In Response to Chris Pine - Why 'Star Trek' Can Be Cerebral in 2016
by Dan Marcus
June 20, 2016
Last week, Star Trek Beyond star Chris Pine was interviewed in SFX magazine promoting the latest space adventure in the sci-fi series. When asked why the most recent films in the Star Trek franchise have been more action-oriented than thought-provoking – something the series has been traditionally known for ever since its inception in 1966 – he responded: "You can't make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016”. Well, I'm here to say you can. Let's take a look at why that's still possible. Pine's intriguing quote encouraged me to write some of my own thoughts about the Star Trek franchise and how it can still be intelligent today.
Before getting further into this, here's the full quote from Pine originally found in SFX (via ScreenRant):
"You can't make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn't work in today's marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It's very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is 'Does the Federation mean anything?' And in a world where everybody's trying to kill one another all of the time, that's an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?"
Now, Pine has a point. It is indeed very "tricky" to balance thoughtfulness and an exciting, thrilling story in today's modern film marketplace. It's also something the Star Trek series has actually had problems with before. However, when someone says the word "cerebral" – at least in connection with the Star Trek franchise – what do you think of? Many might point their Vulcan ears toward Star Trek: The Motion Picture, commonly regarded as the most cerebral Star Trek film with big, grandiose ideas and a story that moves slower than the most basic pre-warp ship. Conversely, I don't think you need to be as weighty or dull as The Motion Picture in order to be considered insightful or cerebral. As a matter of fact, I actually rather enjoy The Motion Picture – although I'll be the first to admit it's a highly flawed and uneven movie. It's ambitious, though, and it's that ambition which Star Trek has strived for ever since The Original Series. So what's a better example of a modern action film that's part cerebral and part fun?
There are many different examples, but it depends on your definition of "cerebral". Now, I don't think you need a slow-moving plot or to spend 20 minutes on establishing shots in order to earn that qualifier. If we're staying in the science fiction realm that Star Trek has bathed in for decades, let's take a look at one of the more obvious models: Christopher Nolan's Inception. Some might deem that an unfair comparison as Nolan is one of the most successful filmmakers working today, but let's examine how he got to that point. Nolan understands how to take philosophical and stimulating concepts and successfully translate them for modern audiences. It's how he can take a movie that literally has a backwards-spinning narrative and make that accessible for most audiences. His Batman/Dark Knight movies are full of allegories on what contemporaneously was going on in our culture and society at the time.
Most importantly, though, Nolan took the mind-bending concept of Inception and turned that into an action film that grossed over $800 million worldwide at the box office – which is twice as much as the last Star Trek film, Into Darkness, made globally – and that was based on an established property, whereas Inception was an entirely original concept. Of course, you could argue the Star Trek films have never been juggernauts at the box office and Nolan was coming off the astronomical success that was The Dark Knight when he made Inception. However, I remember talking to plenty of people that weren't looking forward to Inception in the summer of 2010 because it looked too "weird" and/or too "complex". For all of the film's narrative complexities, Inception is proof you can have a brainy, "cerebral" story and still have audiences embrace it.
How can Star Trek learn from this? It's simple - it needs to have the right balance of story, character, action AND cerebral thoughtfulness. Seems pretty obvious, right? Well, maybe not for some.
A good film, whether it is cerebral or not, at its foundation has to have a good story. Pine mentions Star Trek Into Darkness and how it has "has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up." I'm going to pick apart that statement and respectfully disagree. Into Darkness surely has interesting ideas – the militarization and corruption of Starfleet, authority corrupting the innocent, etc – but I would argue why that film fails to work is because those ideas aren't explored to their full potential. In the same way The Motion Picture is an uneven film because it has all these great ideas but doesn't know what to do with them, Into Darkness does have interesting questions and themes that are hidden underneath potholed storytelling. What's worse is that a lot of those "questions" and "themes" are lifted from what is typically regarded as the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan.
Audiences are smart and in the past Star Trek unabashedly knew this. The filmmakers behind even the best Star Trek movies knew this. A lot of people forget when director Nicholas Meyer was brought on to make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he was a complete novice to the Star Trek franchise. He actually pushed for a lot of ideas that Gene Roddenberry disliked at the time – the idea that Starfleet is more of a military organization, the death of Spock, etc – but he pushed forward with those ideas anyway and ended up making what is arguably the best Star Trek film of all time. Even The Voyage Home – a film that is more of a screwball comedy than anything else – is the most broadly accessible Star Trek film but still predicates itself on the idea that humanity can succeed and hope is not lost, even in the darkest of times. There are plenty of cerebral ideas at the heart of The Voyage Home amidst all the goofy and wacky fun.
In the end, it's all about the execution above all else. Most erudite Star Trek fans disliked Into Darkness because it didn't move the series forward – it stole from one of the best Trek films and didn't even do anything remotely new with those ideas. Fans didn't dislike the film because it was too cerebral – in fact, maybe I don't think any Star Trek fan has actually disliked a Trek film for being "too cerebral" – besides The Motion Picture. For some reason, Pine and others think in order for Star Trek to adhere to its thoughtful roots it needs to be too abstract for regular audiences to follow and that's an exaggeration. It's foolhardy and undermines not only audiences and fans of the series, but the whole Star Trek legacy itself. Some of the best science fiction films are loved because they are cerebral. Look at Blade Runner, Moon, The Matrix, Sunshine – I could go on and on…
When J.J. Abrams was initially brought on with the unenviable task of rebooting Star Trek, his first major objective was to make Star Trek accessible to mainstream audiences again. Based on the massive success of 2009's Star Trek, he accomplished that. As much as fans dislike Star Trek Into Darkness, for the most part the film is actually a success. It has an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes and the film made almost $500 million at the global box office, which is pretty damn impressive for a franchise that at one point opened #2 to a J. Lo movie… about maids. You can bet Patrick Stewart's glistening bald head was sweating bullets that weekend.
Regardless of Pine's comments, I remain excited for Star Trek Beyond. Based on director Justin Lin's comments about the sequel, I actually think he's far better suited for Star Trek than J.J. Abrams ever was (Abrams at one point admitted Star Trek was "too philosophical" for him). When Lin talks about Star Trek, he doesn't talk about specific episodes or moments that he appreciates in The Original Series. He talks about how the show would bring his family together at night. They would all sit around and watch this great science fiction show together that had a diverse crew working in unison. The idea of unification – both socially and otherwise – has always defined Star Trek, more than its "cerebral" thoughtfulness.
Roddenberry's vision of a utopian society where everyone set aside their differences to work together might seem positively blasé to some now, but Lin's comments reaffirm to me that he understands Star Trek in a way Abrams never did. Sure, the trailers say he was the man behind the successful Fast & Furious movies – a series about family, coming together to face adversity, etc – but to me he's the man behind the underrated Better Luck Tomorrow, which Roger Ebert gave 4 stars back in 2002. If you want to understand why Lin was hired, listen to his comments and watch some of his other movies, which all have underlying themes and issues dealing with segregation, diversity and racial bias. Ideas that helped shape Star Trek at its core.
I'm sure some will criticize me for picking apart Pine's comment, saying I'm over-analyzing and being overly critical of his statement. Perhaps I am. (Then again, which Star Trek fan isn't overly critical?) However, I take issue with the oversimplification of not only the Star Trek series, but the underestimation of audiences. Audiences turned Nolan's Inception into a worldwide smash, turned out in droves to watch The Martian and even helped Nolan's other weighty sci-fi film, Interstellar, garner nearly $700 million worldwide at the box office. Some will surely argue Star Trek is a niche franchise and will never have that kind of appeal, but those same people also said comic books could never be taken seriously on the silver screen. When done right, Star Trek can have as big appeal as any other franchise. Just as Roddenberry believed in a better tomorrow, I believe Star Trek can be cerebral in 2016 – and beyond.
What do you think? Should the Star Trek franchise strive to be more cerebral or should they just be entertaining action movies? Let us know your thoughts on this below.
Reader Feedback - 29 Comments
For a three hour, inter dimensional drama Interstellar had to be, and was, perfect. Yes it's an opinion about that particular film, but it's also the reason a film like that can be successful. Also Nolans name being attached doesn't hurt.
Jon Odishaw on Jun 20, 2016
Interstellar was the best modern Star Trek film! I believe Interstellar to be my best film taking into account how ambitious it was!
Christopher Nolan on Jun 21, 2016
It is the modern space odyssey
Jon Odishaw on Jun 21, 2016
Didn't love Interstellar & I'll probably never watch it again, but I get where you're coming from. I'm not a huge star trek fan either, but my friends have had me over to watch the next generation a few times, and it definitely has a Twilight Zone vibe sometimes... at least I'd compare some of the themes and stories to Twilight Zone. A vibe that is definitely missing from the newer films.
tree on Jun 21, 2016
I've always felt like Star Trek put the "science" in "science fiction". It explored more political and social dynamics than the Star Wars universe, and inspired innovation and design that we use today. To simply strip that away to give audiences "wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up" is a bit of a disservice to it's legacy. I agree with Dan, cerebral can be done (Inception/Interstellar is proof of that) but you can't be half-assed and lazy about it, especially within the Star Trek universe. So, if they'd rather focus on action than half-assing cerebral...I guess I'm okay with that? Also, my fears regarding Justin Lin being attached to this have been somewhat eased with his passion regarding the franchise...however...I despise the Fast and Furious movies. They're stupid and predictable. Better Luck Tomorrow was okay, but nothing memorable. On a random side note, I didn't care for Star Trek: Into Darkness when I saw it in the theater initially, but upon viewing it again recently, I actually liked it. I have a bit more respect for the underlying message mixed among the action and found myself enjoying it (primarily because Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome). JJ also admitted that one of the main reasons it was flawed was due to them finishing the script whilst shooting the movie. Here's hoping Beyond will deliver.... Rant end
RAW_D on Jun 20, 2016
Look, I like Justin Lin and the Fast and Furious movies and the recent trailer for Star Trek Beyond has me really looking forward to it. But thanks, Chris, for showing us what you really care about.
Lar Rackell on Jun 20, 2016
Of course it is possible. But it takes a little effort. And that is where the real problem lies. Hollywood wants to make their bucks the easy way. I bet Paul Verhoeven could make a Star Trek movie full of spectacle and at the same time add in things to ponder about.
Chrichtonsworld on Jun 20, 2016
I bet Paul Verhoeven could make a Star Trek movie full of boobs.
tarek on Jun 20, 2016
DAVIDPD on Jun 20, 2016
Green grape of boobs. ;D
tarek on Jun 21, 2016
I was referring to his skills to infuse the films with political and social commentary in a fun and entertaining way. If that takes boobs so be it. I love them so why not? Although it is sad to read that the brilliance of the film maker went past you and all you remember is boobs. Says more about you and the people Chris Pine is referring to. Maybe that is the reason why they don't bother.
Chrichtonsworld on Jun 20, 2016
come on dude. I love Total Recall and Robocop, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers, but I will not hold Paul Verhoeven to This high esteem. While his movies have a satire background, they all use a simplistic dichotomy when describing totalitarianism. Good is good and Bad is bad. And I am fine with that, as long as the movie is entertaining.
tarek on Jun 21, 2016
Him ? You putting the nature of the story on Verhoeven? You do know, I assume, that Total Recall is based on A Philip K Dick short story written in 1966. And that Starship Troopers was written by Robert Heinlein - one of the Grandmasters of SF - in 1959 ! Now are you actually attributing the nature of those stories to Verheoven ? Even though he was the director and not the Screenplay Writer who would've done most of the adaptation ? So do you maybe want to update your comment to attribute the nature of the stories to the original writers ? Or is it just easier to say that Verhoevens stories "all use a simplistic dichotomy when describing totalitarianism". Have you also taken into account what those writers were trying to write about at those times (1950s-70s) ? I'm not defending Verhoeven, just trying to correctly attribute things to the appropriate people.
Laven Pillay on Jun 22, 2016
As a huge Sci-fi fan (especially of the 40s-60s period), I have to say: Yes, I read these books. And both were "loose" adaptations of these books. I wasn't putting the blame on Verhoeven, I was trying to explain to Michael that Verhoeven wasn't the "genius" he was trying to sell us. That doesn't mean he wasn't/isn't talented. He has a very unique style. almost inimitable. Total Recall and Robocop are classics, and I watch them every now and then with the same pleasure.
tarek on Jun 22, 2016
🙂 Great stuff - I hope you'll forgive me, but these days I've found that far too people actually have read or do read books, especially old ones. Agreed they were loose adaptations - the originals were fantastic, especially as a young reader 🙂
Laven Pillay on Jun 22, 2016
;D No harm dude. As two huge sci-fi readers we understand each other.
tarek on Jun 22, 2016
Books and films are different mediums. What works for books won't always work on film. It's not always fair to compare the two especially when it comes to deciding where the success comes from. A good director will try to hang on the core and spirit of the book as much as possible. But there are enough examples where that does not happen and thus fail. You know what amazes me that with all these reboots, remakes and adaptations no one has adapted This Perfect Day yet. That book was awesome. I read that very very very long time ago.
Chrichtonsworld on Dec 29, 2016
Paul Verhoeven is a master since every film except Showgirls are brilliant. You can't dismiss his skills just because he makes it look easy. You acknowledge that Total Recall and Robocop are classics. But do you think they were going to be with other directors? I don't think so. Many directors out there who have been given opportunities to adapt books, comics and videogames and most of them fail. Only having a good story from good writers is not enough. You also need to know how to translate that into visuals and momentum. Compare the originals to their remakes and then deny that you can't credit some of the success of those to director Verhoeven. Even if that one scene in Basic Instinct was something that came from a script. Who made it iconic? Are you going to tell me that every other fool could have made that movie great? Yeah, very unlikely. And they tried remember? Basic Instinct 2 which nobody has seen apart from me. (SIGH) So no, I think you are underrating him severely.
Chrichtonsworld on Dec 29, 2016
that would be awesome
Joker's hideout on Jun 21, 2016
Nailed it. If you give a franchise like ST to someone like Lin then you just don't give a shit about quality. Really, the FF movies are some of the worst movie garbage ive ever seen. Sure, 'cool' car stunts and crashes. So what. Everything else about FF movies is trash. Not to give Lin a chance but what happened to let really experienced skilled directors take a shot at em? Its the same situation as with Rogue one. Godzilla was just beyond bad except for its effects. These are all directors that create good visual noise with no substance. I have no doubt that this new ST movie will suck. If im proven wrong, i'd like that a lot.
Sascha Dikiciyan on Jun 21, 2016
A half billion dollar profit is considered a failure these days. You failed Paramount, try harder next time.
Charles Knowlton on Jun 21, 2016
The original Star Trek was not all that cerebral; it was really a comfortable mix of brains and action. TNG was more brains than action, though as the series went on more action came into it (the Cardassian war along with the Borg.) Voyager was a pretty good mix as well, though Enterprise went too far on the cerebral side (despite its occasional gunfight.) Remember, space opera is essentially a horse opera in space, a bit of the Wild West and nautical swashbuckling mixed with military conflict--typically with small groups of militants or similarly small 'nations' against either overwhelming force or isolated units. It makes for good action and adventure but also makes for long, boring periods where thought is more productive. Finding that balance is the key. One of the best Western writers ever known, Louis Lamore understood that balance. Yes, even he wrote a single semi-Science Fiction novel. Gene Roddenberry wrote many episodes for TV westerns, most notably Have Gun, Will Travel, which was a remarkably cerebral series for a story about a paid gunfighter. So no, I don't agree with Chris Pine that Star Trek has to be all action; it needs a true story in it that requires thought. The Star Trek movies no longer have the Deus ex Machina of calling on the original Spock for answers; they have to resolve their problems for themselves.
VulpineMac on Jun 22, 2016
Pine thinks he understands ...he does not
Joe Crawford on Jun 22, 2016
People who like the JJ movies fall into the catagory of stupid
you are a disgrace on Jun 22, 2016
I get what you are saying but I can also understand where Pine is coming from. Studios get scared when you start creating complex and thought provoking movies because they don't really sell to mass audiences, especially when you start talking about the Star Trek brand. It is a niche market and they have always been a labor of love for the people who made them. As for the modern day reboot. It all revolves around money. After audiences flocked to Paramount's fun no frills movies like Transformers (I can't stand these movies but they are pretty much a license to print money), The MI series etc. Then it makes sense to give the same treatment to the Star Trek brand. I'll admit I have never been a Star Trek fan but I have enjoyed these movies, regardless if the fans thought it wasn't the Star Trek that they knew.
TK on Jun 23, 2016
I am an old fart...very old. I remember TOS when it first aired and I loved it...every minute of it. I was a teenager then and the profound concepts hidden within the "wagontrain to the stars" concept (Roddenberry's words, not mine) really resonated deeply within me and my circle of friends. When the series died we kept the concept alive in our hearts through fan fiction, conventions...etc... TNG came along and it took a few episodes to adapt to the new crew but adapt most of us did as TNG carried on with the fine tradition of "cerebral" Star Trek. But then the whole franchise ("franchise" is such an ugly commercial name for a work of art) started to run out of steam and the cause, I think, was that there was just too much Star Trek on tv, what with "Voyager" and "Enterprise". The public became apathetic towards the show and its ideas and modern society was less and less enchanted by the promise of space exploration (just look at the eviscerating of NASA to which the general public has raised barely a whimper). Pine is right in some ways. The "dumbing down" of the public in the western world means that there are fewer people willing to make the mental effort to think about what they are seeing in films and tv. One needs only to look at reality tv and the awful "summer blockbuster" movies to see what has happened to us as a society. Deep down, however, there are people (especially young people) being attracted back to the ideas of Star Trek. They are watching TOS and TNG again and rediscovering the ethos of Roddenberry's vision...that we will succeed...we will venture out to the stars...there will be a universal peace. As to the "new" Trek films created by JJ... I find them awful. Comic book caricatures of what Star Trek is meant to be. The reboot and changing of accepted Star Trek "history" was just too much for me and many other long time fans. Even little things about the 2009 movie really annoyed me. Using a winery as the Enterprise engine room (awful...almost like depicting the 23rd century through 19th century eyes), having 20th century forklifts in the shuttlebay scene (didn't JJ watch TMP...showing the use of anti-grav lifters?) and the absurd sexual and romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura (Pon Farr anyone?). No...I really find the last two reboot movies very unTrek like. To me and many other fans even the Trek cartoon series was more faithful to TOS and Roddenberry's vision than these two "blockbusters". I sincerely hope Lin does a better job with this third movie but the trailer doesn't imbue me with a great deal of hope.
Tom Barton on Jun 23, 2016
Nope, Lin and Star Trek were never a good fit to begin with. I like him for the Furious films but not for this. To be fair, it's not his fault. While J.J. Abrams was not at the helm supposedly his mark on this film is everywhere. Not even the action was enjoyable which I was hoping for since I refused to be let down by these reboots not respecting the original vision. But nope they could not even be bothered by giving us that. Only at the end there was something that I liked very slightly but twenty seconds of joy is not nearly enough to put me through such torture.
Chrichtonsworld on Dec 29, 2016
It wold help to swallow the criticism if Pine were a fan of the Franchise. I don't think its the writer's fault. I blame the studio for wanting a 3 billion dollar opening weekend. I see Mr. Pine's point. I just don't happen to agree with it. Being a Trekkie I can't think of a more intelligent fan base or better laid-out genre. All he has to do is show up on time, fit into the suit and remember his lines. A big no brainer for someone who has laid a trail of cerebral movies like "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Into the Woods". Of course, you have to remember that we can't just enjoy a movie for the sake of enjoying it. BTW: His hair is receding. That is something he has in common with Mr. Shatner. But that's it.
Sharon Lawson Skeens on Jun 23, 2016
So I have seen the film by now and holy shit. It was terrible. All this talk about focus on the action which I was kinda banking on and then turns out to be so unimaginative and boring. Makes Into the Darkness look like a freaking masterpiece. And I wasn't too happy with that one either but at least it was hella entertaining. This was just crap. Total crap. Completely shat on the legacy of Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy.
Chrichtonsworld on Dec 29, 2016
Sorry, no commenting is allowed at this time.