a wedding band on his finger which is next to a small photograph of a young girl. Viewers are meant to think, ‘aw, Sulu has a family,’ driving Kirk’s meaning home, so to speak. Later, when the Enterprise docks for respite on Yorktown, Sulu races to his awaiting daughter’s arms while another man looks on affectionately at them both.

Sulu is a happy father in a domestic partnership. His daughter and husband greet him tenderly. The audience gets it immediately; we acknowledge it immediately and prepare to move on with the narrative. But that doesn’t happen like it should have.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea about my “problem” with this part, just wait. I have ZERO issues with Mr. Sulu being gay. I am not anti-gay nor do I harbor any ill-will or feeling toward the entire LGBT community. Seriously, be gay, be open about it, be whatever you want – if it makes you happy then why should I care? The problem I had with this addition to the plot, however, is its addition to the plot. The filmmakers hanging a lantern on its inclusion of gay characters was done so in a way insulting to my intelligence. And in a way that should have been offensive to homosexuals.

Let me explain. When, after Sulu gathers up his daughter and walks off into the crowds of the space station with his husband by his side, the camera zooms in on the couple’s arms around each other. This close up was completely unnecessary and upsetting to the fluidity of the storyline. Because of this, every person in the theatre sort of stopped and glanced around the room, as if to say, “Did I just see that?”

With such an egregious use of camera angle, I am left to assume that this was the director’s intent all along. For him to deliberately suspend the film’s narrative playing out of events so that audiences are forced to form opinion on the spot is not only disrespectful AND irresponsible filmmaking, it is unashamedly trying to piss someone off.

And it succeeded with a lot of movie-goers, which I’m sure the culprits loved. For me, however, I am not pissed off by their writing of Sulu has gay. I am disappointed by how ridiculously it was handled. There is a time and a place to shovel agendas down someone’s throat (a democratic convention for instance); in the middle of a movie is not that place.

Had they handled it any differently, had they not zoomed in, literally, on the gayness, I would have nothing critical to say. Show Sulu with his family, show is partner standing next to him in the final scene, reveal their relationship organically and not as a shock-and-awe presentation – it still would have pissed the right people off, but it would’ve left me with a better feeling about it. It wouldn’t have felt so forced and awkward.

I know, I know. I’m not gay so I just don’t get it. And maybe you’d be right to say this; right to argue that LGBT have come a long way in their right to screen time in film and television; maybe they feel as if they are finally being represented. But are you really? Are you really only your sexual orientation, as was the take away from this scene? Sulu is gay. The hanging of a lantern on this fact should not be heralded or admired, nor should it be something to inspire future filmmakers (Please, I beg you… do better!), for he was made to be gay only for the sake of being gay. The zoom to close up camera undermined whatever agenda the film had by acknowledging said agenda openly. It screamed, look what we just did!, instead of just progressing naturally. Helpful hint for directors: attaching flashing neon lights on your ‘forward-thinking’ plot choices only comes off as a desperate and contrived antic to appease a percentage of your audience. For the larger percent of moderate viewers who, like myself, go to a movie like this expecting to have a break from the daily political circus we see on the news, it only succeeds in leaving a bitter taste in their mouth.

I am not gay, but if I were I think that the scene still wouldn’t sit well with me. All I could take away from Sulu’s character was that he was gay; the filmmakers missed a great opportunity to make him so much more than that, so much more than his orientation. Where I should’ve been please with Mr. Sulu’s happy ending, I instead only felt manipulated.

Do better.

Another quite obvious political motif was presented in the villain himself. In the final act, we learn that Krall is not just any angry, slighted alien but in fact a former Starfleet captain and Federation soldier. In another of the film’s revelations (not as awkwardly timed as the aforementioned, but still pretty bad), Uhura conveniently happens upon a ship video log in which she recognizes Krall in his human form as Captain Edison. From his Federation history, they learn that Edison was an accomplished soldier in the wars against the Klingons and Romulans before peace was reached and the Federation formed. Subsequently, Edison was reassigned to Starfleet Command as a Captain, where it’s inferred that he wasn’t quite content with.

When Edison’s ship – the Franklin – became lost in uncharted space, and his crew forced to land on the nearest planet, Starfleet never found them; Starfleet never came for them. In his final log as Captain, Edison tells the camera and, by extension, Starfleet that “you’ll probably never see me again. But if you do – be ready.”

In ways that I’m still not quite sure of, Edison is able to prolong his life by sucking the life force (for lack of a better word) from others. If this reminds you too of Stargate Atlantis and those creepy Wraiths, we’re a kindred spirit. Anyway, the process alters Edison’s genetic makeup considerably, eventually turning him into the unrecognizable villain the crew of the Enterprise first meets. And staying true to bad guy form, Krall reveals his plan to attack the Federation at its heart, namely Yorktown where interplanetary species live freely and peacefully together. As one of his followers tells Kirk, “he means to save you from yourselves.” While Uhura defends her fellow crew members’ loyalty, Krall argues that their unity is a weakness; to him, it’s the most reprehensible aspect of the Federation.

So, okay, he’s crazy. He’s a terrorist. It’s a common factor with Star Trek villains. But his final show down with Kirk left me puzzled, once again causing a disrupt in the film’s progression.

“But you won,” Kirk argues, trying to make sense of Krall’s dastardly ways. “There is peace now. Because of you.”

“We are stronger when we struggle,” Krall counters. These words, uttered breathlessly but with effortless conviction, pulled me out of the movie and into my own thoughts. My spidey-senses were tingling; something was being said, something separate from the plot.

“Then we risk fighting the same battle over and over again.” Kirk’s exact words escape me now, as I was too distracted by the underlying message at the time. Krall didn’t want a solution; he wanted a struggle with no end.

So what then is the film actually saying? In the midst of constant chaos and terror – rioting in the streets, news channels repeating each night more tales of police shootings, of peace officers being demonized and attacked – we are forced to acknowledge that the struggle is all we know. All we have ever known. Another injustice to rally against, another cause – the same battle over and over, only with different players and new, sometimes old, motivations. Peace, unity, then seems an unachievable goal now, both globally and in the so-called United States.

Then is the message more of a question: can we ever achieve peace when so many thrive on the struggle? More and more today it seems that humanity has become complacent in our animosity. We love the fight. And if we don’t have a cause, we find or create one. Without realizing it, we have become warmongers, cultivating the hate we publicly admonish.

This film itself is guilty of being a perpetrator of this conflict, for weren’t they intending on angering a targeted audience in directing our gaze to Sulu’s arm around his husband? We don’t want the struggle to end, to live in harmony. Like Krall, we wouldn’t know how.

The thing that really defines Star Trek’s science fiction is not its advanced technology, or space exploration, or alien species, but its themes of unity – the idea, the fantasy, that differing peoples can set aside their differences and work toward common goals, for the good of all. It’s a beautiful idea, one that I think most people would hope for, even if it’s difficult to fully imagine. Which is likely one of the reasons Star Trek, in all its versions, is so universally loved. We’d like to believe that we’ll get there someday.

However, in reality we are a world full of Kralls intent on fighting the same battles over and over and over again. What lies beyond the struggle, beyond the strife, the hate? We may never know.

 

There, I said it. I’ll move on now. kthanksbye

 

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