WASHINGTON, August 22, 2016 – “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” So concludes the famous opening tag to the original “Star Trek” television series. This line and its subsequent “Next Generation” unisex version have been repeated hundreds of times in subsequent TV series and films over the decades, since both seem to encapsulate Gene Roddenberry’s ideals and mission statement of the “Enterprise” narrative better than anything else.
“Star Trek Beyond” is the latest cinematic installment of this venerable franchise, and the current film hopes to course-correct in a way that restores the true meaning of that iconic opening statement.
In 2008, the “Star Trek” both literally and figurative was re-booted from the ground up when a much-anticipated new movie franchise was launched. Instead of following the path laid out by its various TV and movie predecessors that focused on different or successive crews, the film’s producers decided to revisit the characters from the original series but with one major difference: the new Star Trek film would tell the tale of Kirk & Company’s very first mission.
To accomplish this risky task, they chose to set aside aside the continuity of the original series by creating a new timeline and launch new stories with the beloved original Enterprise cast without getting bogged down by traditions and developments in the more recent Star Trek canon.
The initial Star Trek film in the new series had its flaws, though some at least had to do with the re-imagination of a 20-something Kirk prior to William Shatner’s TV command. In the 2008 film, James Tiberius Kirk wasn’t a captain at all, more closely resembling a Future World rebel without a cause. Spock was oddly and deeply antagonistic to Kirk and his peers, and there was a little too much winking and nodding in the direction of the original characters and characterizations.
Instead of keeping things simple, the film created a tangled web conflict as if to justify why the filmmakers were restarting the whole franchise to begin with. Fortunately, however, they did accomplish their primary goal, which was putting the original crew on a course for new adventures while they were still their pre-Shatner younger selves. Faults aside, the movie was a relative success in franchise terms and an even greater success at the box office. Better yet, it allowed the filmmakers to take the franchise in a different direction, perhaps boldly going where no one had gone before.
But they short circuited that promising start when they issued the sequel to their first film, entitled “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Instead of building on the previous film, “Darkness” began by seeming to move backwards, putting Kirk and Spock at odds once again as they jockeyed for relatively dominance over the crew of the Enterprise. It’s an element of conflict that never seemed necessary to begin with.
On top of that, it soon became obvious that this film’s super-villain was effectively a rehash of the notorious Khan in both the original TV series and the second installment in the Shatner-Nimoy series of Star Trek films. Instead of building on the breathing room established in the first movie in order to tell new stories, the rebooted franchise lazily settled back and took the easy course by making an update to “The Wrath of Khan.”
Seemingly learning from this mistake, the Star Trek filmmakers brought in director Justin Lin – best known for helming films in the “Fast & Furious” franchise – to take over in this department. Meanwhile, Simon Pegg – who plays the new Scotty – and Doug Jung were tasked with scripting the new adventure.
These changes give “Star Trek Beyond” a different appeal lending the rebooted franchise a greater sense of continuity, making it the first film in the revitalized franchise that actually feels like a Star Trek story of old.
As in the previous film “Into Darkness,” “Star Trek Beyond” opens as Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) interacts with an alien culture on their home planet. It’s a good way to start. Kirk was always the focal point in the original franchise, so it makes sense to begin this adventure with him, plunked down as usual in a situation where he’s unknowingly in over his head, requiring the rest of the crew works to pull him out of the fire he’s managed to walk into.
The first two films in this new series lost sight, in a sense, of the intensely character-driven original series by turning them into outer space “epics” that were much bigger than the average Star Trek stories — the kind that hooked the series’ original fans. In so doing, audiences were led to believe that each successive film would be bigger and better—and more spectacular—than the last
In truth, both the original and the current Star Trek casts constantly confront new and unforeseen challenges during their 5-year mission. But those challenges are not necessarily bigger than something they’ve faced before or will face in the future. To suggest otherwise would indicate that there would be no point in continuing the series, as the action and thrills might not be able to top the climax of a previous film. Certainly the franchise can “go big.” But no individual story should ever feel finite, as if things can’t be taken any further.
In matters small and large, intimate and epic, there has always been something of a rivalry between the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. But what separates them both, ideologically.
Both franchises now exist inn several different mediums. But for the Star Wars franchise, everything is derived from a single medium: movies. The Star Trek franchise, however, started out as a television series, which, once canceled, found its footing again in film and other entertainment mediums. This franchise was always more intimate and “family” oriented and thus takes considerable risks when its film entries stray too far from what made the original “Star Trek” popular to begin with.
Even in their various iterations, there are comfortable visual indicators in any Star Trek TV episode or film. The Enterprise itself is a big factor here, but so are the familiar, evolving costumes, tech gadgets and so forth. But how to move “beyond”?
Enter Justin Lin. “Star Trek Beyond” is the first film directed by Lin in quite some time that isn’t part of the Fast & the Furious franchise. Directing a Star Trek film allows Lin to stretch some action-directing chops he might not have a chance to display otherwise. Lin’s previous work tends to get overlooked, but he has become one of the better action directors working major studios right now. His helming of “Star Trek Beyond” further emphasizes that point.
Since the voyages of the Enterprise are visually expansive, its outer space adventures offer considerable possibilities in a way scenes are shot. Some of the simplest shots of the Enterprise are made engaging by the way Lin plays around with the perspective of space and the lack of gravity in this environment.
The way the Enterprise simply moves through space is quite captivating in this installment. Ditto how the ship’s motion affects the crew members, via Lin’s rakish camera angles that shift ever so slightly without jarring. The smooth visual transitions during this motion seem incredibly natural.
Calm visual continuity in the expository scenes makes this film’s shift to action sequences that much more noticeable and attention grabbing. Pegg, Jung, and Lin have done an excellent job limiting the typical summer tent pole action sequences to the key high points necessary to conclude each “Act.” The best example for this a ground-based sequence that looks back successfully to Lin’s “Fast & Furious” approach.
Even more fascinating are the two sequences involving battlespace encounters in outer space. The first shows the relative helplessness of the Enterprise as it’s torn apart, while the second mimics the experience you have when moving along with a wave, as the USS Franklin counters what actually destroyed the Enterprise.
For all its moves in the right direction, there are still some elements that keep “Star Trek Beyond” from standing out in the canon. Examples: The story still revolves around an under-explained McGuffin, a tired device. Also, destroying the Enterprise — again — is a trick that’s been used so often in the past it’s become a tiresomely familiar plot device.
That said the current Star Trek film installment seems somehow a better fit with the look and feel of that cherished Star Trek tradition of old. It doesn’t really push the boundaries of the franchise. But it does enlarge the promise that future franchise movie installments will make their own unique contributions.