Oh, Star Trek, how the mighty do fall! Once the perennial cash cow for Paramount Studios, and the biggest franchise in all of television history, since the early 2000s the Starship Enterprise hasn’t hit warp speed so much as it looks just plain warped. Some time in dry dock allowed J.J. Abrams to dress it up all pretty in Star Wars drag, though it still can’t soar as it once did.
Now, with Star Trek Beyond set to take on Star Wars, along with the X-Men, Captain America, Batman, Superman, The Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman at the box office, the revived franchise faces its greatest test against very real and entrenched competition. Recalling the new cast, and with helmer Justin Lin in the director’s chair, can Trek capture a healthy haul in receipts and keep interest in the series piqued? Or will Paramount start planning yet another reboot before the screen fades to black?
The first look promises lots of flash and noise, much like the previous two entries. Set to the techno-rap of the Beastie Boys, the first trailer offers some hints at the plot, and the sense that Trek will go cowardly where it has gone before, and with much less joy than in other outings. The recent announcement that Bryan Fuller will take on showrunner duties on a new Star Trek television series will make some fans rejoice, whereas this most recent trailer for the new film will make them set phasers to kill, and for some very good reasons.
10. Boldly Going?
At the heart of Star Trek from its very inception was the very American spirit of exploration, of searching out the unknown and learning more about the universe and the human spirit. In a world of social media, 24-hour news cycles and a globalized economy, exploration almost seems like an antiquated idea. Maybe that’s why the new film, and indeed, the rebooted series as a whole, offers nothing in terms of venturing into the unknown, both within the story, and as a film series as a whole. The new Trek films are utterly devoid of creativity or the spirit of adventure, relying heavily on in-jokes and on recycled plot twists from other (and better) movies. Star Trek Beyond looks to continue that trend with more formula plotting and flat characters.
9. Star Trek: Thunderdome
Mad Max: Fury Road proved one of the best films of 2015, and it looks like the makers of Star Trek Beyond realized as much. The trailer treats the audience to lots of shots of dystopian landscapes, of alien prison camps and antiquated technology. The 2009 film committed the same sin, and with the same Beastie Boys song, no less. In that film, Kirk steals a corvette convertible and drives it off a cliff…in the 23rd century. Astute viewers will also notice the heavy product placement in the rebooted series, which makes even less sense, given that in the Trek universe money and private business have largely been abandoned in favor of a society that works to improve itself, rather than for monetary gain.
But I digress. One of the enduring, redeeming virtues of Star Trek is that it offers a vision of an optimistic and Utopian future, where people have evolved beyond petty squabbles and greed. While the 2009 and 2013 movies largely abandoned this ideal, Star Trek Beyond flaunts it like never before. In sum, the new series has robbed Trek of its greatest accomplishment.
8. “Science” Fiction
Movies or TV shows like Star Trek have always needed to play a little bit fast and loose with science in order to drive the plot. In our world, warp speed and transporters remain the stuff of fiction. But Trek, especially in contrast to a series like Star Wars, always tried to offer hint of plausibility in its often ridiculous plots (Q, anyone? “The Squire of Gothos?”). Since 2009, however, science in Star Trek didn’t take a back seat to plot so much as it ended up marooned by the side of the road as the Enterprise flies around in circles repeating the same plot. Star Trek Beyond proudly continues that tradition: the trailer offers visions of transporters disassembling people like Lego sets and the Enterprise getting destroyed yet again amid predictable one-liners. Granted, that’s nothing as egregious as using the ship as a submarine — see also: Star Trek Into Darkness…or better yet, don’t — but it’s not much of an improvement.
7. The Noise, Noise Noise!
Not that long ago, Star Trek received routine criticism for dull plots and ponderous stories, and Trekkies condemned the Next Generation films as well as Star Trek: Enterprise for insipid or boring plots. The action-oriented rebooted series, no doubt, resulted to large degree from that criticism. But along with all the action comes a lot of noise. Trek movies like The Wrath of Khan or First Contact worked as action pictures while still preserving the Star Trek idiom. Both also provided great, sweeping scores. Current Star Trek provides noise, and lots of it – an attempt to make an unengaging story feel more epic. Beyond offers that in spades. In that same way…
6. Superhero Kirk
Captain Kirk, as embodied by William Shatner, had his share of fight scenes and action sequences, though nothing so brazen as jumping over obstacles on a motorcycle or parachuting in a flight suit that looks like he borrowed it from the X-Men. The trailer for Star Trek Beyond makes it look less like Trek or even generic science fiction than a surreal installment of The Fast and the Furious series. Could it be any coincidence then that Justin Lin who helmed three of the Furious movies occupies the Captain’s Chair on Star Trek Beyond? Granted, Lin isn’t entirely to blame here – studio brass hired him to do a job with his own sensibilities, and he did that. But replacing the wonder and adventure of Star Trek with motorcycle chases and explosions robs it of yet another virtue: imagination. Nothing in the trailer for Beyond offers the slightest promise of creativity.
Star Trek often deservedly got criticized for making the future look too easy – like humanity and her alien siblings had found unlimited means of energy production and natural resources. The suspension of disbelief required to believe in food replicators or warp drives wilts in comparison to the silliness of Kirk and his crew wrecking the Enterprise at regular intervals. When we last saw the ship, didn’t it almost crash to Earth (while somehow remaining largely intact)? It appears that the crashing and destruction of the ship proved a minor setback, since it’s out flying around space yet again in the Star Trek Beyond trailer. And like clockwork, it looks like Kirk manages to lose it yet again in the new film, destroyed by a swarm of alien technology. Perhaps Starfleet, in its infinite wisdom, should stop building new Enterprises, or at least find someone else to captain the ship.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
The success of the sci-fi comedy Guardians of the Galaxy shocked audiences and industry insiders alike, with the Paramount bosses taking particular notice. After Paramount fired previous writer Roberto Orci, who had been slated to write and direct a third reboot, Paramount turned to Justin Lin, and to star Simon Pegg. Pegg, of course, has a long history as a comedy writer, and the studio, according to insiders, wanted a more Guardians of the Galaxy feel to the movie. Orci, for his part, deserved to get canned following an obnoxious Twitter war with Star Trek fans. Trek, however, didn’t deserve to get disemboweled because the creative team had lost any sense of creativity, assuming they ever had any to begin with.
3. Nothing New
Speaking of creativity, what does it take to come up with something new in this futuristic franchise? The first two rebooted films owed a great deal to Star Wars and to The Wrath of Khan: whole passages in Star Trek Into Darkness were lifted from the Wrath of Khan screenplay, and with few alterations. Beyond, thus far, has shown nothing in the vein of creativity, imagination or innovation. Transplanting the Trek characters to a Mad Max style planet isn’t creative so much as it’s just a variation on the rehash formula that the rebooted series has used to approach the movies. A series about exploration of the furthest reaches of space offers limitless possibilities for an adventure story; why not take advantage of that leeway?
2. “On Screen”
Even as a low-budget affair, Star Trek has always strode for epic scope. Creator Gene Roddenberry called it “Wagon Train to the Stars,” substituting the mountains and dust of the Old West for the glittering stars and planets of deep space. The new trailer gives the impression that Star Trek Beyond is a claustrophobic movie: most of the movie takes place in tiny rooms and crevices – even scenes in the alien prison camp feel tight and confined. With CGI and a massive budget, why does the scope of the film feel so inconsequential, so minor? Let the beloved Trek characters boldly go with some bold imagery!
1. Spock v. McCoy: Dawn of Justice
The Kirk-Spock-McCoy of classic Star Trek has always served as an arena for debating philosophical viewpoints, and indeed, the Trek series themselves have provided story metaphors for life’s philosophical issues: The Wrath of Khan is about aging and death. The Undiscovered Country explores a changing world, no longer defined by Cold War-type rivalry. The greatest failure of the rebooted Trek films is that they have no subtext – they’re not about anything. The characters never evolve in a meaningful way, and never face life and death questions about man’s place in the universe. For all the cannibalized story twists and dialogue, how can the new films so brazenly avoid any kind of deeper themes? The trailer for Star Trek Beyond, for all its production value, explosions, action alien makeup and special effects offers nothing to stir and challenge the soul. In essence, it, like the rest of the recent films, looks like a hulking starship drifting through the cosmos without a captain, or a crew.
“Ok, let’s never do that again,” Kirk quips in the Star Trek Beyond trailer. Damn right! To paraphrase a great doctor: this series is dead, Jim.