STAR TREK BEYOND: a short, spoiler-free review and some longer musings
It was impossible not to be aware of the expectations – both for good and bad – surrounding this movie, in consideration of the troubled life of its predecessors, disowned by the staunchest Star Trek fans for the perceived lack of ties with the original material, if not for the outright betrayal of the original vision.
While I enjoyed Star Trek in the past, with time it lost much of its appeal, especially once I was able to compare it with other more mature, and more daring, science fiction shows: don’t misunderstand me, Trek will always have a place in my “affections”, because I started studying English some 40 years ago through the TOS episodes’ novelizations by James Blish, and in so doing discovered the fascinating universe it depicted, and the existence of a SF show I had not been previously aware of. Yet it’s not the one I would choose to define what I most enjoy in science fiction.
For starters, what looked like innovative premises at the time of its conception (a huge alliance of cultures working together in harmony; a society that has gone beyond the need for money or basic creature comforts; a galaxy where knowledge and mutual understanding are highly valued; and so on…) represents the kind of utopia that’s nice to see but that we know could never take shape, not with what we understand about humanity now, when we have lost many of the hopes that were the show’s backbone then. Moreover, the need to follow this particular universe’s ground rules ended up creating several constraints for the many writers who were called to work for the franchise. In Gene Roddenberry’s vision, there should have been no conflicts, no troubles among the perfectly integrated crews of the Federation starships, or among the many races of the Federation, and in such far-reaching peace and harmony there was far too much space for predictability and boredom, and almost none for some interesting clash of characters and personalities. Some of the most die-hard fans adhere to this vision with far more tenacity than did the series’ creator himself, and look with suspicion – or worse – on any attempt at splicing some different features into Trek’s “genome”.
It’s no secret that the Trek incarnation that attempted to get out of these rigid schemes – Deep Space 9 – is the one that those die-hard fans like less: in DS9 there was interpersonal conflict and we were shown how the Federation and Starfleet were not perfect and irreproachable entities but were instead, quite humanly, prone to flaws and areas of darkness. What others might perceive as shortcomings was, to me, the reason for a renewed interest in the saga, so that this series is the only one I can re-watch even now without feeling that time has left its inexorable mark upon it – at least for the episodes who follow a particular narrative arc, without wasting time and effort in improbable holodeck escapades or Ferengi capers that to me hold nothing of the wonder and adventure I expect to find in space opera.
After the poor results of the last TV series, Enterprise, it looked as if Star Trek had said all it had to say, so the news that a reboot would be accomplished through big-screen movies was welcomed with mixed reactions: many worried at the changes that would be introduced by story and characterization, altering forever the perceptions built over the decades. For me, the first two movies – while spectacular and entertaining – were something of a disappointment: the use of the word “reboot”, at least as I intend it, means the renewal of a story through the insertion of fresh ideas and points of view. Sadly, there was nothing of the sort in those two first movies, on the contrary they re-used old patterns and narrative threads, only presenting them in a new, more modern and glittery dress. It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had decided to take the show’s catchphrase and to twist it into an unimaginative “where everyone has already gone before” – too many times. For a story that took its inspiration from the exploration of the unknown, it seemed that the boldness had evaporated and the choice for time-tested secondhand material had removed any desire for expansion and evolution out of the playing field.
That said, I was nevertheless curious about this latest movie, and as I always do I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt, refusing to condemn it out of hand like many did, especially when the first trailer hit the web. True, it looked like another offer with a great deal of action, explosions and daring stunts, and little in the way of character growth or depth, but I told myself that in summertime even a loud, boisterous “popcorn movie” can be acceptable, even if it’s not on the same line of its source material. And the friends with whom I went to the theater agreed with me.
Well, sometimes going in with low expectations does pay off in the end: the movie was a pleasant surprise, overall. The story, for once, was original and not a rehash of some previous episode, or some already-used theme: granted, it was nothing world-changing, but it went over well, and the pacing was fast and at times quite breathless. The characterization showed some improvements too, offering new facets on the main characters’ personalities and inner drive, with a few introspective moments that were rather nice to witness. There was the appropriate amount of humor, placed at the right moments, and when it was directed inwards – almost in an attempt to deconstruct some long-standing traditions of the show – it worked like a charm: there is a brief sequence, near the beginning, when Kirk comes back aboard after a not-so-successful mission, and he off-handedly comments about “another ripped shirt” that had me laughing out loud in sheer delight, since it was very effective because of its tongue-in-cheek nature, and the unspoken but clear subtext it carried.
There were some poignant moments as well, and they integrated seamlessly with the more boisterous whole: the brief, almost subliminal “for Anton”, paying homage to the recently deceased Anton Yelchin (a.k.a. Chekov); and the tribute paid to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the first, iconic Mr. Spock: this was carried out in a way that was so starkly emotional that even a true Vulcan would not have objected to it – to say how deeply spectators were affected would be redundant…
And even if the required Bad Guy’s motivations seemed a bit of a dejà vu, even if there were a few plot glitches – something that hit my awareness only after the movie ended, which means that the momentum carried them well nonetheless – the overall effect is more than positive, and for the first time since the Borg I felt that the adversaries’ might was something to be frightened of. Look at that swarm of ships and tell me you are not scared!
If this is the new course the franchise has chosen to travel on, I can get back on board: nothing special or Earth-shattering happened, I’ll give you that, but for once I felt some substance under the glitter, and it was enough.