Star Trek Beyond Expectations (Mostly)

Finally! Shakespeare quoting returns to Star Trek!

So we went and saw Star Trek Beyond over the weekend. And overall… *drumroll* we enjoyed it! It’s definitely a step up from Star Trek Into Darkness. Although to be honest that’s a very short step, not difficult to make. But still! Improvement! Huzzah!

However, considering this is Impolite Conversation, Cole and Clarice, naturally, have gripes and details to pick at with judgmental fingers. It’s just what we do.

We’ve broken it down into six sections. We’ve got two things we liked and two things we didn’t like, and we’re going to alternate between them so you don’t get too much of one thing all at the same time. Then we’re going to move into something a little weird for us, but we promise it will be okay. And finally we’ll have our rapid-fire, smaller, but no less snarky comments that did not merit their own dedicated section to finish everyone off.

Yes, that was a deliberately dirty use of words.

Needless to say, there will be SPOILERS!

Let’s start with a positive, shall we?

 

We Liked: The Family Dynamic

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Clarice: Ok. So up front: probably the best thing Justin Lin’s Fast and Furious films have going for them is that Lin has genuine talent for conveying friend-family units in a realistic way. And, essentially, I think it’s a talent he transfers admirably to capturing what is an important facet of Star Trek.

Cole: It’s something Beyond definitely nails down really well – the crew as a family and the camaraderie between them. They hit upon this when the movie starts but it’s at its strongest in the last quarter when everyone comes back together for the finale. Even in the middle chunk though, when everyone is split off and separated the film does a very good job of giving us duos and interactions the previous two films did not necessarily provide: Kirk and Checkov, Scotty and newcomer Jaylah, Uhura and Sulu, Spock and Bones.

Clarice: Agreed on all fronts. I think those various pairings were an interesting structure to tackle; and overall it paid off. It allowed for some intriguing dynamics we don’t normally see and (in theory) kept focus jumping around the various narrative pieces in play. (Again: I think I like this concept in theory more than in practice… but we can get to that later.)

Cole: Shall we take a moment to talk about the pairings? I think they all merit a comment or two!

Clarice: Well let’s be honest here, Cole, even though no duo was an outright snoozefest, one pairing stood far, far above the others. But maybe we should save them for last?

Cole: Yup, definitely save them for last! Ummmm…why not start with the captain? Kirk and Checkov?

Clarice: I think Chris Pine / Kirk is easily the blandest character in play. I think whomever paired with him was going to probably have a hard time being as interesting or fun. But choosing to team him up with adorable Checkov did allow for a surprisingly lovely / endearing little bro-trip.

Cole: Agreed! Sidenote: I 100% agree about Pine being the blandest of the lot but I will say he’s at his franchise best in Beyond. His Kirk FINALLY had shades of Shatner to it! Considering the first two movies it’s not a huge bar to clear but it seemed like something clicked for him in this third outing. And all the hearts for Anton Yelchin. It’s a fun pairing and considering we actually spend a great deal of time with them it was a smart move to put them together and give viewers a pairing we haven’t seen before in the franchise.

Clarice: Indeed. It was nice to have Yelchin’s earnest energy as the balancing force against Kirk’s Kirkness doing his Kirkiest.

Cole: Who next? Uhura and Sulu?

Clarice: Ah. You mean Team Not Really Doing Anything?

Cole: Hah! Yes. Them. And no, they don’t get a whole lot to do. For the middle bit of the film they’re captives of the enemy. But I really do like what little they get during that section. They face down Krall multiple times and escape from their cell to attempt and send a distress beacon to the Federation starbase, Yorktown. And I think John Cho and Zoe Saldana have a natural chemistry as a duo. Without a whole lot of one on one interaction in earlier films they very naturally give a sense of these two being friends and working well as a team. They do a lot with a little.

Clarice: I dunno. I think what little they had read as superficial machinations to make it seem like they were doing things when they kinda weren’t. I.e. Giving them screentime without really giving them story? I also think their scenes easily had the least character personality in them. They were still ultimately just the hostage pieces. Which is a shame because they were the duo I wanted more from / the pair I was the second-to-most interested in following. I think they could have had so much more, but the film just didn’t want to focus on them.

Cole: Oh, I definitely agree that they get the least in terms of development and scenes. A lot of their stuff is to show how dangerous their situation is so we root for their rescue. But I still think Cho and Saldana manage very well with the material.

Clarice: Sure. I think I’m actually extra grouchy about them because I think they could have easily had more to do, and because I wanted more of those two (Cho and Saldana) being a pain-in-the-ass team for Krall to deal with as captives. That would have been amazing.

Cole: I like what little they had, but it is frustrating their screentime was not more on balance with everyone else’s. Speaking of a pair that got more screentime: Montgomery Scotty and Jaylah?

Clarice: That was a fun dynamic. It took on a rather sweet big brother / kid sister sort of tinge.

Cole: But it never got condescending!

Clarice: Nope. Scotty was a good figure to give her to play off of (and vice versa.) Especially if you play through how many of the alternatives would have gone. And it got to be reliably comedic without the comedy ever being at the expense of the other.

Cole: They were equal in their dynamic which was awesome. I think the film did a good job of pairing people off (there are other issues with this that we will tackle in the next section but the who was paired with who is not one of them). I enjoyed each one. BUT, swinging back around to that duo we mentioned earlier…there’s no denying that Spock and Bones take the victory cake for best pairing in the film.

Clarice: Absofuckinglutely. They were the highlight. The ones I kept wanting to revisit as soon as possible. Hell, I could have watched an entire movie about just them wandering about and doing random things!

Cole: Absolutely.

Clarice: And I don’t know exactly what their victory cake would look like, but in my head it is a very sexy cake… that they feed eachother… probably shirtless…

Cole: And thus, a new romantic ship was born! With cake. But seriously, these two are FANFUCKINGTASTIC. They are funny, but sincere at the same time. They get great banter and moments of concern and bonding. Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban are on fucking fire in this film. Despite how great all the pairings are, these two really carry the middle section of the film.

Clarice: Indeed. *slinks off to write Bones & Spock erotic fan-fiction* *and eat cake*

Cole: Clarice! Come back! You can write Spones sexytimes later! We still have an article to finish! But bring the cake…

 

We Did Not Like: The Off-Balance Pacing

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Clarice: So for me, despite the intriguing structure of splitting up people into teams, the first ¾ felt oddly slow? And not particularly fun?

Cole: Yeah, the first quarter of the film in particular really drags. Even the destruction of the Enterprise is oddly drawn out and lacks any real sort of emotional womp.

Clarice: It’s an awfully major moment to be The Bad Thing That Happens in order to kick off the next stage of narrative. It makes the “balance,” so to speak, of the story feel out of whack to me.  

Cole: The next two quarters are better – the various pairings are entertaining and well written enough that the film’s midsection doesn’t leave furrows in the ground where its feet are dragging. But it’s still slow moving as it jumps around trying to keep up with its large and divided cast and everything that’s happening with each of them.

Clarice: It is strangely unengaging. Outside of the delight whenever we whooshed back to Spock & Bones, most everything else going on came across very blah. Not necessarily bad, but it’s the stuff we have to meander through and waste time with until we get to the better stuff at the end?

Cole: The end definitely has the best stuff! It isn’t until the final quarter that Beyond really starts to move once all the characters are back together in a second, retro starship, and becomes really exciting to watch.

Clarice: Yup! Once everyone starts reuniting, the pace starts picking back up. It kicks forward with each new team addition which, admittedly, is kinda cool — like we essentially pick up these nifty narrative energy boosters. And then, largely, it’s a fun ride to the end. But the fact that it’s so enjoyable when everyone is together makes it all the more puzzling that we did spend the majority of the film with the characters disparate.

 

We Liked: Jaylah

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Clarice: Touche, Star Trek: Beyond. I liked Jaylah.

Cole: I really liked Jaylah. Going into the film I was fairly certain she was going to be the attractive, badass alien warrior who was there primarily to serve as a love interest for Captain Kirk.

Clarice: Ditto.

Cole: I was so happy to be proven wrong! I loved that she was no one’s love interest. She got a backstory, cool fight choreography and was never stupid.

Clarice: It’s not even just that she wasn’t a love interest. It was that she wasn’t “Standard Kickass Female Alien.” I think they hit a nice mix of her being steely, lonely but cagey, smart, and adorable. I love that her house is booby-trapped to fuck. I love that she loves the beats and shouting in her music. I love that she really really wants off this damn planet, yet The Franklin remains “her house” the whole movie. I like those things as fantastic touches that never skew her into being ‘silly little alien girl’ (which could have been very easy, and I spent the whole movie fearing they would do)

Cole: She stands on her own to feet as a character. She’s not just there to look cool, she’s there to be an important addition to the cast, an essential part of the plot and the film’s dynamic. They managed to make her feel like part of the family, which is awesome.

Her character’s end note in the film is she’s been admitted to Starfleet Academy because Scotty pulled some strings. I really hope this means Jaylah will be back in Star Trek 4 aboard the Enterprise as an Ensign, preferably in Engineering with Scotty!  

Clarice: I would really like for her to be back.  Especially since I would like them to avoid the habit of introducing a variety of women in these movies to just be disposable come the next adventure. I mean… they know there can be other women on the ship besides Uhura, right?

Cole: They’d better! Especially since we got Carol Marcus in Into Darkness and promptly dropped her for Beyond (not complaining just stating a fact) but we still don’t have rebooted Janice Rand or Christine Chapel?! There are female characters waiting in the wings to balance the sausage fest that is currently the reboot Enterprise and I want them interacting with Uhura and Jaylah! Because Jaylah is awesome!

See how I worked a negative into a positive there?

 

We Did Not Like: That It’s Still Not Star Trek

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Clarice: Buckle in, folks, I’m about to climb up onto a nit-picky soapbox.

Cole: Buckled! Fucking go for it!

Clarice: Listen: we talked about how the family unit / camaraderie is the best we’ve seen thus far in the reboots. And this is true! I do agree with that, and I can see why it’s leading people to say this is the first reboot movie that’s felt the most “Trek-like.”

HOWEVER! I’m afraid I don’t entirely feel the same… As much as I enjoyed the friend-family element, I still can’t say it feels wholly like Trek to me because the ship family dynamic is only half of it. For me, the other major half is that the reboot films continue to fail on their villain / conflict fronts.       

Cole: Like the Marvel films, or most franchises at the minute for that matter, they really seem to struggle with their villains.

Clarice: I think they do. Seriously: is it just not permissible in films anymore to have villains / conflicts that are not merely a string of wholesale destructive spectacles?

Cole: It seems wholesale destruction is the order of the day when it comes to villains at the moment. Which is unfortunate. Because so often they don’t bother to actually develop them as a character beyond the point of being capable of destroying things and killing lots and lots of people. And that’s SUPER EVIL so that’s all we need to know.

Clarice: Exactly. Maybe it is just a personal story pet peeve, but I really grate against this kind of lazy, simplistic villain-ing. “How do we prove he’s a very bad guy?” “He tears the entire ship apart!! Which, of course, we will see in all its visual effects glory!!” Really, writers? That’s the only level we can hit? That’s the easiest fucking bar you can possibly clear. And not only that, it feels out of sync with the Trek mindset which, in many ways was constrained by the capabilities of its era, but ended up lending them a unique quality to their villainy.

Part of the idea of the utopian Trek-verse has always been that everyone was supposed to have evolved to the point where threatening/harming even one person was appalling, and  even the smallest scales of violence were amongst The Worst Possible Things You Could Do.   Villain arcs were made from so much less than this level of blind destruction. Sure, The  Enterprise has been destroyed multiple times — that damn ship enduring tactical onslaughts has always been a thing, and I’m certainly not asking it not to be. But it’s always been filmed differently / handled with a different focus — one on the individuals, and the specific loss at hand.

In Beyond, there is no real thought or pause for how many fucking crew died horribly when the Enterprise gets literally torn into pieces. It ultimately is nothing but the exact same casual, large scale destructiveness that is so prevalent in superhero films and other blockbusters right now. And frankly, I’m just tired of it. Seriously: who the fuck ever loved Star Trek movies primarily because of their ‘stunning visual effects’??

Cole: I talked about this briefly in the section on pacing but the destruction of the Enterprise does feel off. Part of that is when it comes in the film and how drawn out it is but I think you’re right to point out how many people would have died, even with so many escaping in pods. Death on that sort of massive scale has happened in Star Trek but it’s ALWAYS acknowledged. Hell, one of the episodes of the Original Series I just watched for my Trekification deals with Captain Kirk being court martialed because it’s believed panic or incompetence on his part lead to the death of ONE crewman. Death happens in Star Trek. The redshirts are a thing for a reason. But death is never dismissed or treated lightly in the franchise. And I suppose it’s not necessarily treated “lightly” in Beyond either, but it becoming such a spectacle does clash with the nature and tone of the franchise up until this point.

Clarice: Yes. Death has always happened in Star Trek, but there is just something about it in this movie that comes across as nothing more than another emotionally-removed, glossy cinematic slaughter with no significant human impact. Because in a world where drone strikes are a real thing, this is apparently what we expect now from our movies.       

Cole: Which is massively unfortunate.

Clarice: Actually… do you know what’s weird, Cole?   

Cole: What?!

Clarice: The closest the reboot films have come to a classic Trek-style villain is Into Darkness and John Harrison. And yes I said John Harrison on purpose, NOT Khan. This is weird because it both makes sense (because it’s “Khan” who is a transplanted classic villain) and doesn’t make any sense at all (because that twist! decision was pure garbage madness.)

Cole: Holy shit fuck damn would Into Darkness have been better if it HAD JUST BEEN JOHN HARRISON. I love Bennybatch as much as the next person but dammit NO. HE IS NOT KHAN.  

Clarice: It’s John fucking Harrison (not Khan) who had the most potential to give me what I want and like out of my Trek villains — pacing around, playing mindgames and clashing in a twisted-mirror ideology with Kirk. Ya know… except for the teeny tiny detail that Into Darkness is goddamn AWFUL. It’s frustrating because they had a potentially great villain, and then completely bungled him.

Cole: Which makes Into Darkness even more offensive than it already was!

Clarice: Honest question — is this type of villain / conflict just something we as a society have no interest in doing anymore?  

Cole: Bloody hell, I hope not.

Clarice: For all that we gush (and rightly so) about the portrayals of understanding and acceptance prevalent in Trek, it’s like people keep forgetting that there was another side to that — that Trek was also rather unique in how it approached and portrayed its villains / central conflicts. Part of the respite of Trek-verse was not solely in how it strove to portray the “good guys,” it was in how it considered its “bad guy” behavior and mentality (and thereby the level of their ill deeds.)

So I think Beyond got half of it right. But I think it failed on the other half.

 

And Now A Detour From Our Impolite Tone

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Cole: Hold on to something because Cole and Clarice are about to get pretty super almost sincere in an Impolite Conversation post.

Clarice: We totally are. Ahem… Cole, would you please take the honor of opening us here?

Cole: SULU IS GAY! HIKARU SULU IS GAY!!

If the all caps did not make it clear, this makes me so, so happy. He’s the first canon LGBTQ character in the Star Trek universe! The reveal is simple and undramatic. Kirk watches with a smile as Sulu greets his husband and daughter. They put their arms around each other as they walk away. It’s treated as nothing but utterly, beautifully everyday and expected. It’s such a small moment in the film but it is such a fucking important moment.

Clarice: Yes, truly. And let us rejoice for the fact that the gay community now gets to have a tropishly threatened adorable family the exact same as any cliched, heteronormative blockbuster!! “How do we rachet the emotional tension during a widespread civilian threat?”  “Uh, naturally we establish an adorable family for one of our heroes, and we happen to then see said adorable family specifically in the chaos over impending doom.”

Cole: Exactly! It is totally a trope. And that’s why it’s amazing. We need gay characters in these expected roles and capacities, we need the gay family unit as our point of entry for giving a shit about the destruction on a specifically personal and emotional level in addition to LGBTQ characters among the ranks of leads and heroes. This needs to be commonplace. And Star Trek Beyond gives this to us in the form of Hikaru Sulu’s husband and daughter. And that is really monumental and joyful and, as I said before, super fucking important!

Clarice: I’m teasing the movie, but yes. It is really fucking important. Even more important going forward, though, is going to be repeated saturation. Because as celebratory and glorious as this moment is, I think it’s vital to keep aware that this absolutely is not as easy as a single “well we gave Sulu a husband and daughter, and whee! now our duty to representation is fulfilled! done!” It takes a fucking hell of a lot more than this one moment. Complacency is its own danger. Anything that does not actively commit to pushing such representation relegates this, depressingly, to nothing more than a token blip on the cinematic screen.

Cole: Absolutely. Hopefully this sets a precedent. Scratch that. It needs to set a precedent. We NEED to see more of this in Star Trek and other films, television series and franchises going forward. I’m really pulling for more than one LGBTQ character to be in Star Trek: Discovery. Star Trek has always been at the forefront of progressive representation in whatever time period it existed. In the 60s it was revolutionary just to have a black woman and an Asian man on the bridge of ship. The mere presence of Uhura and Sulu was a huge deal. In today’s world? One of the big progressive movements is for LGBTQ rights. Sulu being gay, married and a father is an amazing first step. But so many more need to be taken and I hope Star Trek maintains its history of taking them, boldly, in the correct direction.

 

Rapid Fire!

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Cole: We talked about their villain problems and Krall has a lot of issues, but I will say the reveal that he isn’t alien, just a human mutated by longevity processes really helped save the character for me in a big way.

Clarice: It was definitely a refreshing switch. And hits close to my villain point — which makes me even sadder that the movie didn’t do deeper/better with him up until that reveal. I’m not sure they worked backwards quite well enough on that.

Also, was it ever very clear why exactly Idris Elba started looking less Idris Elba like the longer he lived, and got more Idris Elba like once he spent time running (and floating) around Yorktown and such?

Cole: Vague visual note when he started absorbing people’s lifeforce? UNEXPLAINED SIDE-EFFECT OF UNEXPLAINED LONGEVITY TECHNOLOGY!

Clarice: But I mean… was it based on what type of people energy he absorbed? Why would lifeforce that’s keeping him alive make him look more like an alien and less like Idris Elba? Shouldn’t it be nearer to the inverse of that?

Cole: Yes! I agree! It makes no sense! Other than they wanted to keep the fact he was human a secret. He looked alien because of plot, Clarice, BECAUSE OF PLOT.

***

Cole: Who took away the seatbelts?!

Clarice: Yes! I think we both cheered with delight at seeing seatbelts on The Franklin. So this means someone thought to include them on starships at some point. But now that begs the question, who was the fucking psycho who decided to remove them again???

Cole: ALSO! Why does this universe have them but the Prime Universe does not? What happened in the universe of the Original Series that resulted in an utter lack of seatbelts? 

***

Cole: So…are we ever actually going to see Bones in the ship’s medical section?

Clarice: Considering the last film maybe it’s overrun with tribbles by now…?  PS — it totally sucks that Bones didn’t happen to have any tribble blood on him when attending to wounded Spock… That would have come in handy.  

Cole: I’m sure he had something else to inject into his Vulcan friend…

Clarice: You’re filthy.

Cole: Oh, please, you were totally thinking it too.

Clarice: Yeah, ok. Totally was. And on that note!!  

Cole: Let’s judge Beyond in comparison to the rest of the Star Trek films! (And yes, we realize this makes it seven sections, not six like we said in the introduction but SHUSH because we give no fucks!)

 

Our Requisite ‘Ranking’ of Beyond with Other Trek Movies

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Clarice: I think it is probably the best reboot film (I do retain a bizarre fondness for Abrams’ first.) And I definitely think it is a better movie than The Motion Picture, Final Frontier, or Nemesis. I’ll consider Insurrection debatable. Don’t tell me it’s better than Generations — I will fight you.

Cole: I think it’s definitely the best of the reboots. And totally agree it’s better than The Motion Picture and Final Frontier. I have not yet seen Nemesis but my guess is that it’s safe to say Beyond is better. Personally, I’d rank Beyond above Insurrection. And I will fight by your side for Generations! That movie is FUCKING WONDERFUL and those who disagree are just WRONG.

Clarice: I actually like Generations a lot. I think it gets too beat up on too often.

Cole: And there is no debate to be had when considering The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country and First Contact. They are just better.

Clarice: Yes, well, topping either First Contact or Undiscovered Country feels impossible.  

Cole: The Search for Spock? I personally enjoy it a lot so would probably put it above (would need to rewatch to be definitively sure) but I wouldn’t fight for it like Generations.

Clarice: I have never loved Search for Spock. So that one is a weird bubble area for me. To be fair, it is one that I have not seen in some time… but then again… that’s because I’ve never really liked it. Haha.

I do have the warm fuzzies for Voyage Home; and I think Wrath of Khan is a very good film (even though I’d sooner watch First Contact, Undiscovered Country, Voyage Home, or even Generations before it.) Anyway! This was my long answer to essentially agree with you. I would keep the above five definitely ahead of Beyond (and then a couple debatable bubble films.)

Cole: So that ranks Beyond, out of thirteen films, at six or seven. Maybe eight, if you put it above The Search for Spock and Insurrection. Which seems about right?

Clarice: Yes. So congratulations, Beyond! You have achieved The Middle! Seriously though: that is not a bad place to be sitting, all things considered.

Cole: Indeed! Plus, you know…Spones.

Clarice: SPONES!

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Spones.