On the villain as a physical emblem - and the wasting of that villain in Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond Paramount Pictures
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, based on the television series Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Lydia Wilson and Anton Yelchin
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 2 minutes / 2.35:1
July 22, 2016
(out of four)
There's such a shortage of great villains these days, it's a pity that Star Trek Beyond wastes one. Or what could have been one, anyway. Watching the film play out as it does - with details about Idris Elba's Krall slipping through only gradually, in particular during the last 30-40 minutes - it's natural that we don't understand just how great a villain he could have been until it's practically too late. And it seems the filmmakers never quite realized it at all.
On the one hand, it's the smart play to not reveal too much about Krall too early. He's a mystery, with mysterious motives, as many memorable Star Trek antagonists have been. But once the picture comes into focus, everything that's fascinating about him - everything that could have made him such a formidable adversary and such a profoundly tragic figure - is hurried through, kept at enough of a distance that it's clear no one really intended it to matter. It's like someone did their job too well. Dammit, all we needed was a stock bad guy with a simple backstory to explain his actions - you've given us existential anguish!
Director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung make their villain's story far too interesting for what amounts to a few scenes and a cursory explanation. And it's not as if they didn't have the room. Beyond, the third entry in the quasi-rebooted new franchise, is the shortest yet, clocking in at 122 minutes - five minutes shorter than Star Trek and eleven shorter than Into Darkness. That's no huge difference, but when so much has been left on the table, it begins to feel that way. What I wouldn't give for eleven more minutes of exploration into Krall's psyche. Hell, I'd take the five. This is a miscalculation of assets, if nothing else. The film spends most of its time with the crew, understandably - I mean, this is a Star Trek movie, after all - but their stories are mostly continuations of what previous entries have addressed. Kirk (Chris Pine) reconciling his father's legacy with his own, questioning his ability or even willingness to be captain of this ship; Spock (Zachary Quinto) grappling with his Vulcan identity and his conflicted relationship with Uhura (Zoë Saldana). Old crises, old wounds, continuing relationships - all of that makes perfect sense as the core of a serialized narrative. (The film nods knowingly to its serialized approach early on, as Kirk remarks about how episodic his life has started to feel.)
The unfortunately marginalized Krall, however, is not only a force in his own right, but also best exemplifies the motifs the film spends so much time examining elsewhere. Without divulging too much detail, let's say that he embodies - literally, in fact - the very notion of identity, and the way identity is wrapped up in the causes you serve, the things you belong to, the commitments you make. Betrayal, abandonment, the disillusion of what he stood for, the sacrifices he made that came back around on him like a cosmic joke ... all of these things have made who he is. He's earned his villainous stripes. During the few early scenes in which we see him - which involves, among other things, his capture of much of the Enterprise crew, part of a larger plan to obtain a powerful weapon - what stands out most is his gradually transforming appearance, owing to his ability to drain people of their lives and absorb them (incidentally, there was a similar conceit in last month's Warcraft). But every time this happens, the movie is telling us: Look at this makeup. Look at all these special effects. It wants to be telling us so much more. There's real body horror to this story, but Lin does almost nothing to emphasize what it means physically. And it means so much. The physical metamorphosis is far from just a neat villain's trick, but a deeply embedded reflection of Krall's soul - an external manifestation of his personal history. Lauren Bacall once said that your entire life shows in your face; rarely has that been as true for a character as it is for this one.
And yet the fascination of this character begins to come into focus only once the film seems to not have much time for it. Details are tossed off in quick explanations; discoveries are rushed into almost as quickly as their eventual resolutions. Over these last three movies, so much has been made of the larger meanings of the entities that govern these characters' lives - be it that Starfleet emblem you wear on your chest, or the home planet you left behind, or the family name that drives and haunts you. Here, the series has perhaps its most fruitful opportunity yet to really dig, and Lin and Co. fail to seize it, leaving us with an intermittently interesting but largely wasted adversary that doesn't leave nearly the impression on the film that every moment of his life has very visibly left on him.
Balancing out that failure at least a little bit is the arrival of a terrific new addition to this ensemble in Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a scavenger on an alien planet who first allies with Scotty (Pegg) after a crash landing further separates the already-fractured Enterprise crew, and is eventually welcomed as practically an equal, her eyes quite endearingly drawn to that Starfleet logo that seems, to her, to represent the best in people.
But her presence - not to mention all the continually winning qualities of the Trek characters this cast has embodied so beautifully - is just not enough to make up for the nagging sense that this whole story has been something of a half-measure. The disappointing action scenes - cut together by four credited editors, none of whom can make much sense of it - don't help matters, either. Lin is a veteran of studio franchise filmmaking (he's responsible for four Fast and the Furious entries, including the series' apex, Fast Five), so he's surely well aware of the curious de-emphasis of memorable villains. In that regard, he's given us the status quo with Star Trek Beyond. The difference here is that the villain is so decisively - so overwhelmingly - the most interesting piece of this particular puzzle that his pedestrian treatment is a fatal defect.