A funny thing happened on my way to Star Trek: Beyond. Every other movie for the past few years.
There's long been a hallowed tradition in American filmmaking, where (especially with Ye Summer Blockbuster) shit-blowin'-up-real-good is perhaps the core of the attraction. We like watching buildings explode, continents going kablooey - we even had fun with CGI destruction of major cities for a while there. Gosh darn it, good clean American fun, where nobody gets hurt (they're all just digital ants, right) and loud noises suffice for entertainment.
Rebooting has also been a big money maker, so we've rebooted the CRUD out of, say, Spider-Man (we're on #3 in under ten years, folks), every television show known to the Baby Boomers and now even some Gen-X'ers, and ... oh yeah, Star Trek.
Three years ago, DC Comics debuted their 'verse challenge to the box office, television, and beyond domination of Marvel's stunningly successful multiverse, giving the world the grey, grimy, gloomy, and petulantly self-indulgant Man of Steel. Antithetical to almost any possible character trait of Superman as he's existed for GENERATIONS now, this movie failed to score in one very major way: its sickening collateral destruction. The hue and cry against Supes' heedless and violent smackdown of his enemies, and the resultant, ya know, complete razing of some significant areas of human habitation, were loud and lamenting.
For those who are not fans: Superman is essentially a Christ figure. He never quite dies for our sins, but the only son sent from, well space, who gives up a normal life to serve mankind: yeah, it's a bit of a parallel.
So to make him an emo jerk with zero personality and a whinging little ax to grind, and to indulge an entire grubby looking feature film to the insane amounts of damage he and Zod leave around them without the slightest nod to those people and properties they destroy? Unpopular. And the movie sucked.
The result has been Batman Versus Superman. Not greatly more loved, as far as I have heard: but wow did it backpedal on the whole collateral damage thing.
Add to this Marvel's own multiverse spending now literally *years* addressing exactly the same issues - in the Netflix series Jessica Jones, on an existential level; in ABC's Agents of Shield, almost for the run of the series; in Captain America: Civil War, one of the biggest movies of this year. And it's no accident Civil War bears Cap's name, not The Avengers. He is all but alone, of his compatriots, in all the sacrifice and service we once saw and loved in Supes. And he's not a gun-toting ass, he is a human, the most human perhaps of all the Avengers, striving for principles and fiercely moral. Cap has become one of the most fascinating characters cinema has had to offer in a long time; his portrayal at Chris Evans' hands has been pretty remarkable on multiple levels.
So. Violence, and the fact that even in America its emptiness has begun to cause backlash.
I've been on record most of my adult life as being an open-minded fan - I will take what I'm given and generally try to enjoy it. Expansions of the Trekverse have rarely struck me as a bad idea.
Now we are "Beyond" the universe.
The latest Trek is a good movie. It's got some humor, it's got characters I quite like. I was surprised when I saw Simon Pegg was a writer (I might have expected *more* humor, if I'd known; but I was fairly successful in going in - even as late as I did - with little knowledge beforehand).
Pegg's Montgomery Scott has been a wonderfully winsome, moral presence himself, through the reboots. In Darkness, he was the voice of reason asking "hey, do we really want to go hauling possibly illegal weaponry into territory we're not allowed to be wandering around in in the first place?" and lost his job for it. For a while. He had to kill at one point, which was horrible to see and made me sad, but at LEAST it was theoretically justified by the script.
Beyond ... well, goes beyond. And over the top. And so forth.
The level of CRUELTY in Beyond is something worse than merely distasteful, it is both disrespectful of the entire Trekverse (and fandom) and a betrayal of the ideals on which every franchise used to be built. It is also incredibly tone-deaf.
In a world where DC Comics has to answer for wanton destructiveness, TREK of all things has produced a story in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths just mean nothing. We've all joked about red-shirts, I can't pretend not to have myself. But the level of viciousness, the level of truly morally bankrupt violence in Beyond is heartbreaking.
TOS killed off the occasional redshirt, but generally to make a point about the awfulness of death - or, at the very least, the awfulness of whatever enemy/obstacle the crew were up against. TNG didn't do much killing, but they honored the redshirt tradition here and there, and stuffed up their crew's shirts with a fair amount of moral superiority along the way (I will say: not always justifiably).
DS9, long my favorite of the series, took death and allowed war itself into the Trekverse. But even the war was not a wanton reaction; it was an attrition, a defense, and tapped very much into the ideals of Roddenberry's universe. It explored with more depth, at times, the twisted moralities and allegiances born out of humanoid conflict. It was, for the most part, honest - and earnest.
There is no earnestness in Beyond. Much urgency, but little morality.
Our villain, in Beyond, is a confusing morass of magical properties. We're not supposed to recognize what he is, so he is capable of changing appearance for no particular reason. He's supposed to be scary and evil, so occasionally he's some sort of energy-draining vampire. How this works, why it is so, is not much explained; he's just BAD GUY (and a cruel short-changing of the talents of Idris Elba - and also, was nobody at all a bit squirmy about making a large black man the villain, after the racial issues attached to whitewashing Khan?). His entire motivation is, um. That he is semi-immortal and went nuts because of it? That he was abandoned (shades of Bond Reboot #2)? That he is personally offended (shades of Trek Reboot #1 or CA;Civil War)?
Trek villains are usually greedy or (sigh) culturally inferior (see also, my many issues with TNG's unrelenting smugness), not torturing madmen giving mental illness a bad name.
The villain - as we've seen so often in recent years - is merely the mechanism by which we get the story, such as it is, and the 'splosions, such as they are, into motion. I don't even mind that; many's the Bond film predicated on such red herrings.
But you have to tell a good story once you get the mechanism ticking.
Beyond ... is not a bad story. But it could have been so much better.
One friend of mine commented on the old "tech that's been lying around for centuries magically working just like that" but I stand by that as a Trek trope of long standing. Fine. And, if it bugs you, well consider that Jaylah has been caretaker of "her house" (and all its tech) for some years, apparently. So she kept things in trim.
More than anything else, I wish I could have seen even ACKNOWLEDGEMENT by the crew that people were dying left, right, and down the middle, and that was A Bad Thing. Nope. They're driven, yes, and death is bad, but there's no feeling towards the masses of people destroyed along the way.
And the Enterprise herself is killed off early in the film.
It all feels like a character is missing. And the killing-off here is done along the way to action scenes we've seen before.
The character sliding down the hull of a dying ship. Check: Khan did this in Reboot #2. The characters flying through space/midair without any craft. Check: Reboots #1 and #2 both. Exciting once, amusing twice, retreading now, and taking up time and space that could have had some sort of story going on. Spaceship rising out of the water. Check: Avengers did this a few years ago, and Enterprise did it in Reboot #2, opening sequence no less.
Trek depends upon tropes; I've made this clear right here - redshirts, and gee-whiz tech, and setpieces, oh my. But retreads are just a drag. And laziness is a killer.
I came in wanting to love Star Trek: Beyond, and knowing as little about it as I could. Reviews were sounding good, but I'd seen some doubt.
And I liked it. I liked it in parts. I liked Jaylah, a good character for a woman, something all to hard to come by. Cis-checked and Hollywood pretty of course, but still a strong opportunity in an industry not plagued with good women's roles.
I enjoyed what humor there was, and appreciated the memorial to Leonard Nimoy. Some of the nostalgia felt earned, even as strategic - and manipulative - as necessarily it was. It was respectful, and I loved the shot of Nichelle Nichols and the TOS cast.
The delving into Bones' and Spock's relationship was not merely Pure Comedy Gold My Friends, but lots of genuine fun. THAT was a great movie, braided into a couple other movies with hit-and-miss quality.
I thought Kirk was great, here. His reactions, his actions. I believed him wholly. Same with Zoe Saldana's Uhura, which has been among my favorite aspects of the reboots. This magnificent woman, played first by the marvelous Nichelle Nichols and now by the sensitive, powerful Saldana, has been wonderfully developed through the new films. Her beauty is impossible to miss, but the fact that that is only the smallest part of her has been too. Uhura has been a glorious part, character, image, story, since Abrams took the helm. She is not short-shrifted here.
And yet. And yet.
I liked it in parts. I will get it on disc, when it comes, for those parts. I'll listen for the places this film harmonizes not only with its fellow reboots, but with the Trekverse itself. The music of the spheres, Trek-style.
But oh dear me. The ways it failed are truly bleak.