If the year 2016 is remembered for one thing in the annals of film history, it might be that our expectations were so high that it was almost impossible for most films to meet them. That’s true in a financial sense as well as a creative one, and perhaps there’s no better example of that then Star Trek: Beyond. While the third film in the rebooted Trek universe (the so-called “Kelvin timeline”) produced by J.J. Abrams fell about $100 million short of the box office of its two predecessors, it was still received well critically. So where was the disconnect? Where was the enthusiasm for Beyond?
Perhaps the answer is as simple as timing, Beyond was released at the end of summer as opposed to the beginning of summer when both Star Trek and Into Darkness were released in 2009 and 2013 respectively. Maybe being buried behind a slew of underwhelming and under-performing sequels like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Now You See Me 2 gave it the stink of another disappointing follow-up in the making. On the other hand, maybe that first trailer featuring the Beastie Boys and a dirt bike riding Captain Kirk didn’t really say “Star Trek” to fans be they hardcore or casual.
The shame is that Beyond was the remedy we all wanted the next Trek movie to be after Into Darkness: it was fun, it had an original story, it had lots of great character moments, and it had absolutely nothing to do with saving the Earth from a vengeance-obsessed villain. If you avoided Beyond because Into Darkness offended you as a wholesale ripoff of The Wrath of Khan that patted itself on the back for its own ingenuity by flipping the death scene, you missed out on, what I think, is worthy successor to Abrams’ first film in terms of the action, energy, and camaraderie of the recast crew. Plus it has a quiet nod to the original cast that brings a tear to your eye (or damn close, anyway).
Why should you care if you chose to skip out on the latest Star Trek movie? Because whenever Star Trek tries to do something different and it fails, it goes back to what it knows. For instance, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a Trek movie with a mystery and not a villain, but for part two they brought back the most theatrically over the top villain from the original series. Star Trek V was a literal search for God, but when that bombed, Star Trek VI went back to the well with a Klingon adventure. Then there’s Star Trek: Insurrection, which tried and failed to capture the spirit and philosophy of The Next Generation show, so it was followed up with a loose Wrath of Khan remake called Nemesis.
Already the Kelvin Trek series has toyed with a backwards journey. Roberto Orci was supposedly pursuing a story that would further explore the timeline tinkering and introduce Old Kirk played by William Shatner into the new universe before he was fired and replaced with Justin Lin. Paramount shrewdly put the kibosh on that, but before Beyond’s release it was announced that Chris Hemsworth would be back for the next film as Kirk’s father, who, in case you’ve forgotten, was killed off in the first reel of Star Trek. I made a case previously that Star Trek, as an entity, can only ever move forward in order to be successful, but the minds of studio executives, already gun shy of experimentation, automatically default to doing what’s worked in the past when what’s working in the present isn’t making any money.
Movie fans always expect the opposite to be true of course, they believe in the theory that what’s new and original will get the people excited and put their butts in movie seats over the tired and boring. Or to put that another way: if everything you’re doing is wrong, then the opposite would have to be correct.
The reaction to Beyond over Into Darkness reminds me of what happened when Man of Steel came out. Zack Snyder’s film answered all the criticisms of Superman Returns – more action, less emo, less reverential to the work of Richard Donner – but people seemed to like it even less because of it. Was Beyond too different from what fans had come to expect from Nu-Trek, or was it not different enough? And having said that, what do fans want from this movie franchise?
As someone that’s loved Star Trek from the first time I saw Search for Spock when I was 7 years old, I can’t even tell you what the formula is to make a smart and successful Star Trek movie. You might say it’s the villain, the two most unpopular Trek films – The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier – don’t really have one, but then again, neither does Star Trek IV, which hinged on the Enterprise crew finding whales in Earth’s past. Maybe it’s when the movies reached too far outside the sci-fi/adventure drama, the aforementioned Voyage Home was blatantly comedic, The Undiscovered Country was a political thriller, and First Contact was a kind of a horror movie, sort of like Aliens, but with the Borg instead of xenomorphs. Star Trek films, like the series itself, was flexible enough to tell a variety of stories.
Maybe we’re reading too much into this though. Maybe you can build it and they still won’t come because it’s been an overall depressing year at the box office with sure thing after sure thing just tanking at the multiplex because either the studio strategy of continuous tentpoles is unsustainable, or because the news cycle keeps delivering headlines almost as implausible as anything dreamt up on Industrial Light and Magic’s server farms. Maybe it’s all the above, and maybe it’s none of it, but if you skipped Star Trek Beyond, you missed something lighthearted, exciting and fun, and it’s worth checking out now on home video. Plus, and this is worth remembering, Into Darkness ended with Khan on ice, and not dead. He can always come back for more…
Trek Bastard is a bi-weekly column that looks at the issues, history and art of Star Trek over its first 50 years. Trek Bastard will be back on November 19.