Thursday 22 February 2018

Film review - Star Trek Beyond: Finally, a sequel that goes beyond the franchise

A witty script and stellar performances make JJ Abrams' latest 'Star Trek' journey a pleasure to board

Spotlight: Karl Urban plays Bones in 'Star Trek Beyond'
Spotlight: Karl Urban plays Bones in 'Star Trek Beyond'

Paul Whitington

We film critics never tire of complaining about the ongoing avalanche of reboots and rehashes, and the absolute dearth of new and original movie ideas.

Every now and then, however, you have to doff your cap and admit that someone has got a remake absolutely right. One would have thought, by the time JJ Abrams got his hands on it, that the 'Star Trek' brand had been well and truly flogged to death.

Seven TV series, a cartoon show and nine feature films to that point left the franchise looking very weary, but in his 2009 movie 'Star Trek', Abrams brilliantly reinvented the space opera by dragging it back to basics and exploring the roots of Kirk and Spock's relationship. Chris Pine was an inspiring choice to play the young and brash Kirk, the tearaway son of a Federation hero who joins the Starfleet academy on a whim and immediately clashes with the fastidious Vulcan, Spock.

Pine brilliantly channeled the hammy cheesiness of William Shatner, who played Kirk in the original TV show, and as Spock, Zachary Quinto added witty flourishes to Leonard Nimoy's icy reserve.

'Star Trek' was a lot of fun, and Abrams and his team followed in 2013 with 'Into Darkness', an equally funny and inventive action yarn. Suddenly, his 'Star Trek' series had legs, and I must say, I've been rather looking forward to this one.

Star Trek Beyond finds James T Kirk prowling the Enterprise's foredecks and brooding, Hamlet-like about his destiny during a five-year mission in deep space. Making peace among warring species has begun to feel wearisome, and Kirk mutters darkly about giving up his captaincy while sipping space hooch with his old pal Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (Karl Urban) - this Enterprise has bars. Spock, meanwhile, has embarked on an existential crisis of his own, and appears to have split up with his glamourous girlfriend and the ship's communications officer, Lieutentant Uhura (Zoe Saldana).

Read more: Spielberg makes giant success of well-loved 'BFG'

The team, then, are in sombre mood when they arrive at a giant Federation space station to refuel. And they're just getting their bearings when an alien craft arrives with a story of having been attacked off a distant and uninhabited planet. When the Enterprise travels out to investigate, it too is set upon by a terrifying swarm of small craft that eat into its sides, disabling it. They're the emissaries of Krall (Idris Elba, though his make up is so thick you'll have to take my word for it), who takes a stone artifact from the Enterprise's archives before ordering his men to destroy it.

It crashes into the planet, but Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty (Simon Pegg) all escape. Stranded in a rocky and inhospitable environment, they must figure out a way of rescuing the Enterprise's crew, whom Krall has taken hostage.

But they must also put a stop to Krall's plan to activate a terrible weapon and use it to attack the Federation.

This time JJ Abrams has retreated to the producer's chair and left the directing duties to Justin Lin, who's best known for his work on the 'Fast & Furious' films. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis in Star Trek Beyond is on action, and the first half of the film suffers slightly from a dearth of discussion, and wit.

But the balance is restored well in the second half, once Spock and Bones get flung to earth in the same escape pod, and begin bickering their way around the dusty planet like an old married couple doing the weekly shop in Marks & Spencer.

There are some innovations, and a few new characters. Algerian actress Sofia Boutella has great poise and presence playing Jaylah, a colourful Amazonian extraterrestrial with a longstanding grudge against Krull.

And Lieutenant Sulu's back story is expanded when we discover that he's gay, an innovation that went down badly with George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in the original TV show. The things people get upset about.

These films, though, stand or fall on the ongoing dynamic between Spock, Kirk, Bones and Scotty, and in Star Trek Beyond the latter two characters are given more time in the spotlight.

This may not be entirely coincidental, particularly in the case of Scotty, because Simon Pegg co-wrote the screenplay, and seems to have been tempted to move his character closer to the centre of the stage. And it's just as well he did, because it's Pegg and Karl Urban who provide most of the much-needed laughs in this sometimes frenetic outing.

I love Urban's exasperated, eye-rolling take on Bones, and he and Zachary Quinto reminded me of Vladimir and Estragon out of 'Waiting for Godot' when they got stranded on the planet together.

Early on there's an extended action sequence that takes place in near darkness and left one wondering what was going on. But once the crew falls to earth, it all began to make sense again, and the terrestrial fight scenes make sly references to the bad sets and bouncing rocks of the 60s TV show.

It's not perfect, but there's a lot to like here, and good reason to hope for more.

Films coming soon...

Finding Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Diane Keaton); Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Julia Styles, Tommy Lee Jones); The Commune (Ulrich Thomsen, Trune Dyrholm) Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Laura Albert).

Star Trek Beyond

(12A, 122mins)

3 Stars

Irish Independent

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