Going Beyond For Everybody

Despite their warring fanbases and differing approaches to science-fiction, Star Wars and Star Trek actually suffer from a similar problem: they’re incredibly overhyped. Both George Lucas’ intergalactic western and Gene Roddenberry’s space explorers TV show have become so ingrained onto pop culture that fans have glorified both properties as these deep epics of poetry and symbolism. It’s great to see such passion in these properties, but both franchises are mostly just fun space adventures with likeable characters. Like most memorable forms of television and movies, the characters are what people remember and cherish the most (the proof is in how many action figures both properties have sold). Taking those properties and trying to make them overly complex and self-serious has proven to be a bad step for both franchises. Star Wars has the prequels, and Star Trek has The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, Insurrection and Into Darkness. When both properties know what they are and focus on their characters while keeping the fun, they both thrive. Star Wars has its original trilogy and The Force Awakens while Star Trek has The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country and the 2009 reboot. And now, Trekkies and casual fans alike can add one more to that list.

Star Trek Beyond brings audiences back with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise about three years into their five-year voyage, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a little lost (IIIINNNN SPAAAAACE….sorry, had to do it). He has to clear his head fast when a lone alien is rescued by the Federation and asks for the Enterprise to travel to an unknown planet and save her people. Kirk and co. run into the monstrous Krall (Idris Elba) and his swarm of spaceships that strand the crew on the unknown planet. Dr. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are fighting hurt, Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) try to find out what Krall is after, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken captive with the rest of the crew, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets a mysterious inventor (Sofia Boutella) with a way to help. Though they crash land apart, the Enterprise crew must find each other to stop Krall’s evil plan.

Full disclosure: I love J.J. Abrams’ reboot films, but I’m not a Trekkie and Abrams made those movies almost exclusively for non-Trek fans, which explains my love for them and why they’re so successful. This may have actually been Paramount’s plan all along: Now that Star Trek has once again immersed itself into pop culture and established its brand amongst typical moviegoers, it can finally be what longtime fans have wanted all along and offer casual viewers more of the same. The trick? Have a longtime fan who just so happens to be a huge fan (Pegg) co-write the script and have a blockbuster action director (Justin Lin of Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6) keep the whole thing moving.

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(Left to right) Chris Pine and director Justin Lin on set of “Star Trek Beyond”

Pegg’s script is simple and has more interest in character interaction than general plot. Beyond may be the simplest Star Trek movie to date, so small in scale and so uninterested in its stakes that Krall doesn’t feel all that threatening. Beyond feels more like an extended TV episode than a major motion-picture, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. While Abrams is great at setting up movies, he has trouble creating an entirely satisfying ending (perhaps Star Trek ‘09 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the exceptions). Lin knows exactly how to keep a steady pace and fun atmosphere throughout the movie while sliding in some solid (if not brief) character moments, like how Spock handles the death of his future self (R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy). Beyond is more about watching the crew of the Enterprise come together in a pinch than a grand plot to save the entire universe, sacrificing what could’ve been a great villain in exchange for continuously developing good characters, which works.  Lin knows exactly what Star Trek is through and through, building colorful sets and weaving cool space gadgets into the film. He also gets to have super fun with special effects and CGI, creating an impressive inner-space Federation base that should be seen to be believed. But it’s about seeing the crew interact with each other and how bonded they are with each other. 

 

Beyond thrives the same way all Star Trek movies thrive: with a great, connected cast. Pine and Quinto remain on-point as Kirk and Spock, but Quinto gets out just a bit farther ahead than Pine. Quinto gets the deeper moments for Spock while Pine remains in stern hero mode. Kirk is advertised as “lost in space” and unsure if wants to remain off planet anymore, but it all gets lost in the action and quickly resolves itself before the credits. Pine is still a fine lead, but that’s only because his bland confidence is spaced between the supporting acts like Quinto and the ever-lovable Urban. It makes sense that Scotty gets a lot more dialogue this time around since his actor wrote the script, but Pegg is no comedic slouch thanks to his frantic energy. Sadly, Beyond also commits an intergalactic offense by wasting Elba in the villain role. Not only does he feel restricted behind some (admittedly impressive) alien makeup, but he may be the most expendable villain since the faux-God in The Final Frontier despite a plot-twist reveal on his backstory. Again, the sacrifice is for the good of the main cast, but it feels like something that could’ve used a touch more development especially from such a great actor.

 

Beyond is the movie that meets Trekkies and casual fans halfway, with random science techno-babble and motorcycle stunts going hand-in-hand. It’s a tad ridiculous, but that comes with the territory and, like Lin’s Fast & Furious films, doesn’t mean to insult the audience’s intelligence. How can you hate a movie that takes place thousands of years into the future yet still manages to throw in Beastie Boys and Public Enemy as plot devices?

 

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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The Franchise Awakens

Don’t worry, everybody: it’s good. How good? Well….

Disney had quite the mountain to climb when they announced an entirely new trilogy of Star Wars movies was going into production. Not only would they follow the original trilogy over 30 years after its conclusion, not only would they bring back the original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), not only would George Lucas not be involved in the entire process (a good or bad thing depending on who you ask) but it would primarily follow a new set of characters and a new plot line. For any other franchise, that’d be a somewhat tough task. But for one of the (if not THE) most iconic film franchise in history, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest blindfolded wearing a light windbreaker. Nevertheless, the House of Mouse decided to play dirty with one thought; who better to revive this beloved sci-fi space opera than the guy who revived that OTHER beloved sci-fi space opera? J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) answered the call and conquered Everest…but not without some struggle.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but from their ashes rose a new sinister galactic force called The First Order, featuring Sith warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When they reveal their greatest weapon with the intent to destroy The Republic, a group of outsiders team up to save the galaxy. That group includes scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)….oh yeah, and these two old smugglers named Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

 

The first thing to say about The Force Awakens is that it’s most definitely a J.J. Abrams movie, as evidence by the visuals and the pacing. As seen in his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, Abrams keeps the movie light on its feet and moving at a brisk pace. That’s a hit and miss strategy since the pacing keeps the movie moving without ever getting boring but also takes the emotional punch out of the more serious scenes (especially in the first half). In fact, the movie’s two main elements are split between the two halves of the 135-minute runtime. The first half has great visuals and builds atmosphere well but the character establishment is lacking, whereas the second half has the audience fully invested in the characters’ actions but the visual wham of it has somewhat worn off. Not that the visuals in the movie aren’t already very impressive, as Abrams glossy sheen on scenes with the Millennium Falcon or The First Order’s reveal of their great weapon. The most of the plot of the movie and the script (assembled by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) are both cohesive plot elements and references to the original trilogy. There are some throwaway scenes that matter little to the pot but just keep the movie going, so The Force Awakens keeps audiences in the seats just long enough to keep them from questioning whether or not they’ve seen this before.

 

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John Boyega and Daisy Ridley Photo Credit: JoBlo

 

The Force Awakens hits a real home run with its casting, specifically its new lead characters. John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley (Scrawl) have fantastic chemistry between each other and with the Star Wars universe in general. They and Oscar Isaac bring the energy and humanity missing from the prequels because they’re allowed to look like they’re excited to be here. They want to fly the Falcon, they want to shoot Stormtroopers, they want to be involved in the legacy of The Force. It’s clear from the two leads of their passion for the movie as to how invested they are in the universe around them. Boyega’s Finn is searching for a new purpose throughout the movie after exiling himself (rather abruptly, though) from The First Order. Maybe it’s because of the pacing that his transformation feels a bit too quick, but his charisma carries him through. Adam Driver (Girls) makes for a surprisingly compelling villain as Kylo Ren, even if he is essentially a Darth Vader fanboy gone to the extreme. He gets a bit hard to buy once he takes that helmet off, but the way he uses his backstory (no spoilers) to make his transformation fully-formed sells the whole thing (and yes, his lightsaber is awesome). The heart and soul of the movie is Ridley as the scrappy dreamer Rey. In no way, shape or form is she a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s the one who moves the whole story forward as the dreamer looking to escape her wasteland planet (basically a discount Tatooine) and discover herself. She’s leading Finn through the perils of The First Order, she’s the one piloting the Falcon, she’s the one challenging Kylo. She’s no Furiosa, but Ridley makes Rey feel fully-formed and, for the first time in the Star Wars universe, inhabits a character that the audience wants to see more of in later movies.

 

Despite the excellent job the two main leads do with their work, there’s also a feeling of missed opportunity with some of the supporting players. The likes of Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o and especially Gwendoline Christie are criminally underused in their small roles. They’re clearly happy to join the Star Wars universe and some ham it up to show their appreciation (Gleeson especially as the hilariously sniveling General Hux), but their characters deserved a bit more to do. For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the original cast, it’s because they’re barely in the movie. The Force Awakens is probably the most Han-centric Star Wars movie to date, but Harrison Ford brings nothing really new to the character. Not that it’s a bad thing, since Ford is one of those guys who out-acts people in his sleep. He and Carrie Fisher still have that chemistry that audiences loved from the original trilogy and even in the elder state, there’s a warm love still felt between the two. And all I’ll say about Hamill is that he’s in the movie.

 

I want to cap this off by emphasizing that, again, The Force Awakens is a good movie. Abrams and his production team establish a universe that is both undoubtedly Star Wars yet unique from previous installments. The production design is fantastic, the effects (both practical and special) are great, and the movie has some of the best cast and characters seen in Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. But here’s the rub; The Force Awakens is less a directly connected sequel, but the purest definition of a “soft reboot.” This movie clearly wants nothing to do with the prequels (maybe in every shape and form) and everything to do with the original trilogy. From a business standpoint, bringing Star Wars movies back into production was more about the maddening hype and excitement of the event more than the event itself. But perhaps out of pure luck or maybe actual passion for this franchise, Disney got a director and team that actually wanted to create something new with Star Wars. Abrams and company’s work feels like that of a team that dressed up in cosplay, wrote essays on the subtext of the movies, made fan-films and alternate endings to the movies. Everyone involved in The Force Awakens (aside from maybe Ford, but that’s forgivable) cared about what they were doing. The Force Awakens is actually similar to the miracle of The Lego Movie: a purely corporate business decision meant to make money and generate marketing revenue that was given actual effort and passion put into it. Granted, The Lego Movie is far better than The Force Awakens, but this movie accomplished its mission. The world wants more Star Wars, Hollywood wants more Star Wars, I want more Star Wars.

 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4

The Unstoppable “Impossible”

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With all the hoopla that surrounds the casting of superheroes in movies, it’s a wonder that no one ever tried to get Tom Cruise in a cape and mask. In nearly every movie he’s in, he’s speeding through the streets, fighting bad guys, dodging gunfire, running to and from explosions and treating death defying stunts like a stroll through the parts. Even when it comes to the tabloid field-day that is his personal life, Cruise is almost indestructible. Seriously, how has this guy not been tested as Superman or Batman?! Regardless, Cruise is back as international capeless crusader Ethan Hunt for a fifth time in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

M:I 5 revolves around Ethan (Cruise) and his covert search for The Syndicate, a team of missing or presumed dead international spies working to incite global chaos. Ethan’s search has been tough, especially since CIA big shot Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is trying to dissolve the IMF due to their chaotic history. Fortunately, Hunt got backup in tech savy Benji (Simon Pegg), cool Luther (Ving Rhames) and by-the-books Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Hunt also has an uneasy alliance with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a former British Intelligence agent who may or may not be working with The Syndicate. Together, Ethan and co. trot the globe looking for The Syndicate’s leader (Sean Harris) and trying to stop their plans for global anarchy.

The quality of a Mission: Impossible movie all depends on who’s directing it, whether it be the subtle slickness of Brian De Palma, the overblown machoness of John Woo, the spastic flashiness of J.J Abrams or the stylized fun of Brad Bird. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise in 2012’s underrated Jack Reacher, seems to bring a touch of darkness to the M:I franchise. Characters are mostly wearing black, the action is rougher, the physical damage from the stunts is more noticeable and there’s a heightened sense of fear coming from the villainous Syndicate. McQuarrie seems to be the first director to take the sense of global terrorism really seriously, and he wants to see people die instead of just beat up and brushed aside. It may be the first Mission: Impossible movie to highlight how hard it is to be an IMF agent or, more specifically, Ethan Hunt.

Tom Cruise was 34 when the first Mission: Impossible came out and he had to silently repel from a ceiling and fight on a high-speed train, which is still pretty demanding. Now, at 53, Cruise hanging off of a giant plane, holding his breath underwater for over three minutes, getting beaten up by young Dolph Lundgren clones and chasing down bad guys mere minutes after dying from suffocation…….HOW IS TOM CRUISE NOT SUPERMAN?!?!?!?! But, like other M:I movies it’s not all about Cruise. Simon Pegg is the best he’s ever been as Benji continues his time as a serious field agent. He and Cruise are together for most of the movie, almost turning it into a buddy cop adventure. Rebecca Ferguson may be the best female character in the M:I movies, as she (literally) climbs and crushes bad guys with her bare legs, even holding her own against Cruise. She’s not a love interest, more so a reflection of Ethan and the damages of spy life. Alec Baldwin is slimy, stuck-up Alec Baldwin here, which of course is the best kind of Alec Baldwin. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman was the best villain (and perhaps best actor) to be a part of the M:I franchise, but Sean Harris comes damn close with his stone cold killer leader.

While the darker tone does keep the movie and franchise fresh, a slight touch of humor could’ve taken the movie to perfection. And really, that’s the only complaint in the best action movie this year since Mad Max: Fury Road. Even with internet complaints of expanding franchises and cinematic universes, Mission: Impossible seems unphased by the constraints of other franchises. With Tom Cruise promoting this installment and already talking about a sixth movie, it’s hard not to wait in anticipation for accepting another one. As long as Cruise is there to continue to defy the laws of physics, sign me up.
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4