Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review - Star Trek Beyond

          It's finally time to get back in the swing of things. As anyone who follows the blog may have noticed, the past couple of months have been really...weird for me. I didn't have any new reviews or articles in June and my July piece was spawned out of the amalgam of my contempt for the current state of the country, my fear of flying, and further experimentation with philosophical nihilism. There were also several personal reasons that contributed to this, perhaps most glaring of which was my sister's wedding over a week ago. (On a side note, I had never been to a wedding before - are they really supposed to be that short?) There has also been some movement around at work that has affected me, providing me potential avenues of moving up in my current career field, despite my desire to try and move into writing or marketing. I will confess that this caused me to question the fruitfulness and status of the blog for a brief period in time, which, as one can imagine, also contributed to that weird lull over the past couple of months. However, after some reflection, I concluded that the blog is one of my most valuable things, and it allows me to continue to explore that largely uncharted world of Philosophy, despite distancing myself from San Diego State or any philosophical institution. And it is in this vein that I have slightly altered my approach to the blog; I had previously understood it as a tool with which I could publish philosophical essays online without having to go through some kind of academic institution or publisher, but now, I have realized that it is better understood as a kind of journal, I place where I can still pursue the fundamental aims of Philosophy without being confined by the rigors or politics of academic writing. It is both risky and liberating - by acknowledging my own informality in using a blog to pursue the aims of Philosophy, I subsequently concede that my articles here are not spun of the same thread as anything published by a journal or academic institution. At the same time, it's liberating in the sense that I am no longer involved in that parlor game of politics and "who knows who" that academia seems to have become, that "ivory tower" that seems to distance itself from anything of relevance in the lives of most individuals. I pursue Philosophy to genuinely arrive at truths about the world around me, and apply those truths to my day-to-day life, not simply treat it as some discipline that, at the end of the day, gets left in the confines of a classroom.
          Now, moving forward, and despite everything that has happened to me over the summer, I have been actually keeping up with my movies. Since Civil War, I have more or less seen every notable movie that has come out, for better or for worse. The Conjuring 2, despite my cynicism of the modern horror movie, was actually quite good, delivering the same kind of dramatic creepiness of the first one with a significantly different plot and setting. WarCraft, on the other hand, wasn't as great, but, in it's defense, wasn't as bad as many critics made it out to be, and is still strides ahead of my current "Worst Movie of 2016" so far, The 5th Wave. However, Independence Day: Resurgence was absolutely horrible, and easily comes in a close 2nd for "Worst Movie of 2016", if not for the fact that Jeff Goldblum managed to salvage a small fragment of the otherwise awful acting. It's a pity because I am actually a fan of the original Independence Day, complete with all of it's 90s quirks and slightly dated cinematography. The over-hyped Ghostbusters reboot, as was somewhat expected, added to the quagmire of bad movies, parading around as a highly immature comedy movie that just happened to have ghosts in it, as opposed to the supernatural action movie that just happened to have Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in it that was the original Ghostbusters (and yes, those are two radically different things). If we are looking to place Ghostbusters on the scale of "Bad Movies of 2016" so far, it probably gets the bronze medal after The 5th Wave and Independence Day: Resurgence. Now, however, we get a nice reprieve from the train of bad movies and I am able to continue my film reviews with an entry on something that was actually good: Star Trek Beyond.
          Star Trek Beyond is the third entry in the reboot series initiated by J.J. Abrams in 2009, following 2009's Star Trek and 2013's Star Trek: Into Darkness. The series is notable for cementing Abrams' name as a staple of mainstream science fiction cinema, after an already noteworthy career, having created the television series Lost and produced or directed several more clandestine feature-length entries, such as 2008's Cloverfield and 1998's Armageddon (I call Armageddon "clandestine" insofar as it's that movie that often gets confused with Deep Impact, a movie with virtually the same plot and the same production value from the exact same year, released roughly around the exact same time). The first installment in the series, Star Trek, is often referenced as a formula of how to do a reboot correctly, as well as a standard-bearer of modern sci-fi special effects.
          I will admit that I was never very big into world of Star Trek as a child (I was always more of a Star Wars fan). Granted, I wasn't completely in the dark about the series either - I certainly knew who Captain James Kirk and Commander Spock were (i.e. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy), and I was perhaps even more familiar with Captain Jean Luc Picard and Data from The Next Generation. It may be somewhat of a pity because, as I would learn far later on in my college career, Star Trek had historically been motivated by many philosophical conundrums, and often used them as underlying themes in the plot points. My first 'real' immersion into Star Trek wouldn't come until the reboot in 2009. I will even confess that my big motivation for going to see the reboot wasn't so much that I thought it looked good so much as the fact that I had already been very familiar with J.J. Abrams' work, having enjoyed Cloverfield and Armageddon. As such, I was only partially surprised with how much I enjoyed 2009's Star Trek, expecting nothing less of Abrams, despite my unfamiliarity with the series. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Star Trek, in general, is the fact that it is wholly unafraid to explore some of the most bizarre, story-changing tropes of science fiction, such as, say, time travel, something that we don't get from Star Wars. That said, and despite my enjoyment of the 2009 reboot, I never actually saw Into Darkness, but, from what I understand, it was just as much a success as the reboot, and thrust Benedict Cumberbatch into the spotlight as the newest teenage girl heartthrob (much like Tom Hiddleston was after The Avengers). And now we have arrived at Star Trek Beyond, the third installment in the series, where we see Abrams shift to a producer position and Justin Lin take the reigns as director. Despite that directorial shift, I must say that Beyond still hits the mark as a good entry in the science fiction genre, contrary to what some critics have said, though perhaps not as much as its predecessor in 2009.
          We open with Captain Kirk at the helm of the USS Enterprise, accompanied by his motley crew of Spock, Dr. Leonard McCoy, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, Pilot Hikaru Sulu, and Ensign Pavel Chekov. After making a name for themselves among Star Fleet after previous missions, the Enterprise now spends most of its time exploring the frontiers of space, often finding little more other than, well, space. Eventually, the ship and crew dock at the Federation colony of Yorktown for some much needed R&R. During their stay at Yorktown, the colony receives a distress signal from a nearby escape pod in space and they find a young alien woman name Kalara. Kalara explains to the higher-ups at Yorktown that her ship has crashed on the planet Altamid, an uncharted planet on the other side of a nearby nebula. Kirk and crew are then tasked with the mission of helping Kalara find her crashed ship and rescue her crew. Once they arrive on the other side of the nebula, however, they are attacked by a swarm of alien ships and their commander, Krall, who is in search of an artifact that happens to be aboard the Enterprise. During the ambush, the Enterprise is catastrophically damaged and crashes on Altamid, with most of the crew escaping, however ending up scattered and mostly captured by Krall and his crew. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, and Chekov all manage to evade capture, however, and assume the task of rescuing the rest of the crew and escaping the planet. Scott befriends an alien scavenger by the name of Jaylah who is then able to help him reunite with Kirk and Chekov. They are eventually able to find Spock and McCoy and learn that the artifact that Krall was after is actually a fragment of an ancient weapon that has the power to disintegrate virtually any kind of biological organism. Now, with that fragment, Krall is able to complete that weapon, and intends to use it to destroy Yorktown.
          With help from Jaylah, Kirk et al. manage to find the location of the rest of crew at Krall's hidden base. She also reveals that a former federation ship, the USS Franklin, had previously crashed on the planet as well, and that she had been using it as a home since then. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Jaylah embark on the rescue mission to free the rest of the crew, while Scott stays behind to repair the Franklin and get it ready for their escape. Kirk manages to infiltrate Krall's base and free the rest of the crew, who get beamed aboard the Franklin, but not before he can stop Krall from departing towards Yorktown with the bio-weapon. After a slightly rough takeoff, the Franklin then pursues Krall and his swarm back to Yorktown, where Krall begins to bombard the outer shield. Spock quickly deduces that the swarm ships around Krall exhibit behavior similar to that of bees, and that with an appropriate jamming signal, the swarm will become chaotic and scatter, ultimately destroying it. With the help of a boom box that Jaylah salvaged on Altamid, Kirk then uses the Franklin's transmission systems to blast Rage Against the Machine into space, which halts the assault on Yorktown and, sure enough, causes the swarm to either flee into space or crash into each other and be destroyed (no, seriously...Captain Kirk actually stops an alien death fleet from wiping out mankind not with laser beams or advanced technology, but with Rage Against the Machine). However, Krall's ship manages to penetrate into Yorktown, and a hot pursuit unfolds throughout the gravity-warped streets and tunnel-ways of the space station. In the end, Kirk manages to literally cut-off Krall's ship, forcing it to crash into the Franklin. While searching the debris for any bodies, Kirk and crew learn that Krall is actually the physically warped form of former Franklin captain Balthazar Edison, who had become disenchanted with the Federation of Planets and Star Fleet, whom he believed had abandoned him and his crew into the further reaches of space. After landing on Altamid, Edison learned of the ancient technology of the natives to both prolong life and destroy it, motivating his search for this bio-weapon. Edison/Krall manages to sneak past the Yorktown security forces and into the oxygen core for the ventilation system of Yorktown, where he plans to release the bio-weapon and let it spread throughout the city, killing everyone. Kirk quickly catches up to Krall and a fight ensues while Scott manages to override the ventilation control systems, redirecting anything in the core into space, including Kirk and Krall. Sure enough, during the fight, Edison/Krall, Kirk, and the weapon are ejected from the core towards an emergency tunnel that leads directly into space, but Spock and McCoy, having commandeered an alien ship, manage to catch Kirk before being directly sucked out. While Yorktown celebrates, Kirk is offered a position as vice-admiral of Yorktown, which he declines, preferring instead to continue his journey into space with his crew. At a small victory party, Kirk and crew welcome Jaylah into Star Fleet, while they look on as the USS Enterprise-A is constructed.
          I previously expressed my overall satisfaction with the new Star Trek series, and Beyond continues that trend. There are several things that the film does right that make a worthy entry in the science fiction genre. Perhaps most important, it pays homage to the original series without completely ripping it off. Kudos are in line for Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy, a character that, even in the original series, was very reluctant to "get his hands dirty", so to speak, preferring to stay on the sidelines or aboard the ship while the rest of the crew embarked on their missions. As such, McCoy's reactions when he is asked to accompany Spock and commandeer one of the swarm ships, or when he is tasked as serving as a distraction for Krall's goons before Kirk shows up are a complete throwback to the original. Chris Pine also does a great job of portraying the same kind of hot-headed, daredevil Kirk that William Shatner portrayed in the 60s, but even manages to do it with his own kind of flair and mannerisms. Another thing that the film does well is in invoking the same kind of sci-fi themes, or sci-fi questions, that both the original series and The Next Generation were built on. I mentioned that one of the distinctions between Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars is more built on one long story (or space opera, if you are a proponent of that term), chronicling the hero's journey from novice to master, and, as such, doesn't devote as much time to entertaining the big philosophical questions that really drive science fiction. Star Trek, on the other hand, is much more episodic in its approach (which makes sense, given that Star Trek was originally a TV series), allowing it to explore many different ideas and concepts. How would the space-time continuum change if a Romulan warlord traveled back in time and assassinated a younger version of Spock? If I may invoke The Next Generation, did we really leave the Holodeck? Is the Federation of Planets really a good thing? What if Krall is right, and the Federation is just a cold and corrupt government structure? It's questions like these that fall by the wayside in Star Wars; nobody ever asks whether the Resistance are really the good guys, or why they are resisting the First Order to begin with (granted, it becomes a little more obvious when Starkiller Base just happens to blow up several planets, but it was at least questionable up until that point). In previous installments, Yoda explains that the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force is not a struggle between good and evil, but a struggle for balance. We never really have another character that seems to embrace this; such an understanding of the Force allows for a kind of moral nihilism, a dissolution of good and evil into a simple conflict between two parties whose ends just happen to be at odds, but this is never played out. Star Trek, however, has historically entertained these ideas, and the new film series, fortunately, continues this tradition. And of course, the special effects were what I would expect for such an installment in science fiction. The gravity-warped Yorktown is a great example of this, as well as the design of Krall and his soldiers.
          All of that said, there are a couple points of criticism that I suppose are due here. First, the character development was lacking in this one, and, at times, appeared to be "forced". Spock's romance with Uhura, for example, was something that was brought up several times throughout the film, but never really played out. The characters just briefly mention that Spock and Uhura had a thing for each other, but neither character every really acted like it - Uhura was locked up for most of the movie, but, even while in captivity, we never see her reminisce on Spock at all, and Spock mentions his feelings for Uhura while stranded on Altamid, but then seems indifferent to her plight when compared to the other captured crew members (and no, this can't simply be chalked up to the cold, calculative nature of Vulcans). Second, and despite my above praise for the film, Beyond seems to be the weaker installment in the series, not achieving the level of depth and immersion as the 2009 reboot. Perhaps this is partially because of my previous criticism. The first installment in the series showed us real character development; we saw a James Kirk trying to live up to the reputation of his father, rebelling against authority as a child who grows up without a family is apt to do, a Spock who witnesses the destruction of his home world, and even a Nero that is passionate about destroying Spock and the Enterprise in order to avenge his own home world (again, are the Romulans really the bad guys?). The plot for Beyond also seems very much like a re-hash of the original plot in a sense: someone is really angry at Star Fleet and wants to destroy it. Granted, Nero was more pointedly upset with Spock in the first installment, but the ultimate destruction of Star Fleet was still his secondary aim. Finally, the last criticism I have of Beyond is more of a warning than a criticism, but is still particularly relevant: care should be given to avoid falling into that viper pit that is empty action sequences without context. Beyond had a notable amount of action in it, from the initial battle sequence between the Enterprise and Krall's swarm to the daring, high-speed motorcycle rescue mission of Kirk on Altamid, to the epic fight scene between Jaylah and Krall's lieutenant, Manas. However, if I may invoke the term "equilibrium", one can slowly see the scales tipping out of balance; notice how, as the complexity of the plot and character development goes down, the amount of action goes up. In the extreme, what we are left with, then, is meaningless action, something akin to the thing that I have been accusing superhero films of for some time. If the ending sequence of either Avengers film teaches us anything, it's that the artistry of character and plot development is secondary to the cash cow that is unabated action sequences. Star Trek should be careful not to fall into that same quagmire, lest it completely abandon the philosophical precepts that motivated its roots.
          Still, Star Trek Beyond has easily made my list of "Best Movies of 2016" so far, an honor it shares with the likes of Deadpool and The Conjuring 2. That said, and now that the summer is coming to a wrap, we are starting to get a sense of how, cinematically speaking, this year will end, and, unfortunately, it's looking like it won't be as spectacular as last year. Fury Road, Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens were indeed monumental pieces of science fiction cinema, and it doesn't quite seem as if 2016 has yet produced anything close to that caliber. Granted, Suicide Squad has been boasted as "the most anticipated movie of the year", and has recently been released, but I hear it sucked, and critics didn't take too kindly to it, which is what I expected insofar as it was produced by DC and, as I have previously written, DC is always extremely late to the party. And so with 2016's cinematic prodigal son, Suicide Squad, out of the way, and doing mediocre at best, what does that leave for the rest of the year? Well, after revisiting my list and double checking it online, the remainder of the year looks pretty stark: Doctor Strange doesn't come out until November, and only Assassin's Creed and Rogue One remain after that, none of which I am expecting to live up to the precedent set by last year. This also leaves very little film material to write on between now and January. Perhaps this isn't necessarily a bad thing, though - instead, I can focus more on philosophical and journalism pieces, something that I have been taking a break from this past summer and that I have been meaning to do more of.