Sunday, July 31, 2016

Star Trek Beyond Critiqued

Here it is in a nutshell: Star Trek Beyond was an OK action-adventure film, with fine acting on the part of almost all actors. The special effects were striking and impressively detailed. The film missed on plot consistency and logic, and in my estimation it cheated by lying to the audience in a major way. I walked away feeling satisfied with some aspects of it, yet fundamentally disappointed, though not enough to demand my money back or recommend that you not see it, nor berate you for liking it.

That's my review.

If you don't like spoilers, don't read any further, because I intend to spoil it terribly here by explaining those statements. In doing so I'll also opine on how the errors I perceive could have been avoided. If you think that every review should be sunshine and light and positivism, you're not going to get that here. And if you think a Trekker's not a Trekker unless he gushes about everything, you may want to go somewhere else to feed that delusion.

Here's a big picture to put some space between this intro and the stuff you don't want to read:

Seriously, if you don't like spoilers you should go away. Here's a featurette you should watch while reconsider your decision to proceed. It's only a minute long:


I hope you watched that featurette, because I'm going to jump right in with my core problem with this film, which is that the writers and director Justin Lin lied to us. I don't mean that they lied to us about wanting to create a complex character with a valid beef against the Federation.  I mean they lied to us in their attempt to execute that plan.

You can see the villain right there. His name is Krall. He's the greyish blue guy, of obviously alien extraction. Lots of ridges, latex, no external ears... reptilian in appearance. In the film he speaks in a carefully enunciated though somewhat broken English, as if he's unfamiliar with the language. In an exchange with Uhura he expresses unfamiliarity with the concept of sacrifice. He asks why she would sacrifice herself for her captain.

So... an alien with a beef, right?


As revealed by a TV spot (one that's frankly making me reconsider whether to feel guilty about spoilers), The villain Krall is human, aka Balthazar M. Edison.

Now, I want you to go back and forth between those two images for a bit, because I submit that there is absolutely no way even close scrutiny reveals Edison's face under the Krall latex and dentures. And yet it happens.

The filmmakers could have left their villain in the shadows for a dramatic reveal, and yet they didn't. They simply lied. They cheated the audience in the same way that a detective novelist cheats the audience when he withholds vital information until the last page.

Here's why I wanted you to see that featurette: Look at what Lin wanted to accomplish: "I wanted a character that was there to deconstruct the Federation's ideals, but to do it in a way where he has a very valid philosophy." Simon Pegg adds, "We wanted him to have a complex reason behind his bad-guy-ness." Idris Elba opines, "There's some empathy towards him."

Sadly, I think they failed on every count, and I think I'm objective in that observation. And sorry, I can't explain without further spoilers.

Krall is formerly a MACO -- the US Marine-analogue contemporaneous with Captain Archer's Enterprise era. When the war was won, he was given command of a starship, which he wound up crashing on a planet on the far side of a ridiculously over-dense nebula that should have accreted into planetary bodies long ago. But this is cinema, so we get this visual metaphor. Krall then finds some alien tech that allows him to extend his lifespan and coincidentally turned him into a Jem'hadar look-alike.

We are informed outright that Starfleet communications do not penetrate this nebula. There's no way anybody will know about him there, and he knows it. However, in his many years there he finds alien tech that does allow him to spy on the Federation. He also builds or acquires the tech to many thousands of bullet-like spacecraft, each independently capable of warp**(no carrier required), and which in concert an take out any Federation craft, past or present. They do this by being somehow immune to Federation deflector shielding and just being basically indestructible and pointy.

Why he didn't just jump in one of those years before and take a ride home is never explored. Even before he had the tech to fly home on his own he could have used his comm-tech to reach out with a distress call. He knows about them and even knows how to block and re-direct them. He has a copy of the Federation database that he pulled from the Yorktown complex. If he'd ever done a search for his own (human) name he'd have known that he was thought of as a hero. He'd have known he wasn't "abandoned". He could have returned to a warm welcome. Instead he chose to do a thousand really dumb and evil things for no valid, logical reason whatsoever.

Krall's wounds are self-inflicted. Lin wanted somebody to logically deconstruct the Federation's ideals, but instead he created a madman who railed against strawmen of his own devising.

Furthermore, we don't learn any of this stuff until it's too late to care about the guy. We don't even know that he's human until we already learn that he has long had the means to rescue himself and/or call for help. So at the moment he records that last message in the TV spot above, we're already recognizing it as bullshit. And when Uhura identifies Krall* from grainy video of the back of a human's head in a crowd, we likewise recognize that as bullshit.

In short (too late!), there's nothing sympathetic about this guy. There's nothing logical about this guy. Federation ideals are untouched by whatever philosophy they think he brings.

So that's the biggie. I can forgive any number of "cinema sins", but lying to me with a straight face isn't one of them.

How to Fix This:

First, recognize that Krall as he's written is a thinly-disguised Khan Noonien Singh clone. He's a superman from the past who feels wronged and so comes back to take revenge. The major difference is that Khan has an actual beef. He was abandoned. He was put on a planet and nobody ever checked on him. He was so abandoned that the Federation didn't even notice when his neighboring planet was destroyed.

But we've done Khan over and over. I don't want to fix this so that it's a better Khan movie. It should be something different, yet in the spirit of Star Trek, something that's close to home. Here's one way to approach it. There are surely others, but here's my stab at it.

There is no reason for the villain to be 'complex'. He should feel real, and making him arbitrarily 'complex' simply leaves a frizzy mess of loose ends when you do it poorly. People like me notice those things and snort. So make Krall a bona fide alien, on a bona fide alien world that should be teaming with life and civilization. Keep the concept of the crashed Federation ship from the Enterprise era, and recognize that bio-filters of that time were not only not as sophisticated as they later became; they couldn't be deployed in a crash. Some minor sickness decimates the alien population. And this works even if there's no crash... just first contact. The Federation didn't mean to hurt anybody... it just happened.

It's a metaphor for European first contact with America and what might have happened if the Europeans had not come back for a long time. Here the remaining aliens have a most undeniably valid reason for resenting or even hating the Federation. They might draw a stark contrast between the high-minded words of the explorers from Earth and the reality of their genocide. They might want revenge for just cause. Given their isolated location, they would have generations to prepare for it, or they may be naturally long lived. Or even, as in the episode Miri, they were granted that longevity by the very disease that wiped out their civilization. Proof that their cause is just.

Whatever the details, in this scenario we don't have to guess at where the alien tech came from... it's from the aliens. We don't have to wonder what happened to the aliens... we know how they died, that's the point. We don't have to wonder at the fact that they kept quiet... they weren't ready. We don't have to marvel at their inconsistencies... there are none. We aren't re-hashing Khan for the umpteenth time, and though the European first contact metaphor has been used before, it hasn't been done by Star Trek in this way.

Also, this better ties the introductory scene into the body of the movie. In the current script, this scene is just a way for Kirk to acquire the McGuffin. In my re-write, it is a concise illustration of the kind of misunderstandings that arise between two cultures who are unfamiliar with each other, and this is the theme that's to be explored in detail by the film. It's a far more Roddenberry-like solution in my opinion.

Minor Nits:

Since I mentioned "cinema sins", here are a few more before I call it a day...
  • Re-hashing the solution from Mars Attacks. As soon as I heard it I knew it would be Chekhov's Gun... almost literally. 
  • Inexhaustible supplies of "amber" from Fringe. Was Walter Bishop on that ship?
  • Inexplicable ability to create multiple live holograms of Kirk, which aren't synchronous. They're doing different things, and where did the emitters come from? The only ones we saw prior were somewhat bulky, and they flickered badly.
  • Girl who thinks a ship is a "house" out-Scotties Scotty. I'm not really concerned about this one because I like her.
  • Who the *&(# designs a starbase like that? MC Escher? And you can fly a starship into it through the waterway? I get the "gravity" of it... I just don't know what they were thinking.
  • I don't much care whether Sulu's gay or not. But George Takei doesn't like it, and I have a problem with "honoring" somebody in a way that they publicly say they dislike. It's pretty much a dick move, even if it's unintentional. But to be honest, there's just an embrace and nothing that really establishes homosexuality. So, in deference to George Takei, I'm going to just leave that as unresolved. There's no reason to suppose that this wasn't Sulu's brother-in-law or just a close friend.

Things I Especially Like:
  • An actual captain's log entry!  "Things are feeling a bit episodic." If I could squee, I would.
  • Sofia Boutella as Jayla. Very nice job all 'round, that. 
  • Ditto for Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commodore Paris.
  • Greg Gunberg's appearance. Zachary Quinto pulled another Hero into the Star Trek universe. good for him! And a nice touch calling him "Finnegan". (Correction: JJ pulled him in.)
  • The starship warp effect. Finally somebody got this to look great, and not cheesy at all. No rainbow spikes or stretchies. It's a real space warp. I still don't like the ship itself, sorry. 
  • "Classical music"
  • The nod to Leonard Nimoy's death. And I got verklempt at the dedication "for Anton".
  • The little things... a generally "lived-in" look for the Star Trek universe, including the wearing of civvies off-duty, Chekov's "inwented in Russia" fantasies, Kirk rips his shirt, etc.
  • The pacing is quite good, as is the music and cinematography. I think they went overboard with some of the visual metaphors such as the number of little pointy bullet-ships, the density of the nebula, the Seussian jaggedness of the alien world, but all of that are visual choices. Portraying them much more realistically would have been boring.
In general, I liked the film. But in order to like it, I have to accept in my mind that the villain is a one-dimensional lunatic with no valid logic behind his actions. And please keep in mind... this is an opinion about a fictional story. Your opinion may differ. That's OK.


Updates and Rebuttals:

A friend points out a couple of things I didn't explicitly cover here... in other words, mistakes I made. (That's OK, I make them sometimes)

* First, he points out that Uhura identified Krall by sound, not sight. I still criticize it for the same reasons. If you play audio of Krall against that clip of Edison, they're as similar as the two photos. I still ain't buyin' it.

** Second, he points out that the small ships don't have warp drive. We're told that the Franklin doesn't have working warp coils, and that Yorktown is right outside the nebula.

Again, it doesn't change things except to make them worse. Given the distances involved, you have to have an FTL drive, whether you call it "warp" or anything else. Otherwise they'd be piddling about in their home star's gravity well. People forget how huge space is. I refer you to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which gets this part exactly right:
"Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space."
Yup. Science. The filmmakers didn't account for the enormity of a nebula, nor did they account for the far side of the nebula being far enough away to accomodate not just the planet, but its star and the entire orbital path of said planet... far enough away from all that flotsam that it is not constantly pelted.

Friggin huge. That's what space is. That's why I'm calling them on the warp drive. They had it, or it didn't happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment