Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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fourstar

A few months back, I wrote about the then-upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond and discussed my hopes for the film and the franchise in general. I wasn’t particularly excited after the first trailer, but the second trailer seemed a bit better, and the fact that Simon Pegg was one of the credited writers was certainly a point in the film’s favor, given his actual fondness for the franchise (in comparison to Roberto Orci, which I’ll get to in a minute). A generally favorable early critical response was also heartening, despite the general dearth of any significant marketing push for the film. I did see the same TV spots play before almost every YouTube video I watched in the past three weeks, but I can never tell if that’s marketed to me specifically as a Star Trek nerd scholar or indicative of a larger initiative. And, as a scholar, was I satisfied?

Yes? Mostly? This is definitely a fun movie, and a major improvement over the tone deaf Into Darkness, which was bad on a such a high number of levels that it’s difficult to nail down which one was most absurd. Was it the nonsensical nature of the motivation of the film’s antagonists? Was it the fact that their motivation might actually make sense when viewed through the lens of the particular madness of screenwriter and notable 9/11 truther Roberto Orci (there’s a decent article about this on BirthMoviesDeath, which is pretty great even though I have mixed feelings about Devin Faraci)? Was it the recasting of a character whose name is Indian and was previously portrayed by a person of color with Benedict Cumberbatch? It was probably that.

I went into greater detail about my feelings about both of the previous films in this reboot timeline in the previous article, so I won’t get into it here, but I will say that, although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real “classic style” Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.

The film opens 966 days into the Enterprise’s five year deep space exploration mission, and Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel the weight of both the mission and the impossibility of living up to his father’s legacy. When the ship docks at Starfleet’s newest starbase, Yorktown, a ship appears from a nearby nebula containing one alien astronaut, who says that her ship crashed on a mysterious planet within said nebula and asking for assistance. In true Federation fashion, Kirk and Krew jump at the chance to help out, but are immediately attacked as soon as they penetrate the nebula; the crew is forced to abandon ship, ending up scattered and/or captured by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba), who seeks a doomsday MacGuffin in order to exact violence against the concept of peaceful unity in general and the Federation in particular because of its idealization of these virtues. Along the way, Scotty (Pegg) meets a woman named Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), who helps him reunite the crew and to plan a rescue and escape.

There’s a lot to love here. There are references peppered throughout to other parts of the franchise, and instead of feeling hamfisted or forced as in previous installments of the reboot series, they feel natural here. There are more overt connections, with the basic plot about a dangerous planet that acts as a graveyard for various interstellar travelers and their ships being somewhat reminiscent of the animated Star Trek series episode “The Time Trap,” as well as one of the proposed fates of a starship lost a century previous being that it was snatched by a giant green space hand, which happened to the original Enterprise in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” Kirk’s opening log even references the fact that there’s a lot of shacking up going on aboard the ship during its mission, which is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that NBC balked at Gene Roddenberry’s proposal that the coed Enterprise crew be composed of roughly half men and half women; the story goes that one exec stated that this would make it seem like there was an awful lot of “funny business” going on. Likewise, Roddenberry’s original script treatment was about a starship that bore the name Yorktown, not Enterprise, leading to the starbase in this film being named for the former. Those are pretty obscure references to pull out and use for the plot of this movie, and that’s pretty indicative of how much this film cares about the fandom. More obscure references, like discussion of the dissolution of the MACOs and the Xindi and Romulan Wars (all of which are references to Star Trek: Enterprise), the possibility of accidentally splicing two people together with transporters (transporter accidents are fairly common in the franchise, but this is probably a shout out to the Voyager episode “Tuvix” in particular), Kirk’s birthday melancholy and even some of the lines he uses in his toast (from Wrath of Khan), and the appearance of a Commodore Paris (the Parises being a family with a long history of Starfleet ervice, most notably Tom Paris of Voyager) are scattered throughout and are, frankly, quite welcome.

Of course, references do not a great Star Trek film make. There are some things that don’t quite work, and given that the film runs just shy of 2 hours and that there has been some discussion of what was cut (mostly backstory for Krall and Jaylah, but smaller moments like Sulu kissing his husband as well), there are some things that don’t quite read as well on screen as they likely did on the page and/or before the film was edited down. I’m also never going to be completely on board with the use of high speed land-based chases in Star Trek; I know that Justin Lin comes from the Fast/Furious franchise so that’s really his wheelhouse, and as a result these sequences at least work better than previous attempts (I’m looking at you, Nemesis). And I know that it’s nitpicky to point this out, but there’s a lot of Hollywood science going on in this movie. First of all, nebulae are not composed of giant rocks; they’re made up of mostly dust and ionized gases. The film presents the nebula surrounding the mystery planet as being more like the Hollywood imagining of what an asteroid belt looks like, with city-sized rocks knocking into each other; real asteroid belts are mostly empty space with some rock throughout (in space, such a small area with such large pieces of debris would mean that the rocks the Enterprise works so carefully to navigate would pulverize each other into dust within a very short time, relatively speaking).

But, this is still a good movie. There is a classic Star Trek idea here, in that Krall hates the idea that the galaxy is uniting under a banner of peace instead of strength/valor and will do terrible things to demonstrate his devotion to his anti-Federation ideals, as well as the fact that he is opposed and ultimately defeated by the strong bonds that the crew of the Enterprise have and their devotion to the ideals of unity and exploration. It’s not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it, but the fact that this film actually bothers to have this idea means that this movie is actually Star Trek, and not just JJ Abrams’s Star Wars demo reel wrapped in Star Trek’s clothes. The new additions to the cast are very engaging as are the old standards, and there’s a lot of story here that makes it well worth investing in a visit to the theatre. The end of the film legitimately left me with damp cheeks (for those of you who have already seen it, I’m talking about the photo that nuSpock finds in Spock Prime’s possessions), and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s not a five-star movie, but it has my seal of approval.

Final thought, though: The Franklin is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Four; on Star Trek: Enterprise, the NX-01 Enterprise is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Five, even though the Franklin seems to have come later in the timeline given that her captain’s service record includes participating in the Xindi conflict, which followed shortly after Enterprise’s first few years of service. I’m not saying that this can’t work (the Franklin could actually be older than the Enterprise but Captain Edison took command of her later, like how OG Kirk took over command of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike, took command when Robert April was promoted to Commodore). I’m honestly just pointing this out because if I don’t mention it, someone will call me out on it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Fast & Furious Franchise

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As I have previously explained, I am a recent convert to the Fast & Furious universe. Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full until a few weeks ago. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment this month: Furious 7. The ads for that seventh installment finally brought me to my tipping point. Furious 7 promised to be so deliciously over the top that when I first saw the ad in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series, an urge I followed voraciously in the past few weeks.

It turns out that the story of the Fast & Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, while in 2015 a Fast & Furious movie costs $250 million. The first three or so Fast & Furious movies serve mostly as cheap cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. During this transition the focus of the films also deviated from its street racing roots and instead pursued what it self-describes in the latest film as “vehicular warfare”. The street racing of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what it can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all seven feature films in the Fast & Furious franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Fast & Furious world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s humbly trashy beginnings, I highly recommend watching the fifth, sixth, third, and seventh installments (curiously enough, in that specific sequence).

The Fast and the Furious (2001)EPSON MFP imagethree star

The very first installment of the Fast & Furious is mostly effective as a baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected from the franchise as a whole: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. It features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grilling, lipstick lesbianism and, of course, extensive street racing. In this earliest installment the cars move so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it doesn’t even approach the peak ridiculousness achieved in later installments. It does have its campy moments, though, even if they never reach a fever pitch.

MVP of the cast: The stunt-casting of Ja Rule, who’s neither fast nor furious enough to earn a threesome in a street race.
Most curious detail: The fact that somehow no one on the California street racing scene seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars.”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) EPSON MFP imagethree star

2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but functions more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem. It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. Nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces (an appropriately shirtless Tyrese Gibson & a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris make their welcomed debuts here, though their comic dynamic isn’t fully developed until later installments,) and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, but 2 Fast 2 Furious is still essentially a shameless retread of its precursor. However, it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

MVP of the cast: The wise-cracking, often-shirtless sex god Tyrese Gibson.
Most curious detail: A not-so-sly reference to Ludacris’ hit song “Move Bitch” is made during a street race, but by a character who is not played by Ludacris.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The third installment in the Fast & Furious franchise is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast & Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It was more than fair that die-hard fans furiously asked “Who are these people?!” upon its initial release, since the answer to that question doesn’t arrive until a post-credits stinger four films later. However, even though it was hated in its time, it’s a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema about the spiritual virtues of sideways driving, one with almost no regard for rest of the franchise at all.

MVP in the cast: The stunt casting of (Lil) Bow Wow, who plays a wisecracking sidekick that winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time.
Most Curious Detail: I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens.

Fast & Furious (2009) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

The fourth Fast & Furious film attempts to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue, bringing back characters that had been absent since the first film & connecting them to Sung Kang’s Han, a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. The problem is that after these first ten minutes of retroactive narrative, Fast & Furious loses its sense of purpose. Setting the undercover police intrigue in the Dominican Republic, the film offers the franchise a new location, but not much else. For the most part, the action is standard stuff you’d expect in any action franchise: Vin Diesel hanging dudes out of windows by their ankles, Paul Walker chasing criminals down back alleys in his tailored federal agent suit, lots of tumbling cars, etc. The best moment, action wise, is when Diesel does a controlled slide (Tokyo style) under a tumbling 18 wheeler, but that takes place during that saving-grace opening set piece. The main thing it’s missing, however, is a sense of fun. Fast & Furious is just so unnecessarily dour, especially after the cartoonish excess of Tokyo Drift. After herding the narrative cats of the first three installments, the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. It does serve as a necessary bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.

MVP of the cast: Han, resurrected through a receding timeline, not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) sets up the franchise’s ever-shifting chronology in an exchange where he answers the line “Time for you to do your own thing,” with “I heard they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo . . .” They’re doing some crazy shit indeed, Han. First of all, they’re driving sideways.
Most curious detail: The film seems to have a strange fascination with GPS displays. The GPS imagery plays well into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?

Fast Five (2011) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five (especially in its opening train heist set piece), but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film from its pedigree is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for newcomer The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing, not to mention that a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast & Furious series as a collective. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

MVP of the Cast: Here we are introduced to Hobbs, played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who could only serve as a improvement to virtually any motion picture, because he is a perfect human being.
Most Curious Detail: An all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. There’s some truly over the top, jaw-dropping spectacle in the opening train heist and a closing sequence involving a bank vault, but something about that montage feels like the first moments of the series coming into its own.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into the franchise’s ever-increasing concern for tying the series together into a cohesive whole. The gang started properly functioning as a unit (or a “family,” if you will) in the fifth film, but this is where individual members of the Fast & Furious family become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. They begin to get wrapped up in their own distinct mythologies the way the series as a whole got wrapped up in itself in the start-of-a-new-era Fast Five. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top. The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include a return to extensive street racing here, which had become surprisingly absent) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic would put it, it’s all about family. “Family” is what matters. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

MVP of the cast: The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. Part of what makes it so convincing is that it feels like he truly believes it.
Most curious detail: The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and instead treat their criminal schemes like a business.

Furious 7 (2015)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is firmly in the temporal rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. To a newcomer the barrage of seemingly insignificant callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar. That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures that reach new heights in its “vehicular warfare” that will dazzle even the uninitiated. However, anyone who has made it this far into the Fast & Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the series that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms as well. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

MVP of the Cast: Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go, but Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off.
Most Curious Detail: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts his pro wrestling past to good use in a moment that includes him reviving his signature “Rock Bottom” move from the Attitude Era.

Lagniappe

The Fast and the Furious (1955) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

A 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman, The Fast and the Furious is far from the legendary director’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he produced and the first title ever produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout. Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) EPSON MFP imagethree star

An MTV-produced slice of Asian-American ennui & teen criminality, Better Luck Tomorrow is the feature film debut of director Justin Lin, who made a cohesive whole out of the Fast & Furious franchise with his take on the third, fourth, fifth & sixth titles. The connection to the Fast & Furious universe is mostly tangential here, depending solely on the presence of a high school age Han, who first entered the picture in the oddball entry Tokyo Drift. Han is played by Sung Kang in both Better Luck Tomorrow as well as every Fast & Furious film directed by Lin. Although the connection is tenuous, it’s amusing to watch Lin’s debut and imagine the character’s origins here, not to mention that the film itself is an enjoyable indie crime drama with a killer soundtrack that features Le Tigre, Bonfire Madigan and Emily’s Sassy Lime. There are obviously no direct references to Fast & Furious to be found in the film, but there is the coincidental inclusion of this throwaway line: “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious.”

Turbo-Charged Prelude (2003) & Los Bandaleros (2009) EPSON MFP imageonestar

There have been two officially-released “short films” meant to serve as primers in-between the Fast & Furious features. The nearly dialogue-free short Turbo-Charged Prelude follows Paul Walker’s Brian through an evading-the-law montage that adds essentially nothing of value to the series, but instead plays like a music video for an overlong rap instrumental. I did like that it ended with the phrase “2 Be Continued . . .”, but that was its sole bright moment. The Vin Diesel-penned & directed short Los Bandaleros was a slightly more significant, portraying a Dominican getaway for Dominic & Letty in a sequence that doesn’t involve fast cars or explosions and even misses an opportunity to plug Coronas during its backyard cookout. There are some interesting musings on the prison system as the new slavery and yet another attempt to bridge Tokyo Drift to the rest of the series through Han, but the short is mostly a sweet, low-stakes tryst between Dominic & Letty that receives a vague callback in Furious 7, but really isn’t worth its 20min runtime for that connection.

-Brandon Ledet