Star Trek Beyond, or, The Millennial Kirk Conundrum

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Star Trek Beyond is the most “Star Trek” Star Trek movie since 2009’s pseudo-reboot of the film franchise.

The original 1966 Star Trek television series isn’t an action show. It’s a series of episodic morality plays that see the crew of the Enterprise valiantly trying to grasp as far as their starship can reach. It’s intellectual adventure. The cast of the original Star Trek series is one of both galactic and philosophical explorers. But the 2009 Star Trek and its 2013 follow-up, Into Darkness, treat these explorers a little bit more like cowboys and soldiers.

There’s something to be said for a more exciting, in-your-face approach to Star Trek. I suspect the modern blockbuster sensibilities of the renewed franchise earned the series as a whole many a new fan, myself included. Without casting judgement on that more bombastic, action-packed tone, Star Trek Beyond does feel like an attempt to stray away from it, closer to the series’ roots.

Closer, but not too close.

When Star Trek Beyond kicks off the crew of the Enterprise are very much explorers and thematically the film, directed by Justin Lin and written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, sets out to make a case for peace and exploration over warfare and conflict. But the film veers into Jurassic World territory.

Much like Jurassic World argued against artificial spectacle by making a movie all about a giant, lumbering artificial spectacle, Star Trek Beyond argues for the merits of exploration by tossing its characters into a few shootouts with a war monger played by an utterly wasted Idris Elba. Shootouts that feel pretty similar in tone and intensity to the shootouts in the previous two films.

There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. Star Trek Beyond is fun as hell. Straying away from the usual Kirk n’ Spock team-up, Pegg and Jung pair off the crew of the Enterprise in exciting and hilarious combinations, Sofia Boutella’s performance as Jaylah nearly makes up for the unforgivable underutilization of Idris Elba and the film’s final act contains the best blockbuster, crowd-pleasing sequence in recent memory. But hardcore fans of the franchise who’ve been left feeling burnt by the last two films might find that while the message of Star Trek Beyond is more in tune with Gene Roddenberry’s original series the contents of the film remain far more concerned with battles and lasers than morals and intellect.

Star Trek Beyond is a film that ultimately begs the question, must there be Star Trek films?

Does that initial spirit of Star Trek, episodic, intellectual morality plays in space, gel at all with the current film landscape? Can there be an intellectually, philosophically driven blockbuster? If not, can a Star Trek film be produced not to be a blockbuster? One can’t help but feel that Star Trek films are always doomed to be the subject of mixed reception. The style of a traditional Star Trek story doesn’t exactly mix with the current state of the blockbuster film so trying to cram Star Trek into that mold will inevitably alienate fans, but even a modern, action-packed Star Trek isn’t going to feel as modern and action-packed as a Marvel film, so the general movie-going public is less likely to flock en masse to Kirk and Spock’s latest adventure.

When Star Trek goes from a TV budget to a film budget concessions have to be made on behalf of diehard fandom and the general public alike and for the last decade it would appear that the perfect middle ground has eluded the Star Trek franchise.

But perhaps there’s hope. Perhaps the upcoming Star Trek television series, Star Trek: Discovery, will provide a venue for those more traditional Trek yarns, giving the films a bit of breathing room.

I dug Star Trek Beyond. It’s the most “Star Trek” Star Trek movie since 2009. And that’s a good thing. But even the most “Star Trek” Star Trek movie since 2009 may not be “Star Trek” enough for the Trekkiest among us, and it may prove too “Star Trek” for Joe and Jane Moviegoer.

 

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