This review contains spoilers.
The third film in the Star Trek reboot series, cryptically titled Beyond, sees Kirk and the gang three years into their storied five-year mission in various states of motivation and employee engagement. Arriving at the space station Yorktown (a rather cool transparent bubble filled with skyscrapers), they’re alerted to a distress call: a captain speeding from an uncharted nebula claims that she’s lost her crew on a planet within. The Enterprise is despatched on a rescue mission which quickly turns out to be a trap as the film’s Big Bad, Krall, causes the ship to crash into the planet and kidnaps the crew so he can suck the life from them and thereby extend his own life. After many shenanigans, it turns out that Krall is a veteran struggling with the fact that the Federation has embraced those it used to fight; he plans to detonate a bioweapon in Yorktown to, um, kill everyone and sow discord. Can the plucky crew of the Enterprise stop him in time?
None of this, of course, makes much sense, but then it is not really the job of a Hollywood Space Blockbuster to make sense. The job of the Hollywood Space Blockbuster is to blow things up.
Actually, I think one of the key problems with Beyond is a clash between theme and genre. Thematically, it wants to be a story about the importance of unity, of diversity and inclusion. Generically, though, it can’t get away from the fact that it is a Hollywood Space Blockbuster, and needs to make money.
The effect of this is that the Hollywood Space Blockbuster’s need to blow things up and make everything bigger and bolder and louder sort of undermines the film’s more utopian gestures. Beyond‘s plot is quite invested in individual heroism: its denouement (following a series of ever more dramatic climaxes, which eventually get exhausting and irritating rather than tense and exciting) sees Kirk and Krall wrestling hand to hand over Krall’s bioweapon, with Kirk heroically sacrificing himself (only not really) to save everyone on the space station. What the film ignores, of course, is that in the kind of cooperative organisation Starfleet is supposed to be this scenario should never arise. The fact that the day has to be saved by dangerous heroics goes to show that Starfleet is an incredibly dysfunctional organisation – which is exactly opposite to the film’s intention.
I also want to talk about another incident in the film which prioritises individual heroism over cooperative and responsible working, and which also illustrates something far more insidious about Beyond; namely that, if you look closely, it’s a film not about unity but about assimilation. During a moment of mild peril when the male officers of the Enterprise are trying to rescue the rest of the crew from Krall’s clutches, Spock dashes off to rescue his ex-girlfriend Uhura, with Kirk’s permission. Firstly, this is just a gross failure of a Starfleet officer to do his job; Uhura is a Starfleet officer too, and should be relied upon to do her own job in a dangerous situation without someone rushing in romantically to help her like she’s a clueless newbie. (She seems to be managing perfectly well without Spock’s help.)
Secondly, this moment is symptomatic of the film’s flattening of difference. Spock is, canonically, a creature of logic. And logic in this situation says that the best way of getting everyone safely out of Krall’s camp is for everyone on the crew to do what they do best. Again: Uhura is a Starfleet officer, and not a new one. She can look after herself just as well as her male colleagues. (Spock is, in fact, guilty of workplace discrimination.) But in this film, Spock’s logical worldview (which is different from the worldview of most Western audiences) is softened to no more than an endearing quirk. We can’t cope with difference, you see. It has to be flattened out, erased, whitewashed.
The core of this issue of assimilation lies, ultimately, with the film’s racial politics, which are at best misguided and at worst actually racist. As I see it, we have two main “alien”-coded characters, both external to the Enterprise‘s crew: Jayla, a spiky castaway hiding out in an old Federation spaceship, played by Algerian-French actor Sofia Boutella; and Krall, the veteran who looks alien but isn’t, played by Idris Elba.
Jayla’s English is imperfect (and her vocabulary strangely inconsistent: she knows what “engineering” is but calls the speaker on her radio a “little mouth”), and the music accompanying her entrance is backed by African-style drumming. She’s coded, in other words, as “other”; specifically, as racialised non-Western. And yet: we never hear her speaking in her own language; she gives up her ship to the officers from the Enterprise with no more than token demurral, despite her spiky exterior; in fact, her one contribution to the crew’s mission is her very American rock music, which is used, in a sequence impossible not to read symbolically, to blow up Krall’s flock of drones. Already associated with Federation (which is to say, American) values through her music and the fact that she inhabits a crumbling Federation ship, her example of the non-threatening (because already part-assimilated) other is a deliberate contrast with Krall’s example. Krall, the film’s only original black character (I don’t think we can give Beyond‘s creators any credit for Uhura, who was written fifty years ago by Gene Roddenberry and whose role in this film in any case amounts to little more than being shocked and sad), has become literally inhuman through preying on the Federation – immensely problematic given the long history of the dehumanisation of people of colour. Desperately disenfranchised, as are so many black Americans even today, and conceivably suffering from PTSD, he is used as an example of how not to do assimilation. His worldview is perhaps the most radically different of all the film’s supposedly diverse characters’: he rejects the values of the Federation because they seem wrong to him.
What does the film do with the angry disenfranchised in this Federation that works always for unity? Work out a way around? Try to accommodate?
Nope, it flings him into the outer darkness.
Beyond is a film that talks at great length about unity, but it isn’t confident enough in its thesis or in its audience ever really to confront what that might mean in a properly multicultural universe; whether that’s by having its science fictional heroes behave like they’re in a functional workplace team, or by including diverse worldviews within that team and allowing them to coexist. In other words, it’s boring, it’s conventional, and it fails even as a disposable summer blockbuster.