Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Spock, Death, and Mediocre Villainy: A Review of Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek: The Motion Picture ... er, I mean, Beyond
Star Trek films have always ranged in quality.  Like many fans and this ranking, I'd count Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the best and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis as some of the worst.  I personally have a huge soft spot for Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, a silly movie with a serious message directed by Leonard Nimoy.

Star Trek Beyond (2016) falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.  The good news: it's better than Into Darkness, which I'd put near the bottom (Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan?  "Cold fusion" freezes lava?  Ugh.).

Beyond has a lot of problems (more on those in a bit), but for the most part it's a fun movie that continues to capture the essence of the old characters while it introduces new ones.  It's bittersweet to watch Anton Yelchin's Chekhov after the actor's untimely death in a car accident in June.  Karl Urban's McCoy once again steals the show as my favorite part of the new Trek films.  Sofia Boutella's Jeylah, the white-and-black alien, portrays ass-kicking innocence (think: grown-up Arya Stark in space).  Scottie has a major role in this one, which is unsurprising as Simon Pegg co-wrote the script.

The bad news: The plot is kind of a mess and, once you figure out what's going on, it's ... kinda boring.  This is one of those Trek movies that feels like a long TV episode (at one point Kirk even says his life feels "episodic").  I've never cared for the new Trek relationship between Uhura (Zoë Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), since it turns Uhura into a supporting character, almost an appendage of Spock, that spends a fair amount of her screen time looking like a worried puppy dog.

Idris Elba's face: not in Beyond.
But the biggest problem with Beyond has to do with the villain.  Krall (Idris Elba) is an all-around baddie who commands "bees," small ships that can collectively demolish a starship in minutes. And he literally sucks the life out of people.  He drones on about how the Federation is weak for promoting compassion and cooperation.  We're told he's going to save the Federation from itself.  All of this is setting us up for an interesting pay off, right?

(MINOR, VAGUE SPOILER AHEAD) ... We don't discover the motivation for Krall's nastiness until the end of the movie, and it turns out to be ... super lame.  Worst of all, Krall's story makes little sense of what came before.  Fans of Idris Elba's face (who are legion) will think the biggest flaw is that Elba is behind prosthetics and/or slobbering 99% of the time.  Elba's considerable talents are mostly wasted on such an underwhelming character.

The Philosophy Report: Vulcan Reflections on Death

The most philosophically interesting scenes in Beyond are those that deal with Spock's reflections on death.  Early on in the film, Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died (that is, the older Spock from the alternate universe played by Leonard Nimoy in the previous installments of new Trek).  I found young Spock's reaction to be a both a poignant tribute to Leonard Nimoy (see my tribute here) and a unique way to dramatize existential angst -- talk about confronting your own mortality!

Later on Spock tells McCoy that given how many lives Ambassador Spock lived, "fear of death is illogical."  McCoy counters, "Fear of death is what keeps us alive."  You can see a clip from their conversation in the trailer below (starting about 1:33).

It's not entirely clear to me how Spock's comment about Ambassador Spock's many lives relates here.  Maybe Ambassador Spock lived long and prospered (in at least two alternate dimensions!), so there's nothing to be sad about?

Since Vulcan philosophy is largely based on Stoicism, we might start there.  The Stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius recommends thinking about the inevitability and naturalness of death and to imagine one's own death and the deaths of one's loved ones on a somewhat regular basis.  Cheery stuff!  In Star Trek Beyond, Spock is able to contemplate Ambassador Spock's death simultaneously as his own and as a loved one's.  The idea is that it's harder to be shocked and afraid of something you've thought about before.  It's easier to accept it, especially if you're convinced that it's natural and inevitable.  See this post from the Modern Stoicism Blog for a moving account of one person's use of Stoicism to overcome his fear of death.

Other reasons to think fear of death is irrational might come from Epicurus and the Buddha, as I wrote about in my chapter for the volume Louis C.K. and Philosophy.  For Epicurus, the basic idea is that when you're alive, you're not dead, and when you're dead, you don't exist and can't feel any pain.  If the only thing worth fearing is pain, then there is quite literally nothing to fear in death.  For the Buddha, fear of death demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of all things and the fact that, ultimately speaking, there is no "you" who will die.

Another Epicurean argument is called the Symmetry Argument.  You did not exist for vast eons of time before you were born.  You will not exist for vast eons of time after you die.  If you're not worried about the first period of you-less time, it is irrational to worry about the second period of you-less time.

Can contemplating these arguments over time help you overcome your fear of death?  Does it only work for Vulcans?  What about the harm of your death on your loved ones?  I'll leave readers to contemplate these questions for themselves.

Whatever Spock is thinking when he says that fear of death is irrational, McCoy responds, "Fear of death is what keeps us alive."  Is he right about that?  In the specific, dangerous scene in the movie where he says that, maybe it's true, but more generally: is it fear of death that keeps us alive?

A life that exists only due to fear of death would be pretty gloomy, I think.  People in fact live their lives for lots of things: friendship, love, family, children, learning, ideals, artistic endeavors, careers, personal accomplishments, pleasure, etc.  As I've argued before, these things can give life meaning not just despite death, but maybe only because of it.  (I will also say something like this at Worldcon in several weeks!).

So all in all, Star Trek Beyond is a bit of a mess, but also worth experiencing.  Just like life itself.


  1. I thought this Trek was better than the first two reboots. But I think the two major problems with it were the villain and the Enterprise-destruction. The latter is getting to be a trope close to the destruction of the Death Star in the Star Wars franchise. How many times do we need to see the saucer section digging up trees and rocks on some alien planet?

    I was hoping for something more meaty in terms of the villain--and my expectation was that the "bee" metaphor would be played out more thoroughly. Usually (as my movie-going partner pointed out) there is some moral dilemma or problem in Trek, and if the aliens turned out to be fighting for their own kind of unity (a major theme in this movie) rather than, well, whatever was going on in the "reveal", that would have been more interesting. Star Trek is better at world-building than Star Wars, I've thought, especially in motivating the alien life forms in compelling ways. Here they are basically just alien vampire bees.

    Still, there were lots of nods to early Trek, and a few scenes where I felt that Chris Pine has finally grown into the role. And while Uhura was still appendage-like, at least the romance was not the central thing, the women got to wear sleeves on their uniforms (some wore trousers, too!), and the movie didn't center on romantic intrigue/workplace sexual harassment.

    Oh, and another philosophical "moment" borrowed from the Corbomite Maneuver: "There is nothing unknown--only things temporarily hidden." I think the movie borrowed a bit from that episode, too.

    1. Thanks, Malcolm! The Enterprise destruction is getting old, I agree. I guess it makes things dramatic in that they can't just leave the planet.

      I think there was an implied moral conflict between ideals of cooperation (which Star Trek has always prized) and survival-of-the-fittest quasi-Nietzschean individualism. Of course, they did almost nothing interesting with that conflict.

      I thought the "bees" were technologically cool, although somewhat at odds with Krall's stated individualistic ethos.

      I loved the nods to early Trek. I admit to getting a little misty eyed when Spock pulled out a picture of the alternative-universe crew from Ambassador Spock's things.