Star Trek Beyond - An Action Movie with a Heart
By Sylvia Bennett
Last week I saw the latest installment from the “Star Trek” franchise, Star Trek Beyond. 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of this venerable franchise, and I have been a fan since almost the beginning. Hence, my eagerness for this new entry is no surprise to anyone.
Even so, given that I am a bona fide grownup, my friends frequently tease me about my strange penchant for action movies, superhero fare, and space odysseys liberally mixed in with my devotion to foreign language, indie & period drama, and Shakespearian epics. They find my acceptance, nay eagerness, for what they term “lightweight and mind numbing genres” something completely antithetical to my character. To which I say, whatever! I’m interested in quality entertainment wherever I can find it.
Which brings me to Star Trek Beyond. The new film begins with a conundrum from our protagonist, Captain James T. Kirk. As he approaches his birthday, Kirk ponders his “raison d’etre” and thus, his future. He and the crew are at the three-year mark in their five-year mission to explore the universe, and suddenly his life feels tedious, a little pointless, and frankly pretty boring. Kirk is ambivalent about his place in the world and isn’t sure that being captain of the Starship Enterprise, with another two years left on his assignment, is really what he wants to do with his life. Curious because he worked so hard to get to just this moment in time.
As Kirk embarks upon this journey of self-exploration, his crew continues their travels through the Universe. And in typical “Star Trek” fare, the team soon encounters a hostile life form and must battle their way out of danger. The chief antagonist is Krall, deftly played by Idris Elba whom I must say is very unfortunately hidden under layers of thick makeup which obscures his extremely handsome face for the bulk of the film.
The core of the movie delves into the notion that people with determination, devotion to a common goal, and the willingness to work together in non-traditional groupings can achieve their aim. Conversely, it also explores the darker side of what it means to be a part of a team with a larger goal that doesn’t necessarily fit into your own ideal of self or personal vision for your life. As usual with “Star Trek” stories, this one isn’t simply black and white. It presents themes of self-doubt, disappointment, self-determination, deep friendship, loyalty, risk, and ultimately self-knowledge on both sides of the good guys / bad guys spectrum. There are no easy answers and no easy journeys to lead you to same.
Which brings us back to Captain James T. Kirk. As the film progresses, his personal journey and communal situation converge as he - like his crew - struggle to find a way out of their predicament and – ironically - bring life back to normal. When the denouement of the film occurs, Kirk has a pivotal encounter with Krall. As they argue and provide their personal reasons for their disparate actions, Captain Kirk realizes something. He suddenly understands that although we sometimes feel unsure about our direction or even that we might have lost our way, it doesn’t mean things come to an end. Rather, when we feel this way, we have to fight to get back on the path that we set for ourselves and work to achieve our personal goals.
So in the middle of this action movie - complete with eye-popping special effects, space explosions, and a typically loud soundtrack - our hero spits out a very down-to-earth reality that we all encounter and decide how to handle in our own lives. As Krall justifies his homicidal actions and complains about the past, Kirk says, “We change. We have too. Or we spend our lives fighting the same battles.”
Now isn’t that something to ponder?! It hit me right between the eyes – primarily because it was unexpected and something unusual for an action movie about space. What happens next? Unfortunately, I must stop the review here lest I reveal a spoiler or two that might impair your enjoyment of the film. That is, if you decide to see this one. However, I give Star Trek Beyond an overall 3+ rating on a movie scale of 1 – 5 (with 5 being a fantastic film).
More like a good episode in the television incarnation of this franchise, the latest film isn’t a slam-dunk winner. However ultimately, it does satisfy because it provides something unusual and unexpected for an action movie. It demonstrates the ability to present real characters that think, feel and question life – just as we all do in our daily lives.
Which brings me back to why I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. Because this franchise has always scratched my itch for an art form that presented cultural diversity, colleagues who cooperated with each other and shared common goals, and positive examples of loyalty and self-sacrifice. The characters even form a cohesive family unit without a biological or legal connection. It’s a utopian representation of the world to be sure. But sometimes that’s just what we all need. It’s a vision of the future that is unified, positive and hopeful, while still presenting real people with the normal flaws, problems, self-doubts and questions about why we are here and where we fit in the world. In the case of Star Trek, the question broadens to “where do I fit in the universe?”
Sylvia Bennett is a writer, adventurer and PBS executive.