Star Trek Beyond: Cerebral Think Piece or Big Dumb Movie?

In Upcoming Movies

July 22 brings us yet another entry in Summer 2016’s sequel-itis: Star Trek Beyond. It’s the thirteenth film in the series and the third since the J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009. This time around, after visiting an isolated base at the far edge of the Federation, the USS Enterprise is destroyed yet again by a new, unknown enemy. Kirk and his crew find themselves stranded on an unexplored planet and must work with the locals to make their escape, especially as they discover their new adversary hates the Federation and everything it stands for.

For fans, the real question is: Wait to watch Star Trek Beyond online or go see it first thing in the theater?

Where Are We Trekking? Where Have We Trekked?

Star Trek got its start in 1966 as an NBC TV series starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, DeForest Kelley as Dr. “Bones” McCoy, and James Doohan as Chief Engineer “Scotty” Scott. While the show almost immediately earned a legion of adoring fans (“Trekkies”), its ratings were never stellar, especially after a move to a Friday night time slot for its third and final season combined with a reduced budget—things were so tight costumes were made by non-union sweatshop workers at night and smuggled into the studio.

The show achieved bona fide cult status when it entered syndication—helped by an animated series that ran on NBC for two seasons in the mid-‘70s—and the first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was released in 1979 featuring the original TV cast. (Originally, Paramount had wanted Roddenberry to make a follow-up TV series, but after the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), decided to go ahead with a full-blown movie.) While Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a financial success, it still didn’t meet Paramount’s box-office expectations, especially in conjunction with lukewarm reviews from critics.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The film series really took off with its second installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was an unabashed box-office hit with moviegoers and critics alike. More pictures followed after that as well as four more TV series: the acclaimed The Next Generation (1987–1994), Deep Space Nine (1993–1999), Voyager (1995–2001), and Enterprise (2001–2005). While the quality of (and response to) the movies that followed were up and down, by the time of 2002’s Star Trek: Voyager (the fourth and final film to feature the cast of The Next Generation), the series was perceived as having run out of steam due to the worst box office returns out of all its movies. However, after a seven-year jump, a post-Lost J.J. Abrams decided to give it another go.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Beyond comes at a make-or-break moment in the franchise. While the 2009 reboot, with its cast of relative unknowns, was a critical and commercial success, critics and fans, in particular, were less impressed by its follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, which underperformed at the box office compared to its predecessor. While Chris Pike (Captain Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock) have reportedly signed on to do a fourth movie, the rest of the large, ensemble cast were only contracted to do the first three movies. With J.J. Abrams increasingly involved with Star Wars expanded universe projects, this release must meet (read: exceed) lofty expectations by having a wide audience willing to go to the theater to watch the movie (as opposed to waiting to stream Star Trek Beyond online) in order to have a shot at continuing in its current incarnation.

Star Trek Beyond Roll Call

Chris Pine is Captain James T. Kirk, commanding officer of the starship Enterprise. His first two efforts as Kirk have been perceived by fans as being a bit too devil-may-care given the more mature nature of the character as portrayed by William Shatner. This time around, however, we can expect Pine to be showing the transition to the classic Kirk we all know and love. He said in an interview with the British sci-fi and fantasy journal SFX, “There were fans that were dismayed that he [Kirk] had so much bravado—but there’s no place for the character to go if you don’t start somewhere. And that guy is certainly still in there. Now he’s an older guy, not a young man anymore … he’s a leader and his priorities and motivations have changed. He’s thinking to himself, ‘Now that I don’t need [to be like my dad], what else is there?’”

Chris Pine - Captain James T. Kirk
Chris Pine – Captain James T. Kirk

Zachary Quinto is once again Commander Spock, first officer and science officer. Just as Kirk’s character is growing, Quinto sees Spock dealing with his own issues. Quinto recently told Entertainment Weekly, “[Spock’s] at a crossroads between his obligation to his Starfleet and his Vulcan roots. His planet was destroyed and they’re rebuilding, and he’s trying to figure out where his energy is best directed to help other people. He comes into a new awareness of his own mortality for a number of reasons, and there’s a lot of stuff that he’s trying to figure out in this film. By the end, I think he realizes the best path for himself moving forward.”

Captain Kirk  Star Ttrek Bbeyond
Zachary Quinto – Captain Kirk

Zoe Saldana is Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, communications officer. With Uhura as Spock’s love interest, Quinto noted her character helps his own grapple with relationship issues: “Part of Spock’s existential crisis is, does he need to be with a Vulcan? Uhura recognizes this, so they’re not necessarily at the height of relationship bliss in this film, but they love each other deeply and they want each other to be happy, to be fulfilled, to serve their purpose, and to realize their potential. It’s an ongoing relationship; I don’t think that it’s resolved necessarily in Star Trek Beyond. They’re learning about each other as well and figuring out the best way for each of them to move forward.”

Zoe Saldana - Lieutenant Nyota Uhura
Zoe Saldana – Lieutenant Nyota Uhura

After failing to kickstart his own franchise with 2012’s Dredd, Karl Urban is back as Lieutenant Commander Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, chief medical officer. The New Zealand native and long-time Star Trek fan Urban explained in an IGN interview how the addition of director Justin Lin to the project convinced him to do it: “It was fantastic. It was a breath of fresh air, and I really appreciated Justin’s intimate knowledge and understanding of the character dynamics. In fact, I was on the fence about doing the movie until I spoke with Justin. Because I had a conflicting schedule, and I had a decision to make about which film to do, and I was no longer under contract to do a third picture. So I had a decision to make, and it was talking with Justin that enabled me to commit to it.”

Karl Urban - Lieutenant Commander Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy
Karl Urban – Lieutenant Commander Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy

Not only does Simon Pegg play Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, second officer and chief engineer, he also co-wrote the Star Trek Beyond full movie screenplay with Doug Jung. (He also co-wrote Hot Fuzz and the zombie classic Shaun of the Dead.) As Pegg told Collider, this allowed for some additional input compared to the earlier movies, “We sent an email out to the cast whenever we got here saying, ‘Look. Look at your character. If you have any feelings or any kind of impulses, you know them better than we do. Let us know.’ And that’s been really helpful. And it’s been great to be part of both sides of it in a way.”

Simon Pegg - Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott
Simon Pegg – Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott

Showing us once again he’s more than just MILF Guy #2 from the American Pie movies, John Cho is Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. Cho told Famous Monsters he has high hopes for the Star Trek Beyond full movie: “When I read the script, my emotional impression was that it felt very much like the best of the original series. It felt like the series felt to me. And the first [film] that we made didn’t entirely feel like that to me.”

John Cho - Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu
John Cho – Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu

Idris Elba is Krall, the movie’s chief villain and a new character in the Star Trek universe. The British actor first came to the attention of American audiences in the early 2000s through his performance as Russell “Stringer” Bell in the HBO drama The Wire. Since then, he’s balanced high-concept roles in Luther, Beasts of No Nation, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with summer blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Thor, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Prometheus. (You can also hear him this summer in Finding Dory.) Recently, he’s been rumored to be a top candidate to follow Daniel Craig as James Bond.

Idris Elba - Krall
Idris Elba – Krall

What to Expect from the Star Trek Beyond Full Movie

Jason Hall recently identified the dilemma facing Star Trek Beyond at /film: “The main appeal of Star Trek has always been that it’s a little brainier than your typical science fiction fare, putting wild ideas and big questions at the forefront of its storytelling. That’s why the recent films have proven controversial with many fans, who believe that Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness place emphasis on action and special effects instead of intriguing moral dilemmas and such.”

Eugene Wesley
Eugene Wesley “Gene” Roddenberry – Creator of Star Trek television series

For the original TV show back in the ‘60s, being “a little brainier” was by design. While creator Gene Roddenberry pitched the idea to NBC as a classic adventure story, a “Wagon Train to the stars,” he was also interested in using the show as an analogy for the issues facing contemporary America: the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and religion. In fact, when rejecting the initial pilot, NBC said it was “too cerebral.” And the show attracted its own upscale audience too. As Vernon Scott wrote in 1968 during one of the periodic letter-writing campaigns to save Star Trek from cancellation, “The show, according to the 6,000 letters it draws a week (more than any other in television), is watched by scientists, museum curators, psychiatrists, doctors, university professors and other highbrows. The Smithsonian Institution asked for a print of the show for its archives, the only show so honored.”

But, while the stories of the original TV episodes are what the hardcore Trekkies know and love, is a studio willing to translate that aesthetic to a wider audience via the summer tent-pole blockbuster? Chris Pine talked about this issue in his SFX interview: “You can’t make 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.”

Star Trek Beyond Set Photo
Star Trek Beyond Set Photo

This is the question that drives fans’ existential dread: Is the Star Trek Beyond full movie going to have the small screen smarts of the original Star Trek series or be just another big dumb summer movie a la Guardians of the Galaxy? That is, in taking over from J.J. Abrams as director, is Justin Lin going to be more James Cameron (or David Fincher) coming after Ridley Scott in the Alien franchise or Joel Schumacher following in the footsteps of Tim Burton with one of the worst Batman movies ever made: Batman & Robin? At best, fans are cautiously optimistic. While Lin’s background isn’t “brainier” movies—he’s directed several installments of the Fast & Furious franchise—he does seem, as John Cho has mentioned, to be a fan of the tone and style of the original TV series.

star trek beyond full movie

No matter what the fate of the Star Trek Beyond full movie turns out to be, the biggest hope for ongoing life in the franchise may be back on the small screen: a new, CBS-produced Star Trek TV series, debuting on CBS in January 2017 before moving over to CBS All Access. Perhaps Star Trek needs the confines of the TV screen to be as topical and flexible and responsive as it needs to be (which may also be the reason we’ve never seen any Law & Order movies). Until opening weekend, though, we can’t know how all this will play out … so Trekkies everywhere are waiting with bated breath and with fingers crossed in a Vulcan salute for the opportunity to watch Star Trek Beyond. Or at least find out if they should just wait a little longer to stream Star Trek Beyond online free.

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