Film Review: “Star Trek Beyond” (2016) and the Political Power of Compassion

I am not, as they say, a Trekkie. I have only passing familiarity with the original series, though I did enjoy The Next Generation in my youth. However, I’ve been keeping abreast of the most recent cinematic incarnation of the property and, I have to say, I was very impressed with the most recent installment, Star Trek Beyond.

The film follows the crew of the Enterprise as they enter an unmapped nebula in an attempt to rescue a group of stranded researchers. Unbeknownst to them, this is a ruse by the sinister alien warlord Krall, who is determined to unleash a terrible biological weapon on the Federation and bring about its destruction.

Part of what makes this such a compelling film is that it really showcases the acting talents of its cast in a way that the previous films did not. Chris Pine continues to grow into the role of Captain Kirk, and in this film he struggles with his own sense of self and identity. He wonders, as we all do, whether being the captain of the Enterprise is everything that he had wanted it to be.

The other characters face similar struggles, including Spock, who believes that he may be better suited continuing the work of Ambassador Spock on New Vulcan and has parted ways with Uhura. The emphasis on the personal and the bonds among the characters and their loved ones is, I think, one of the things that grants this film its sense of pleasantness. Extraordinary in this regard is the revelation that Sulu is married to a man, a move which I (unlike George Takei) found touching and a fulfillment of the inclusive, compassionate ethos that has long been a hallmark of the Star Trek brand.

For his part, Krall is a compelling villain, both because of the way in which Idris Elba (who is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation), portrays him but also because he is the distillation of the bellicose spirit that seems to animate so much of contemporary American political and social life. As reprehensible as his acts are, he is understandable precisely because he was a product of a worldview that seems eerily and uncomfortably close to our own. What can or does a person do when all they have been trained to do is kill? The Federation ethos (with which we are meant to identify) suggests that compassion and cooperation are the bulwarks against chaos and relentless aggression; Krall believes that the world should be returned to that Hobbesian state of primordial anarchy, so that only the strongest will prevail. Ultimately, of course, compassion wins out in terms of the narrative struggle, and that is an important facet of the film’s political project.

This compassionate ethic plays out at both the macro and micro levels of the film’s narrative. On the micro level, such compassion ranges from Bones’ caring for Spock’s injuries to Scotty’s willingness to help out a complete stranger. On the macro, of course, it is the entire Federation that stands opposed to Krall’s vengeful wish to bring about the dismantling of this era of peace and prosperity. The fact that the film satisfactorily resolves these narrative threads and reveals the newly-constructed Enterprise helps us, as viewers, feel similarly sanguine about the political future.

All in all, I found this the strongest of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, in no small part because it manages to deftly handle the various emotional registers that it puts into play. The spirits of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin seem to hover over this film, adding a wistful and rather sad note to the proceedings. Yet they also remind us of the power and the joy of life and of the promise that this particular universe continues to hold out to us.

While it would certainly be going too far to say that Star Trek is an allegory of our contemporary political moment (one can assume it was in production and the script written before it became clear Donald Trump, a real-world Krull if I’ve ever seen one, would become the GOP nominee for president), I do think it would be fair to say that the film can serve as a sort of collective conscience for all of us. At this point, we can either give in to our baser impulses and become the destructive, chaotic forces that Krull represents, or we can surrender to the better angels of our natures and work toward a brighter, more justice, more verdant future for all of us.

And I’ve got to say that I’m with the film on this one. A brighter future for everyone looks mighty fine to me.

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