While I wouldn’t call myself a huge moviegoer, most everyone knows by now that I am a huge Star Trek fan. Even so, with expectations for quality at a high after having recently watched the adorable Finding Dory, I didn’t find myself feeling hyped for the franchise’s newest installment even though its movies in particular had instilled a sense of wonder within me since my teenage years. After watching Star Trek Into Darkness, I felt mixed feelings about what it had set out to do but ended up concluding that the film still had its merits, namely its oblique narrative about humanity. Still though, that movie was a remake of a spectacular movie with an extra coat of shine thrown on. It worked, but it didn’t work very well for a pop culture legend such as Star Trek, and it ended up being somewhat fitting that director J.J. Abrams left following the installment.
Now, I don’t have anything particularly against Abrams — he had a difficult task ahead of him when he was putting together the 2009 reboot for the series. He wasn’t just revitalizing a franchise; this was the revival of one of the most beloved cultural touchstones in science fiction history. New ideas couldn’t simply be tossed onto the silver screen without taking care not to trample over established tropes. Canon had to be respected, along with all of its sprawling implications that had shaped the series for hundreds of episodes. Details could be tweaked, but icons could not be cast-aside. In the end, Star Trek was brought back and a new generation was introduced to the beloved characters of Kirk and Spock… adjusted for society’s cultural changes, of course.
Yet, even then, this was one movie. A movie where character dynamics were newly re-established as a prelude to the ensemble of relationships that had once defined the “old” series. This is where, I feel, Abrams made a mistake. Abrams’ decisions while making the successor to the 2009 film soured my attitude towards him, leaving me feeling that he was less of a self-respecting director and more of an fickle hipster jumping on the latest hype to market his film. Even putting aside the fact that the 2013 addition to the newly created alternate timeline was a mere remake of a beloved movie classic (hailed by many as the best film in the franchise), I found it outrageous that Benedict Cumberbatch was cast to play Khan simply due to industry politics; slapping the rising actor’s name onto the film’s cast was a clear attempt to garner cheap attention for a movie that already had a large fan-base. It was an insult to the integrity of the story.
Though I see no excuse for the casting of Khan (whose glaringly disparate ethnicity is never addressed in the least), I can understand the temptation to jump into a retelling of events from the original Star Trek timeline. Nostalgia begs us to revisit the feelings we felt the first time we saw Ricardo Montalbán’s performance as the charming, yet deranged, Khan or the emotion we felt as the crew lost a beloved friend. However, I feel that jumping directly into a remake without letting the newly established timeline “settle” is a pretentious decision; Abrams assumed that he had enraptured a long-established series’ audience well enough with one movie that he would be able to create a retold film comparable to its original without taking more time to nurture the bonds that so defined the drama contained within The Wrath of Khan. This, I believe, is the crux of Abrams’ ignominious misstep here. He has even gone on record to say that he never really watched Star Trek and in fact found it “too philosophical” to get into. While I am in no way intending to sound elitist towards him, I feel that fans would agree with me that someone like Abrams cannot hope to capture the spirit of comradeship, loyalty, and wonder that the original timeline exuded, especially not with a retelling comprised of a crew that had hardly gotten a chance to know one another yet.
Enter Justin Lin.
Mr. Lin is a Taiwanese-American director probably best known for his work in the Fast & Furious series. However, more importantly, he also grew up a Star Trek fan, mentioning that some of his fondest memories consisted of him watching episodes from the Original Series with his parents every night as a child. I also brought up Lin’s ethnicity intentionally just now; though not a hard requirement by any means, I must note that the (at the time) novel idea of racial equality depicted in Roddenberry’s original series seems to have resonated deeply across racial minorities watching television during that era — anecdotes delivered by actresses such as Nichelle Nichols and Whoopi Goldberg have recounted numerous times how Star Trek really did tread where American television had not gone before in the 1960s and note how inspiring its presentation had been to their performances. Though I was only vaguely aware of Lin’s role as director for Star Trek Beyond prior to watching the film, I can certainly see how someone having connected with the heart and soul of the franchise may be better able to produce a screenplay worthy of the beloved characters it is built around.
And it showed.
It felt good to feel it again — the way my heart’s pace quickened, just as it did when the 2009 movie was being released four years after complete silence from the franchise — the feeling that Star Trek was back.
This movie felt like Star Trek. Classic Star Trek — being faced with an insurmountable situation with only the cunning and loyalty of the crew to get them out of their mess. And principal to the complex mesh of character-character interactions aboard the Enterprise is, of course, the bridge crew.
Part of what made the Original Series so memorable was the charming banter between the crew as a testament to all that they had been through together; they understood one another and the ship was able to function as a single unit to take on whatever challenges its five year mission would put forth. It may have been my imagination, but even as I was looking at the characters in Star Trek Beyond, I found myself questioning whether the characters had begun to resemble the original series crew more closely. It likely was my imagination, but because of how well-written the scenes were, I could palpably feel the presence of the characters.
When thinking about Star Trek, the most notable dynamic that comes to mind is that between Kirk and Spock. In the 2009 Star Trek movie, Ambassador Spock deliberately misled his alternate counterpart into working together with the abrasive young Captain Kirk because he wanted to kick-start what he knew would become an irreplaceable bond to last a lifetime. While the writers of the 2013 sequel attempted to further this bond, the film’s nature as a remake worked against this effort and made Kirk and Spock’s interactions come across as forced; as the original duo’s friendship was at its height during The Wrath of Khan, the dynamic displayed in Star Trek Into Darkness felt like a hollow echo in comparison. Star Trek Beyond however, an entirely new story, did not suffer from this flaw and was successful in developing Kirk and Spock’s relationship organically — while they still can’t quite find it in them to freely swap secrets, their loyalty to one another undeniably shows. Indeed, the approach taken to depict this fledgling interdependence is akin to the way the Original Series masterfully worked to show the crew’s feelings towards one another rather than spelling them out with heavy-handed dialogue.
This form of depiction extended to other members of the crew as well. For the first time since the series reboot, we see Spock and McCoy functioning together rather than simply exchanging pointed remarks. Though the result, as veterans of Star Trek know and love, can only arguably be referred to as “functional” at all, the depiction of the dynamic was refreshingly heartwarming to see — in its own discordant way.
Then we had a few relationships that were more abstract, yet still artfully shown rather than told. With Kirk’s monologue at the beginning of the movie and his brief conversation with McCoy at the bar, I was somewhat surprised, yet pleased at the ambivalence he was displaying towards being a starship captain. It made sense after all — this Kirk was one who had not yet developed his love for the stars as the original Captain Kirk had already done so during the Original Series. Compared to his father, alternate-reality Kirk was thrust into Starfleet on nothing more than a dare. Without having ever truly known his father, Kirk’s relationship is shown to be a jumble of both curiosity and unresolved feelings, a rumination that paralleled his feelings towards exploring the vast expanse of space. Watching Kirk’s passion for the stars wax and wane proved to be a fresh new angle that we did not have the opportunity to see with the original Kirk. When (true to the original timeline) Kirk inevitably turned down his promotion to remain a starship captain at the end of the movie, his decision carries additional weight in terms of signifying a resolution to a number of his internal conflicts throughout the movie.
Even with Spock, an old battle was revisited with a twist of abstraction. Spock’s own ambivalence between his perceived loyalty to Vulcan or Earth had always been a central theme in his character even before the creation of the Star Trek motion pictures. To manifest this conflict using the infrastructure built by the new movies, Star Trek Beyond utilized the young Spock’s relationship with his alternate self. Given that Leonard Nimoy had passed away before this film was produced, this was a tricky affair. However, the way the movie weaved its tribute to the legendary actor along with Spock’s own internal conflict was not only seamless but also implicitly charming in its presentation. As I recall the way Spock sifted through his deceased older self’s minimal set of personal belongings to unexpectedly (to him) come across a photograph of the crew standing together from the original time line as notes from the original series’ opening theme complemented the scene’s soundtrack, I find myself full of, well, emotion. The implication being that such things were meant to be treasured. The power of this relationship, and by extension, that between Ambassador Spock and the rest of the original crew, helped Spock sort out his own desires in the film. To developmentally further the “new” Spock character… I can think of no better tribute to Leonard Nimoy.
Of course, I would be remiss in talking about Star Trek Beyond without mentioning some of the newer, movie specific characters, namely Jaylah. It was a refreshing albeit no-brainer decision — an alien who actually helps the Enterprise crew. This too was an element of classic Star Trek that had so defined the series. As a non-human character, Jaylah was able to form the precarious miscommunication-ridden relationships with the Enterprise crew that only an alien can. This, combined with her earnest desire to help resulted in an absolutely charming, movie-defining performance in the eyes of the audience.
And perhaps that’s what made critics and longtime Star Trek fans hail the movie as a worthy installment to the series at all — it has charm.
There are a lot of things going on for Star Trek right now. With the untimely death of Anton Yelchin, the core crew of the Enterprise is sure to see some changes in the future. In addition, Star Trek: Discovery is poised to be released as the first new television series for the franchise since Star Trek: Enterprise was discontinued in 2005. It is inevitable that the franchise will continue to expand and explore bold new ideas; so long as the heart and soul of this pop culture legend remains intact, there are no limits.