Why 'Star Trek Beyond' is the Best Star Trek Movie Made in 20 Years
by Dan Marcus
September 8, 2016
The journey for Star Trek on the big screen hasn't always been going at warp speed. For the most part, the films have had a difficult time appealing to both the general audience and to the hardcore faithful (known as Trekkies). That changed, however, in 2009 when J.J. Abrams rebooted the film series with the simply titled Star Trek. For the first time in a while, Star Trek was accessible to both mainstream audiences and hardcore Trekkies alike. However, as the series progressed with Star Trek Into Darkness, some Trek fans started to dismiss the new films as being too action-oriented, as well as missing the philosophical essence that made Star Trek the groundbreaking success it was when it first aired on this day 50 years ago. So as Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary today, let's explore why I believe that all changed with the latest installment, Star Trek Beyond, and why I believe it is the best Star Trek movie in nearly two decades.
Now, many Trekkies might scoff at that, but remember this November celebrates the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: First Contact (directed by Jonathan Frakes), in my mind the only good film featuring the cast of The Next Generation (which led Trek's film series since 1994's Star Trek Generations). After that, we got the underwhelming Star Trek: Insurrection - which felt like an extended episode of the TV show – and Star Trek Nemesis, the extremely disappointing final chapter in the Next Generation film series.
When J.J. Abrams was brought on-board to revitalize the Star Trek film brand in 2006, he was inheriting a franchise that was at one of its lowest points in its history. I'll never forget getting picked up early from school by my step-dad to see Star Trek Nemesis on December 13th back in 2002. When we arrived at the box office, I nervously asked the person selling us tickets if the movie was sold out. Without missing a beat, she just laughed and said "For Star Trek? No." That sad statement could have summarized the public's feeling toward Star Trek at the time, where it was deemed "uncool" to be a fan and the movies were mostly enjoyed solely by Trekkies (or Trekkers, as they sometimes prefer to be called).
With that, J.J. Abrams had a very clear directive when he was brought on-board to direct: make Star Trek "cool" again. By all intents and purposes, he succeeded. His Star Trek film was a runaway success, embraced by most fans and even general audiences alike. To date, it has the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes for any Star Trek film. Sure, there were some long-time Trek fans that didn't like the movie, citing it felt like too much of a Star Wars film than a Star Trek film (all this coincidentally before Abrams went on to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens), with an over-abundantly high emphasis on action & spectacle over story & character, two things Star Trek is almost exclusively known for. However, for the most part, it seemed like Abrams successfully accomplished his goal of revitalizing Trek for a new generation.
When Abrams and company returned for Star Trek Into Darkness, something strange happened: the fans that had mostly embraced the '09 film unanimously rejected the film. In a poll determining the best and worst of the Star Trek films at a Trek convention, most fans voted Star Trek Into Darkness as the worst Star Trek film of all time. Pretty damning words, considering Trek's film series has had such awful offerings as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the aforementioned Star Trek Nemesis.
So what happened? Why did fans suddenly turn on J.J. Abrams and the rebooted series?
Well, many things happened over the course of several months leading up to the film's release. Abrams' highly touted "mystery box" ended up invariably hurting the film, where the director and most of his crew ended up telling fans Khan (a popular villain from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) would not be the villain of the film – when he was, as a matter of fact, indeed the villain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). An over-reliance on story tropes from Wrath of Khan – commonly considered the best Trek film – also hurt the film, including an ending that is basically beat-for-beat the same as the ending for Wrath of Khan, with the roles reversed. Even after the film was out in theaters, Abrams and one of the film's co-stars, Simon Pegg, continued to do more damage. Abrams flat-out admitted he wasn't a fan of Star Trek growing up, saying he never understood the "philosophy of the show". Pegg later outright insulted fans in one of his responses, which didn't set right with most Trekkies. All in all, it was one bad incident after another which took what was actually a moderately entertaining movie and tainted it in the eyes of most fans.
After Into Darkness, Abrams jumped ship to direct a small movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In his absence, famed Fast & Furious director Justin Lin took his place at the helm. I'll admit at the time of Lin's hiring I was skeptical. After all, he was mostly known for directing those loud and abrasive Fast & Furious movies and I was afraid he'd continue the trend of turning my 'sacred' Star Trek – once a daring, adventurous, meaningful series – into "Fast & Furious in space". Then, I started to read quotes from Lin. When he spoke about his experiences with Star Trek, he wouldn't cite episode titles or nerdy references. Instead, he talked about how Star Trek would unite his family growing up. They would all sit around and enjoy each other's company while watching this show about people of all species and races working together.
That spoke to me on a deep, fundamental level – much different than Abrams' "I never liked Star Trek". It seemed, at the very least, that Lin understood Star Trek, perhaps in ways Abrams never did. Then, I started giving Lin's movies a chance. I realized he brought so much heart and humanity into the Fast & Furious franchise, which at their core might be one of the only franchises in Hollywood that has a real family dynamic among the cast. Even more – a family that's diverse and works together to overcome impossible odds. I can certainly think of a few possible ways how that relates to some of the core themes of Star Trek.
I never possibly imagined I would be saying this, but I honestly think hiring Justin Lin to takeover for J.J. Abrams might have been one of the smartest decisions Paramount made in regards to the response to the last Star Trek film. As much as Simon Pegg got slack from fans for insulting them during the Into Darkness press junket, hiring him to co-write the script was also an extremely wise move. Pegg is an excellent writer, having co-written all three movies in the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy" with Edgar Wright. He also understands two things that are intrinsically fundamental to any successful Star Trek movie: story and character. That showed in his script for Star Trek Beyond, which was full of heartwarming moments among the film's cast with a story that was exciting and fresh all at once.
With the combined efforts of Lin & Pegg (not to mention co-writer Doug Jung), the trio managed to deliver a Star Trek film that – for the first time in many years – actually felt like a Star Trek film. I'll give credit where credit is due – J.J. Abrams is absolutely responsible for revitalizing the Trek series on the big screen. Without his splashy and admittedly exciting movies, Trek may have continued to languish in development hell for another several years. However, as much as I enjoy the '09 movie, I'll also admit his two Trek films lacked something important. Star Trek has always been about more than just tense fisticuffs or bold, epic action in space – although Trek has included that in spades over the decades, both in television and on film. Star Trek is, most importantly, about people of all races, genders and species setting aside their differences to work together, despite whatever impossible odds they may have to face. Star Trek is about exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations – something the movies seemed to have forgotten by Star Trek Into Darkness, a dark and gritty movie set mostly on Earth.
I knew from the first opening minutes that Lin, Pegg & Jung had re-captured the spirit of Star Trek with Star Trek Beyond. One of the defining aspects of the first two Abrams-directed movies were his signature fast-paced style – where you're thrown into the thick of the action with little time to realize what may be actually happening. It definitely can be fun, and Abrams' breezy storytelling allows you to overlook some of his stories' flaws. Such as in The Force Awakens, a movie that moves so fast that it rarely slows down to allow audiences to realize the many tropes and ideas it borrows from older Star Wars movies.
Lin has a more meditative style and that shows with Beyond. The film's first act takes its time to orient itself, reintroducing us to our beloved heroes and giving us time to acquaint ourselves with where they are now. By the time the film's first real action sequence kicks in, Lin and writers Pegg & Jung have taken their time establishing the threat and the stakes, so everything has a certain impact – no pun intended – when the action starts. Let's compare that to Abrams' first Trek film, which has two action set pieces back-to-back all in the first 15 minutes of the movie. More to the point, in Star Trek Into Darkness the action had much pomp and pizazz – but very little execution or consequences. A starship smashes into San Francisco at the end of Into Darkness, for example, destroying much of the city in an awful act of terrorism committed by the film's villain, Khan. However, in the next scene, none of that is explored or dealt with at all. The city seems back to normal, the film's hero is alive and well, and Khan has been put back to sleep. Although, to be fair: he did warn one of the characters they should have let him sleep. Moral of the story: don't wake up Benedict Cumberbatch. He takes his beauty sleep very seriously.
In Star Trek Beyond, the first major action sequence involves the destruction of the Enterprise. It's not just there for thrills, although the sequence is thrilling. In one of the film's opening scenes, Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Uban) talk about Kirk's direction in life. At the beginning of the film, he feels stagnate. He joined Starfleet on a dare, but he feels like he is living in his father's shadow. He's not sure if being the captain of a starship is what he wants to do anymore. The destruction of the Enterprise – and the scattering of his crew – provides motivation and characterization for Kirk to earn that captain's chair in a way he never really had to in the prior two movies. In the first two movies, he was rash, impulsive and naïve, often making terrible decisions without thinking of the consequences. In Beyond, he's still making mistakes, but he's a little bit wiser and a little bit more mature. He's still the Kirk we know and love, but he's grown and that's evident both in the characterization and Chris Pine's assured performance.
All across the board, Star Trek Beyond nails the characterizations of its cast of characters in charming and sometimes heartwarming ways. Bones and Spock (Zachary Quinto) have some of the best scenes in the film, getting parred together in an escape pod when the ship gets destroyed. The first two movies had plenty of scenes between the two characters, but pairing them up like this was a very smart move. In the older Trek movies, much of said film's heart lied in moments between Spock & Bones. In this movie, Spock & Bones are forced to work together, despite their somewhat contentious relationship. Lin, Pegg & Jung understand it's the character moments like this which is why people love these movies and why they love Star Trek so much. Yes, the action is always fun and the spaceships are cool, but what we really care about are the characters and their relationships. It's one of the fundamental reasons why Star Trek Beyond works so well, better than the previous two films. It understands that above all.
Star Trek Beyond, of course, is not perfect. The weakest aspect of the film is the villain, Krall (played by Idris Elba). Elba is a terrific actor and this was perfect casting, so this should have been a grand slam. Unfortunately, Elba does the best with what he can, which is not much considering he's hidden underneath layers of make-up and saddled with an unsatisfying character arc. He's not as threatening or as memorable as he should have been. I also feel like the writers & Lin missed a great opportunity to have Krall ultimately redeem himself at the end, a hallmark of any great Star Trek story. Krall was naturally a mirror for Kirk – what could happen if he goes down a certain path – and there's a moment where Krall could have sacrificed himself for the greater good, realizing where he went astray. It ultimately doesn't happen. It's not the end of the world (quite literally in this case), but it does hold the film down a touch. If Krall was a stronger villain and character, it would've elevated Beyond to truly great status, but alas.
However, even with an underwhelming villain, I still firmly believe Star Trek Beyond is the best Star Trek film since Star Trek: First Contact. It mixes and blends character & story in ways no other Trek film has truly achieved since First Contact, although Abrams' 09 film comes awfully close. What Beyond has over the '09 film, though, is a story that harkens back to some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. The film's message – of working together, embracing who you are, and not giving up – is truly indicative of what made Star Trek so special and ultimately so endearing in the first place. It's why Star Trek has lived on for 50 years and why it will continue to endure for another 50. Star Trek Beyond truly went where no Star Trek film has gone in a long time. It proves the future of this long-lasting series is very bright indeed.
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