Star Trek Beyond (2016) Review

JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is one of the best blockbusters in recent memory. Simultaneously a sequel, prequel and reboot, it was a perfect example of each. It remains fantastic, but any momentum the reinvigorated franchise had following it slowed considerably when 2013 sequel Into Darkness failed to build on the promising new starting point.

The reboot set up a fantastic new cast to go on their own adventures, and itself told an original story while introducing them. For Into Darkness to go back and harvest the past for no more than a little marketability was incredibly disappointing, and the film itself was a hash of messy plotting.

Beyond needed to be better not only because two disappointments in a row is often enough to sink a series, but because its release falls during Trek’s 50th anniversary. Paramount needed to release a film to mark this momentous milestone, but their efforts to make sure it happened hit problems early on.

Abrams was lured to a different galaxy – far far away – to helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and on top of that, the script wasn’t coming together as expected. Enter Justin Lin – best known for directing multiple entries in the Fast and Furious series – and Simon Pegg, who plays Enterprise engineer Scotty.

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Lin took up the director’s chair amid some unfair (and on evidence of the final product unwarranted) criticism, while Pegg penned the script with Doug Jung. That Beyond works at all after the hast of its pre-production is quite an achievement. That it works as well as it does while also paying tribute to the series and all that has maintained its success – that’s truly impressive.

Beyond starts fantastically, with the Enterprise crew three years into its five-year mission and, well, bored out of their minds. Captain James T Kirk is pondering the meaning of it all and his desire to continue as captain, while Spock is brought tragic news that has him questioning his mortality and whether or not he wants to continue to serve aboard the Enterprise.

The pair are Star Trek’s central characters, but share little screen-time in this film. This is thanks to Pegg and Jung’s script, which mixes things up by creating unexpected pairings during the second act after the Enterprise crew is stranded on an alien world. Chris Pine’s Kirk winds up with the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is paired with John Cho’s Sulu and Karl Urban’s Bones is paired with Zachary Quinto’s Spock.

It’s the latter pairing that delights most. Bones and Spock bicker continually, forming (or at least displaying to the audience) an unexpectedly touching friendship. Quinto is as good as ever, but Karl Urban really makes the most of his larger role, having given serious thought to quitting the series following Into Darkness.

Star Trek Beyond is decidedly light on character work of real depth, which takes the edge of the dramatic stakes it sets up. The first two films were so focused on Kirk and Spock that it is refreshing not to have that pairing brought to the fore again, but it’s a shame that the other characters are so under-written – particularly Sulu and especially Uhura. Saldana deserves a lot better than this series has been able to offer her.

The crew interacts with just a few other characters. Chief among them is Sophia Boutella’s alien survivor Jaylah, who is thankfully given enough to work with and just barely saves the film from becoming a boy’s own adventure. If her character is to return, and the door is certainly left open, I’d like to see where they could take her.

Boutella fits in well in a cast that has a tried and tested chemistry that makes scenes with all of them a delight. Pegg and Jung’s script has plenty of laughs to serve this rapport, including a particularly unexpected one during a scene that toes the line between stupid and ridiculous before turning into an utter joy.

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As you’d expect from Lin, the action scenes are thrilling. An early, well-publicised scene in which the Enterprise is destroyed is an easy highlight that grows in tension and excitement as the ship is completely torn apart. The length of the scene works to its advantage too, driving home the total carnage that separates the crew.

It’s in this scene that we meet Idris Elba’s villain Krall – a character who is only defined after a final act revelation, so until that point feels decidedly one-note despite the mystery. The late arrival of this plot twist means there’s little chance to delve into what it means and how it relates to our heroes, and that proves a prime example of the film’s shallowness.

Beyond is certainly well made, a lot of fun and boasts good performances, but it won’t leave a lasting impression. It pays homage to the original TV series very well in both set up and in one particular scene with some cheap-looking scenery straight out of the 60s – though it’s hard to tell just how intentional this was.

If it isn’t about particular characters, then Beyond is certainly about them all as a group. Themes of unity, harmony and peace ring throughout the film, and are particularly fitting in such divisive times. Gene Roddenberry’s series has  been about the same things. The irony for Beyond then, is that ultimately it just feels a bit… episodic – like its episode 16 in a 24 episode season of television.

Star Trek Beyond is light, breezy and revels in the glorious weirdness of pulpy science fiction, but doesn’t quite have the depth of meaning that would lend it the required urgency in its climatic scenes.

***

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Review

Everyone in Hollywood wants a cinematic universe. Universal is starting one based on classic movie monster series like The Mummy and Dracula, while Paramount is banking on Hasbro franchises including Transformers and GI Joe. Their plans, and those like them, draw groans from fans of cinema, but the efforts of some to recreate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shouldn’t detract from how daring, bold and fantastic an experiment Marvel’s has been.

For Marvel’s world of superheroes the concept of a cinematic universe makes perfect sense, as it does for DC Comics and Warner Bros. But while the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) trudges through the thick oil slick of Zack Snyder’s angsty gloom, the MCU continues to succeed through faithful characterisation and an understanding of the hope and optimism that underpins superheroes in all their guises.

Money-making potential aside, there two key benefits of a cinematic universe. Firstly, an interconnected series can lend support to lesser known characters and make them successful — Guardians of the Galaxy being the prime example . There’s also the long-term benefit of being able to pull together the various threads for event movies like Captain America: Civil War.

Marvel’s latest begins with catastrophe as an Avengers mission goes awry. As a result, the United Nations forces upon these heroes (as much as the UN can force anything upon anyone) a piece of legislature that demands they sign up and answer to them. Apparently they’re quick to forget how these guys stopped a full-scale alien invasion of Earth.

Riddled by the guilt of numerous personal fuck-ups, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is for signing up, whereas Captain America (Chris Evans) stands firmly against the idea of The Avengers answering to anyone but themselves.

As the debate winds on, a plot emerges concerning Captain America’s oldest and closest friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) — aka formerly brainwashed Hydra assassin The Winter Soldier — sending Cap and those fighting by his side on a collision course with Iron Man and those fighting by his. Bucky’s place in the film reduces him to little more than a human MacGuffin, and that’s a problem. He only shows a little character in the second half of the film, but not nearly enough to warrant all the fuss being made over him. It weakens Cap’s argument when he claims to fighting for a good man the audience seldom sees.

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Comparisons to Warner Bros and DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are inevitable. They’re both films that concern themselves with the collateral damage superheroes leave behind and, of course, involve an almighty scrap between fan-favourite good guys. Snyder’s Dawn of Justice fails because (awful script aside) it crams too much set-up and explanation in as it rushes to get to the action.

Civil War meanwhile is informed by years of character set-up, proving the benefits of a cinematic universe that nurtures an enormous cast of characters and let’s relationships between them grow in a somewhat organic way. The very fact it’s been eight years since we first met this Iron Man, and five years since we met this Cap, instantly makes their fight meaningful. What they’ve been through on their own and together, makes it dramatic.

For all the characters that appear however, this isn’t another Avengers film. Captain America’s name is there in the title, and it’s very much his story. Civil War continues the thread that ran through the character’s first outing and 2014’s The Winter Soldier, continuing to depict Cap’s growth and evolution as a character who was at first a loyal servant of his country and is now running against the establishment.

There are moments when Civil War starts to strain under the weight of its place in a cinematic universe. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are absolutely shoe-horned in to create particular moments, set things up for future films and help the plot from point A.6 to A.7 — but they’re all so great in their roles that they attribute to the overall fun. The film would be leaner without one or two of them, but if they make the film more enjoyable, how much does it really matter?

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) Review

Fox’s X-Men series is the longest running superhero series ever, but for the most part it has operated down the middle of the road — able to verge on greatness as easily as it can descend into awful nonsense. X-Men: Apocalypse — the ninth film in the series, the sixth in the X-Men line and the third in this particular trilogy — embodies this. It’s a middle of the road blockbuster that’s not terrible, not brilliant; decent fun but largely forgettable.

Apocalypse derives its title from the mantle of an ancient mutant, played by Oscar Isaac, who wakes from his slumber to discover a world he deems unfit for purpose. Believing in survival of the fittest above all else, he assembles four followers — his horsemen — to bring about the kind of destruction that justifies his name.

The plot is about as barebones as you’ll see from a superhero film this year. The bad guy wakes up, assembles his squad and attempts to do something awful as the good guys play catch-up and eventually try to stop him. That’s really it. The likely reason for this simple plot is the enormous cast, which includes the trilogy’s regulars, a few returning faces and a ton of newbies. Continue reading “X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) Review”

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

News that Disney had green-lit a live-action Jungle Book remake was met with disdain in 2013. Of course most major Hollywood announcements are met with disdain, but this struck a particular nerve given the classic status of both Rudyard Kipling’s book and Disney’s 1967 cartoon.

Clearly, from the perspective of the studio, the announcement had a lot to do with Ang Lee’s stunning Oscar-winner Life of Pi, and one of its stars — a photo-realistic, computer animated tiger. Technology is now at the level that makes a live action Jungle Book possible without several actors, crew and animal wranglers winding up in hospital.

As production neared, Disney slowly announced its cast, and with each addition my confidence in the picture grew. Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnasson as Kaa, Christopher Walken as King Louie, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera — that’s an ensemble for the ages. Bill Murray as Baloo was the cherry on the icing on the cake, and, to use a dash of hyperbole perhaps, an all-time great piece of casting.

With the thoroughly capable hands of Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) at the helm, everything was shaping up nicely in my view, but many remained sceptical.

Disney’s animation is revered with just cause. It’s iconic, but it’s important to remember that it took some serious liberties with the source material. Favreau’s film looks to both that film and 1894 anthology for inspiration, turning to the former for fun and the latter for a touch of darkness.

As the familiar Disney indent leads us into the jungle, the film starts with a chase sequence starring young Mowgli (debutant Neel Sethi), his wolf-pup kin and Kingsley’s Bagheera. It’s a pulsating start that primes its audience for a great many more thrilling set pieces.

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A lot was asked of 12-year-old Sethi – who for long periods is the only ‘real’ thing in the frame – tasked as he was with interacting with a lot of green screen and a cast of non-existent (at the time of filming) characters. In the face of this, the charismatic youngster does great work. He may, on occasion, seem a little lost acting opposite a tennis ball or something from the bag of special effects trickery — but in no way is it ultimately detrimental to the film.

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