So Ghostbusters was released and … it ended up being like all those other ill-conceived 1980’s reboots we’ve had over the past several years. Movies (such as the new Robocop, Total Recall, Vacation) that end up being mediocre at best and would be otherwise ignored if not for carrying the same name as a beloved earlier film (or by hedging one’s bets with a firestorm that threatened centuries of gender relations). So like every week, we go from one forgettable blockbuster tentpole to another. Onwards and upwards to … Star Trek!
Admittedly, I had planned for this commentary to be mostly negative because the released material have been less than exceptional. It’s hard to believe in a movie when a motorbike chase and daddy issues are the ads’ centerpieces. However, the early reviews have been surprisingly fantastic with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. And unlike other recently certified fresh movies, there isn’t nearly as much external pressures forcing the critics’ hands to praise the effort.
Before getting into the new movie, I must admit to being an aficionado of the entirety of the original Star Trek. Not just The Original Series, but the entire original timeline – including the somewhat unfairly maligned The Animated Series. I understand what is meant by “The Next Generation best represents Roddenberry’s vision, but Deep Space Nine is the best Trek series.” So when I look at Star Trek, I know what Star Trek COULD be. I know why Trek Classic fans have problems with the Abrams franchise, but I also know that the main series (from TOS to Enterprise) aren’t perfect, and that evolution is not necessarily a bad thing.
When JJ Abrams brought Star Trek back in 2009, he revived it as one of biggest and best space operas in recent memory. This was probably the best approach he could have taken with the property considering filmmaking trends and the necessities of a modern blockbuster. Certainly, there are plenty of filmmakers who walk the line of cerebral sci-fi with a mass friendly-enough touch (Alex Garland, Duncan Jones, etc.) who could pair greatly with Star Trek, but that isn’t what got the greenlight from Paramount, and understandably so. Since then, space operas have come back into vogue with the highs (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Force Awakens) and the lows (Jupiter Ascending). It would be nice to see Star Trek once again offering the more highbrow contrast that initially made it stand out, but that’s not the universe we have to play in.
Thankfully, that universe on the whole is a good one, a net positive. The cast is uniformly good – with one notable exception, Zachary Quinto as Spock. I know the actor has been praised because he is good at copying the vocal mannerisms of Nimoy, but as a character he lacks everything that made Spock interesting. Quinto’s Spock is utterly baffled by humanity and is a character who is readily picked on by Kirk and Bones. Nimoy’s Spock knew how to play along; he was wise but not above joking around (even if he’d never admit to it). He offered a contrasting point of view but never seemed overwhelmed by life or ready to give into emotions in a heartbeat. That’s why people trusted and respected him, and why his soul was the most … human. I understand that these “Kelvin timeline”/Abramsverse characters are “different” from their original timeline counterpart, but simply saying “illogical” and raising one’s eyebrow does not define the character. And can we stop with the “he’s young Spock! He’s confused by emotions!” excuse? Quinto is older now than Nimoy was during the entire run of Original Star Trek. He was 38 when the show went off the air and Quinto is 39 now.
That digression out of the way, after a reasonably successful first installment, the sequel Star Trek Into Darkness ended up being a huge disappointment. The Khan mystery fell flat; Benedict Cumberbatch’s character didn’t behave at all like original Khan and the movie devolved into an embarrassing mess of reference porn. However, while the promotions for Into Darkness seemed to be hiding things to preserve the mystery, the trailers for Beyond have the opposite problem. They feel empty, in the way the promos for Batman v. Superman did; a lack of content rather than too much material. The trailers and commercials have been less than encouraging. We have a personality-less villain (played by the generally solid Idris Elba). Visually blinding space battles (more blues and oranges!). Empty platitudes of what makes humanity awesome (Fear of death makes humans great! Unity makes humans great! Compassion makes humans great!). More Spock crying. The overused dead daddy issue trope (think Lost). The motorbike chase. The first clip was a sitcom-level sequence about the Spock/Uhura relationship, arguably the worst thing about this new franchise. And then they released a tie-in Rihanna song, because if there’s one thing that we identify with Star Trek, it’s modern pop music.
But the reviews have thrown me since they’re actually quite good. A lot of critics have been praising the new movie for being a throwback to the original series, which can mean a lot of things. For starters, what are the odds a lot of these critics recently rewatched episodes of TOS? Everyone – from genuine fans to casual viewers to people who know Star Trek without ever having watched an actual episode – looks back on that series with rose colored glasses and with their own idea of what the show was. After all, what is a traditional episode of TOS? A lot of people would say The City on the Edge of Forever, which is probably the most well-respected episode of Trek ever, but that was the exception rather than the rule. For every socially conscious or cerebral episode there were plenty more like the I AM KIROK episode or the Gangster planet one. Not that these episodes are bad, but people might have a more respectable idea of what Trek is and tried to be than what it actually was on a week to week basis. (I’d argue that it wasn’t until the movies that the characters truly acquired the depth we associate with them today.)
Who knows how new director Fast Five‘s Justin Lin and co-writer Simon “new Scotty” Pegg view TOS? Maybe Beyond is closer to one of those “Kirk out-logics a computer” episodes. It might be fun, but it might displease people who want Trek at its most ambitious, but so what? While some like to think of Star Trek as being more than fun – and its more intellectual elements is what has set it apart from most every other major sci-fi franchise – fun has always been part of its mission statement. The characters are fun, the technology is fun, and even some of the adventures were fun. McCoy chased after the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland in one episode; it wasn’t all challenging race relations or pondering our place in the universe. At the end of the day, isn’t a good fun movie better than a bad movie that thinks it’s smarter than it really is? (Speaking of which, Prometheus II aka Alien: Paradise Lost just finished filming.)
Awhile back, new Captain Kirk Chris Pine said that Star Trek cannot be cerebral in 2016, a comment that was met with some online scorn. Probably because he’s right. Could the Star Trek brand be used in connection with smarter properties that deal with the ethical quandaries of The Next Generation or the political machinations of Deep Space Nine? Sure. But for the film series? Definitely not. Then again, with the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the movies have never been particularly deep. They had good character development with the main three characters, but from the third movie onwards, they have been at best decent-if-unexceptional action-adventures. So a fun action-adventure is not as anti-Star Trek as people might think it is (and would be better than the vast majority of the big screen ventures of the many crews of the Enterprise).
So what’s next for Star Trek? Well, apparently Chris Hemsworth is returning as James Kirk’s dad, George Kirk, in the officially announced Star Trek IV. I can’t say I’m excited about it, but I can’t say that I care enough to be unhappy about it. I thought the character served its purpose well as a sacrificial lamb in the first movie and never really considered him beyond that. It’s too early to flat-out blast the concept without knowing how it plays into the movie (e.g. are we dealing with the Mirror, Mirror universe (all hail Empress Sato)? Time travel? Transporter wackiness?), but I can’t say George was multi-dimensional (get it?) enough to care about his return. Maybe this new movie bolsters him and his legacy, but of everyone in the history of Trek I’d like to see in the Kelvin timeline? Can’t say George Kirk ranks at all. Q, on the other hand…
Regardless, this is the Star Trek we have for now. The positive reviews have tentatively turned around my expectations for the movie, which is a good thing. Even if it’s not Star Trek at its “best,” a good movie is nothing to scoff at. And hopefully the new series (run by genuine Trek veterans such as Bryan Fuller) will be allowed to repurpose some of the brighter elements of the franchise’s half-century-long legacy.