Movie Review: “Star Trek Beyond”

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably forgotten (several times) that the third installment of the Star Trek reboot series was coming out this summer. Couple this with a truly horrendous marketing campaign that looked nothing like Star Trek, and you’ve got the makings of a bona fide series-ending disaster.

Well, I was very wrong indeed.

“Star Trek Beyond” – helmed by “Fast and Furious” veteran director Justin Lin – is to the rebooted Star Trek series what “Skyfall” was to the Daniel Craig string of James Bond films – a joyous throwback to a simpler era of moviemaking, successfully stripped of any overwrought franchise deadweight.

The storyline is vintage Star Trek in its purest form: a ship goes missing in an uncharted nebula, and the crew of the Enterprise must investigate. They promptly find themselves shipwrecked on a dangerous planet, where they must contend with a megalomaniacal villain who plans to start an interstellar war.

Despite the familiarity of these tropes, “Beyond” doesn’t come off as derivative or hokey. Actually, it’s rather pleasant to see an adventure story told with refreshing earnestness. It’s become commonplace for blockbuster scripts to be little more than a series of snarky one-liners on the parts of the protagonists (Marvel is the chief offender here), which leads to some cognitive dissonance when nonstop humor is juxtaposed with apocalyptic destruction. This mismatch produces a distinct narrative weightlessness: everyone in the audience knows the status quo will remain more or less undisturbed, no matter how catastrophic the explosions onscreen. That isn’t the case in “Beyond”: characters react to dire circumstances with an appropriate gravitas that, at the same time, never comes off as too self-serious.

Artistically, “Beyond” delivers on all fronts. The effects are great and (in general) don’t overwhelm character development. Happily, director Lin tempers his action-junkie impulses and lets his actors actually talk to one another, which lends “Beyond” an unexpected resonance. And somewhat along these lines, I’m pretty sure many of the alien characters are real people in prostheses rather than motion-capture creations – an artistic decision which does the film a great service. Star Trek has a very different aesthetic from Star Wars, and previous franchise director J.J. Abrams sometimes elided the distinction. The third act of “Beyond” goes a bit overboard with generic CGI pyrotechnics, and there’s a missed opportunity for some thought-provoking engagement with themes of colonialism and culture, but these are minor gripes.

In addition to being a great summer action flick, “Beyond” is a testament to the virtue of purging extraneous worldbuilding; mercifully, it’s not jammed full of setup for future installments. This makes complete sense and is an approach more franchises should adopt: if there’s a new Star Trek movie, I will be happy to see it even if it doesn’t tie in directly to its predecessors. The one-off storytelling approach taken by “Beyond” is vastly preferable to the dense muddle that was “Into Darkness.”

In short, even if Star Wars is more your thing, go see “Beyond.” It’s simply too much fun to pass up.

Ignore the bad advertising: “Beyond” is the most enjoyable blockbuster of the summer.

Addendum: I shelled out some extra cash to see this in IMAX 3D at the monster-sized Smithsonian Air and Space Museum theater. It was worth every penny.

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Posted by on July 21, 2016 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “The Legend of Tarzan”

“The Legend of Tarzan” evokes no film more strongly than 1998’s “The Mask of Zorro.” Both movies reinvent classic heroes for a new generation of moviegoers, involve grand villainous conspiracies to plunder the treasures of an oppressed people, and are laden with spiffy special effects.

Refreshingly, this isn’t an origin story.: “The Legend of Tarzan” picks up several years after Tarzan’s departure from the jungle, his marriage to Jane, and his assumption of his Earl of Greystoke title (scenes from Tarzan’s childhood among the apes are depicted in flashbacks). This movie is (very loosely) situated within real-world history: Tarzan’s nemesis here is Belgian colonialist Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, who sadly doesn’t have enough scenery to chew), who plans to harvest diamonds and slaves from the Congo in an effort to pay off King Leopold’s extensive debts. Once the peril at hand becomes clear, Tarzan and Jane promptly trade their life of luxury and parliamentary squabbles for the African jungle.

As one might expect given the juxtaposition of past and present narratives, “Tarzan” suffers from a bit too much worldbuilding. I’m tempted to blame this on the recent, inexplicable, and frustrating Hollywood philosophy that movies that get large budgets must be designed to facilitate sequels (see, for example, “The Lone Ranger” and “John Carter” – “Pacific Rim” was a rare exception). Here, the flashbacks and exposition dumps are so frequent that they start to interfere with the cohesiveness of the narrative and result in uneven pacing.

That said, the film’s production values are stellar, from music to scenery. The CGI animals look great (if not quite as polished as the creatures of “The Jungle Book”) and the obligatory vine-swinging sequences are suitably visceral. “Tarzan” does suffer from a bit of Christopher Nolan envy – Tarzan repeatedly attacks silently from the foliage, picking his enemies off one by one, in sequences that feel heavily influenced by the “Dark Knight” trilogy – but director David Yates mostly exorcises these impulses by the film’s concussive conclusion.

Acting-wise, Alexander Skarsgard is a worthy lead who certainly looks the part, and Margot Robbie is a satisfyingly spunky Jane (whose character demonstrates, gratifyingly, that it’s possible to write strong female characters in historical-ish movies without sounding anachronistic). It bears mention that Samuel L. Jackson also turns up as an American sidekick for Tarzan, but his character adds literally nothing to the story and could’ve easily been written out.

At the end of the day, “The Legend of Tarzan” is almost a strong movie – 80-85% of the pieces are there. But despite its pulp-fiction origins, “Tarzan” lacks much real strangeness or mystery. Here, there aren’t any lost cities of gold populated by forgotten peoples: there are just some diamond mines a European monarch wants to control. That might be historical, but it’s not really Tarzan-esque – and, accordingly, the film doesn’t end up feeling particularly iconic.

As Saturday-afternoon entertainment, however, one could do much worse.

A high-quality, but not particularly memorable, reinterpretation of the beloved hero.

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Posted by on July 10, 2016 in Fantasy


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