JJ Abrams ditched Star Trek for the prettier girl, so Kirk and company forge toward a more sustainable future.
In his magnum opus (for the moment anyway, since he is always always producing new magnum opuses) on Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, half-green capitalization monster Film Crit Hulk made the incisive comment that JJ Abrams movies are “desperate love seekers.” A quote, nicely summing up his momentous argument:
THEY WANT TO BE LOVED AND ADORED AND WILL BEND OVER BACKWARDS TO TRY AND GET THAT EFFECT. BUT THEY’RE NEVER THINKING OF THEMSELVES OR THEIR OWN WELL-BEING, THEY’RE ONLY THINKING OF YOU. CONSTANTLY REACTING, ANTICIPATING, EDITING THEMSELVES TO THE POINT OF INCOHERENCE, BUT IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU! IT’S ALL PLACATING YOU. AND OF COURSE, HAVING EVERYTHING CATER TO YOU FEELS NICE BUT IT IS SECRETLY THE MOST UNSATISFYING THING IN THE WORLD…
To paraphrase his style book, Tyler feels this in his bones about the first two Star Trek “The Kelvin Timeline” movies. The first was a deeply satisfying exercise in big-budget moviemaking, a marvel of casting and rebooting that it almost seemed impossible to screw up. Yet every time I go back and watch Star Trek, I get the same hollow feeling, as if Abrams is playing to hit all of the right notes with me, the lifelong Star Trek fan, without really worrying about the logic or character motivations of what’s happening on screen. Don’t get me wrong, Star Trek is an immensely fun movie, and it only worries me that it’s hollow. That’s because Star Trek is only a first act. It essentially does nothing other than set up the world that we’re supposed to really like. In a vacuum, this is fine. Abrams is excellent at first acts — think about the pilot of Lost.
And for a few years, Star Trek was going to be okay. Abrams was in control. Then this, in an interview with The Guardian:
Star Trek always felt like a silly, campy thing. I remember appreciating it, but feeling like I didn’t get it. I felt it didn’t give me a way in. There was a captain, there was this first officer, they were talking a lot about adventures and not having them as much as I would’ve liked.
Then the crawlers started creeping in: a colossally mishandled lead-up to his sequel, the sneaking feeling that Star Trek might not have been as good as it could’ve been, the comments that he was always more of a Star Wars fan. There was something wrong about it, like the resurgence fans have been asked for since Deep Space Nine gracefully danced off into the ether, doomed to never be.
Then, in a final act of supreme, final fuck-offery, Abrams made Star Trek Into Darkness and bolted for Star Wars, the newest damaged pretty girl at the party who would be susceptible to Abrams’ schlock. Darkness isn’t Green Lantern bad, but it’s almost worse in its lack of fun, joy, anything resembling a coherent plot, or anything not remotely appearing like Abrams auditioning for the new Star Wars in front of millions. Abrams simultaneously tainted the Kelvin Timeline he so carelessly invented and somehow made it feel dirty to even enjoy the original version of his crappy karaoke cover, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Which is all to say that it’s so nice to have a competent action director and a respectful writer behind Star Trek again, even if the results are nowhere close to what Star Trek could, in its greatest moments, be. Trek has been, for most of its life, a stellar series of TV shows (Enterprise excepted, because duh) popularized by a bevy of overly action-y movies that corrupt some of the TV show’s thinky conceptualism in favor of bombast and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Director Justin Lin (Fast and Furiouses of varying numbers) and writers Simon Pegg (Edgar Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy,” as well as our Scotty) & Doug Jung dispense with any notion of satisfying TV viewers. Star Trek Beyond is a foamy action flick that abandons the heady, overwrought Kirk-Spock duality that had Abrams tunnel visioned, and throws itself headlong into an ensemble piece that makes little to no sense, but at least has fun doing it.
Beyond feels designed to appeal to the Asian market: light on the knotty, anecdotal speechifying Abrams-style, heavy on simple setups to well-put-together action sequences, with a nice dose of clear right-and-wrong morality thrown in. The gray areas (of which there are a few regarding the film’s villain) are mostly there to shine a light on Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk, who continues to do yeoman’s work redefining the role Abrams wrote for him (hint: daddy issues). No coincidence that the opening production logos of the movie include noted Chinese eCommerce giant Alibaba — if Beyond doesn’t blow up around the world, I’ll eat a hat.
Yet that simple setup plays, again, to the strengths of Star Trek when it stops thinking too much about itself. The Original Series was about 1/3 missable garbage, 1/3 classic sci-fi, and 1/3 thrilling space western. Beyond is all space western.
In a classic TV setup, Kirk and company get stuck on a planet while trying to rescue a lost Starfleet ship, crash landing when attacked by a horde of what can best be described as “space bees.” There’s some mythological reason for it all, but skirting over the minute details of the plot seems beneficial since very little of it matters on a story level.
No slight to Lin, who earns his way back into directorial good graces with a fantastic space car chase finale, but nearly completely falls flat on his first attempt at a space battle with the “bees.” Star Trek has always had trouble scripting space battles — their ships are just too unwieldy and large to be X-Wings. Yet Lin can’t even manage to inject drama into the bees straight dominating the Enterprise; every time a new hole is torn in the ship, Lin cuts back to a bridge featuring Kirk calmly dictating orders as if Rome isn’t burning around him. Coupled with a needlessly expository setup (reminiscent of the over-setup Edgar Wright’s movies can be guilty of now and again, for obvious reasons), Beyond doesn’t have a lot going for it for a while.
Yet when the crew crash lands and separates into pairs and trios, the movie kicks into a silly high gear that it never drops. The clearest benefactors are Pegg as Scotty, who gets his own tête-à-tête with a feisty alien engineer Jaela, and Zoe Saldaña as Uhura, who actually gets to emerge from Abrams’ unfortunate “women in Star Trek are just vectors for male intimacy insecurities” cloak to become the badass confident character that Saldana’s casting nudged at back in 2009. John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin (RIP, goddammit) as Chekhov get less play, but still it feels more like Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung paid close attention to making sure everybody gets a little screen time to prove how awesome they are.
The only actor who gets unfortunately short shrift is Idris Elba, who doesn’t get the chance to use his titanically expressive glower beneath a pile of blue makeup as the film’s villain, Krall. Continuity truthers (aka Reddit) have been claiming that Krall is a Jem’Hadar, yet squabbling about easter eggs or narrative arcs that could be carried over is pointless; Elba is a big bad to defeat, and that’s it. His complex morality play about the nature of humanity vis-à-vis peacetime vs. wartime is confused and ridiculous, yet it reinforces Pegg and Jung’s narrative themes with the effectiveness of any of the Fast and Furious movies.
All the hand-wringing about “nostalgia porn” after the first teaser fell flat on its face by playing The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is earned in an over-caffeinated sequence in which the song actually plays a substantive role in the plot (I kid you not), and the finale essentially devolves into that space car chase through a giant snow globe. Oh, sorry, finish your popcorn, I’ll shut up.
No but really, Star Trek Beyond hints at a future of Star Trek movies that might not actually bury the fanbase in another pointless round of apologia and bitter battlement defense of Picard, or Klingons, or the Borg, or DS9. It’s so happy with being its dumb, highlight reel self that it mostly succeeds in being as fun as Lin’s amazing work on the Fast and Furious franchise. Kirk himself, in something between a “winsome” and “tired” tone, mentions that his life has become increasingly “episodic” out on the range of open space, a moment about as meta as this movie gets.
Yet this potential introduction of an alternate motivation for science fiction tentpoles feels somewhat prescient; free of all notions of living up to any “shared universe,” the Fast and Furious franchise currently resides in a lovely bit of cinematic blockbuster safe space; sure, you don’t get the odd potential for a Guardians of the Galaxy-style surprise, but you also shouldn’t be worried about the colossal narrative problem child that is all three Captain America movies.
If Star Trek can continue living in this freeform, episodic world, it might be able to forge ahead even as culture increasingly demands tired cinematic multiverses. Let the impending TV show, and excellent DS9 writer Brian Fuller, deal with the heavy portent; if the film Treks can hold onto Lin (and Penn as writer), let them continue being acceptable popcorn. Star Trek lost the caustic influence of a bleary-eyed semi-hack, and leaned into the camp for the best entry of its reboot thus far.