Friday, 5 August 2016

Square Pegg, black holes: "Star Trek: Beyond"

It's some indication of what a curious, excitable place fandom is that 2013's Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second of writer-director JJ Abrams' reboots of the old Enterprise allowance scheme, was considered by some to be a heinous betrayal of everything the franchise stood for. Curious, because to anybody who'd moved out of their parents' basement, that film looked like any other efficiently packaged corporate entertainment, no more or less juvenile than Abrams' first shot at beaming Kirk et al. into the 21st century. The theory then goes that this is a franchise in crisis - God forbid anyone should rile the fanbase, special snowflakes who want their pop culture just so - and with Abrams jumping ship to ruin more underwear with his Star Wars extension, it's apparently a franchise at a crossroads, too. 

Safe pairs of hands have thus been sought out for Star Trek: Beyond: new director Justin Lin, who steered the Fast & Furious series into a highly profitable mid-summer position, is here working from a script co-signed by fanboy-in-chief Simon Pegg that explicitly evokes the pressures faced by creatives and would-be worldbuilders working within a limiting system geared exclusively to the accumulation of revenue through sequels. As Chris Pine's once-boyish Kirk phrases it in the course of his never more weary opening narration: "The further out I go, the more I wonder what it is we're trying to accomplish." Beyond, a text that proves as self-reflexive as any of Pegg's scripts for TV's Spaced, will be the story of how a Captain - and a franchise - gets its mojo back.

That a series should be forced to address the issue of diminishing returns in only its third instalment speaks volumes about the acceleration and proliferation of the modern blockbuster: after numerous Marvel and DC smash-'em-ups, and a summer in which even the Independence Day sequel thought to stick its head up into space, how do those responsible keep these movies fresh? One solution is to seek out a new groove, and Beyond's opening twenty minutes are relaxed bordering on the hesitant about setting the scene. This is novel for a high-stakes tentpole release, a form that generally prefers to grab us by the collar from the get-go: it allows Lin to note the passing of Leonard Nimoy, a bridge between one generation of Trekkies and the next, and to note in passing that the new Sulu (John Cho) is raising a young daughter with a male partner, a heart-on-tunic-sleeve vignette of which the political progressive Gene Roddenberry himself would have been proud.

Pegg and his co-writer Doug Jung realise, however, that another way to reboot a reboot - or any other stalling machine - is to kick it, very firmly, up the arse. Turns out this leisurely prologue is but the calm before the meteor storm: the Enterprise will soon be not just attacked but ripped asunder by a swarm of robotic bees unleashed by intergalactic rent-a-heavy Idris Elba, the pests duly chomping through the craft's stabilisers and shearing off its observation deck so it resembles no more than a coin being tossed into the galaxy's outer reaches. Pegg's renewed prominence before and behind the camera here begins to make perfect sense: this time round, his Scotty has a far greater repair job on his hands than sticking some gaffer tape around a leaky pipe, just as Pegg the writer suddenly has the fate of a billion-dollar franchise in his hands.

One advantage he and Jung have over the committees charged with penning the further adventures of the Marvel mob is that older viewers - whether raised on Shatner or Stewart - will have some prior knowledge of the Enterprise's interpersonal dynamics; for longtime Trek observers, there will be something undeniably thrilling (and disturbing?) in the image of this iconic ship being left legless and helpless and tossed into the dirt. We're never too far from a big black hole here. And yet the film's dramatic methods are predominantly small screen: it's an extended Roddenberry episode in its essence, setting up a quandary - how to get the pieces of this ship back together, and how to get the crew back together - and then cutting back and forth between the A, B and C plots, depending on where the featured players are at any given interval, while we wait for everybody to resolve it. 

This gives Beyond a certain internal momentum, but also opens up the issue of scale: Pegg and Jung are stretching the bare bones of a 47-minute TV episode into a full two hours of multiplex entertainment. Lin can fill some of the remaining space with his actors: the triumvirate of Pine's Kirk, Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban as Bones is growing on me - they're like plastic action figure versions of Howard Hawks characters - and shorn of the playground tiffs and love triangles that sustained the Abrams films, Beyond has more room for its minor crew members. Lin's forte is spectacle, however, and while his visual effects occasionally appear rushed, he makes sound use of Thomas Sanders' analogue production design: whole scenes are framed by torn fuselage, and these sets look more imaginative - not to mention more secure - than those Shatner had to traverse. (Though Pegg can't resist a fun joke about one planet's rubbery-looking rocks.) 

What's absent is anything like the resonant social commentary Roddenberry routinely worked in: if Beyond has any external frame of reference, it's the state of the franchise. This is literally a film about putting some much-loved pieces back together, as close to flatpack assembly as multi-million dollar event cinema gets. You can admire the efficiency with which those pieces are put together, while recognising that it makes for a pretty empty spectacle, with next to nothing that truly stays with you once you've put your anorak on and walked back into the foyer. This hollowing-out of American movies is in many ways reflective of the hollowing out of the modern multiplex into a place where teenagers go to eat overpriced sweets, talk shit, and text one another - a bus shelter with a speaker system, no more, no less. Why knock the content, when it so obviously mirrors the form?

Beyond's solid, unspectacular opening weekend was swiftly followed by a Vanity Fair article decrying another summer of disastrous ticket sales, and dissecting why this might be so. All I can contribute to that debate is this: if the studios really wanted to boost their theatrical profits by getting grown-ups back inside the Cineworld and the Odeon, they'd do well to up their investment in writers and directors keener to wrestle with themes and complexities - the raw material of so much recent US television - than they are simply to oversee our effects houses. That would be a reboot worth queuing around the block for. Beyond, which may appease the fanbase without ever threatening to expand it, had me reaching once again for the kind of qualified praise critics working in the franchise era have been reduced to: it'll do, at least until the next one comes along.

Star Trek: Beyond is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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