Star Trek Beyond (2016) is a film of staggering incompetence. If it were a bridge, its span would pitch cars and trucks into the abyss. If it were a house, the roof would leak and the toilets wouldn't flush and there would be cracks in its basement foundation. Perhaps, we shouldn't be too surprised: competency, after all, is a rare thing. One has only to consider the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be reminded of that fact. The film's ineptitude is signaled by its grammatically incoherent title: beyond what?
Star Trek Beyond begins with a couple of promising jokes. James Tiberius Kirk is making a pitch to a crowd of standard-issue iguana-faced villains. They abuse him verbally but there is a strange,unsettling pitch of hysteria in their voices. Suddenly, the monsters attack him en masse and, only then, do we discover that the creatures, far from being burly man-sized brutes, are about the scale of chickens -- they bite at Captain Kirk's ankles and cling to his shoulders. It's a good disorienting gag, but, as the film progresses, the movie is so badly stitched together that you begin to wonder if the joke was intentional -- maybe, the director, Jason Lin, is so bad that he didn't know how to stage the opening scene and intended that we understand at the outset that the iguana heads were the size of squirrels. There a cynical voice-over captain's log that promises some Guardians of the Galaxy-style irreverence, but it all immediately comes to naught. Once the plot begins in earnest, the jokes, more or less, evaporate and we are left with a gargantuan parade of special effects that manage to be both incoherent, deafeningly loud, and tedious all at the same time. The director doesn't have any idea how to put one image next to another to tell a story -- he has no sense of space or location or, even, physical plausibility. (This may result from constructing a movie that other than the actors probably has no tangible physical reality of any sort -- it's all people gesticulating in front of green screens.) Halfway through the movie, the shipwrecked crew of the Enterprise is playing cat and mouse with another group of lizard-faced bad guys. We see our heroes sheltering in a sort of dark niche -- much of the film is shot in murky darkness, the blue-green gloom that is the last refuge of scoundrels in a special effects movie. Suddenly, the movie cuts to an exterior that is completely disorienting -- the camera, then, engages in a kind of pointless spiraling motion around a toadstool-like whatchamagig to come to rest on some reptilian soldiers walking around in the gloom. We have absolutely no sense as to where our protagonists are located in the image -- the camera motion, although showy is completely uncommunicative, and there is no suspense generated by the images because we don't know if the bad guys and our heroes are close to one another or hundreds of yards apart. Later, Captain Kirk (I think -- it's baffling that the main male actors all look exactly alike) mounts a motorcycle inexplicably discovered in deep space and rides it around, using magic powers provided to him by a female alien to clone himself into a half dozen roaring, buzzing motorcycles. It's kind of like Steve McQueen's ride in The Great Escape except on steroids. But there are a few problems: first, the whole surface of the planet looks like C. D. Friedrich's painting of the Wreck of the Hoffnung, that is, this planet is comprised of vertical shards of rock like the ice field crushing the ship in the painting -- there's no flat space over which anyone could possibly ride a motorcycle although, suddenly, wheel-friendly terraces magically appear. And, it's completely unclear how James Kirk (if that's who it is) has acquired the ability to clone himself. There are some impressive special effects, probably peaking about a half hour into the picture when the bad guys unleash a swarm of small tack-shaped space-ships, millions of them it seems that swirl through space like an immense cloud of bats -- the millions of tiny, sharp-edged space vehicles overwhelm the Enterprise and, in an intensely confusing and poorly designed sequence, the iconic space cruiser seems to be ripped into pieces before it collapse into the stony pinnacles of the planet. There's an artificial world that consists of dizzying moebius strip-like ribbons of earth and steel covered with skyscrapers, some of these twisting spans bearing lakes and parks and rivers of glittering water -- the place looks like an Escher engraving gone mad and it's a wonderful effect. But the film doesn't explain exactly how the gravitational fields around these cantilevered moebius strips keep the people walking around upside down from falling off. This failing is particularly grievous because the movie's idiotic climax involves hand to hand combat on one of the prominences protruding from these dizzying spans and when Kirk seems to fall, instead he is held aloft by mysterious gravitational (or should I say antigravitational) forces. The movie simply improvises exceptions to the laws of physics as it requires them. Star Trek Beyond has about a half-hour worth of mind-boggling special effects -- but this spectacle simply goes to show us how far technology has advanced beyond the narrative competence of these film makers.