Tony Black discusses Star Trek Beyond, and whether anyone really cares…
If you took a straw poll of the general population, how many of them would know there was a new Star Trek movie dropping this summer? The chances are not nearly as many as there should be. Star Trek Beyond, the third movie of the J.J. Abrams spearheaded revival, has been marketed quite strangely so far, especially for one of the world’s most well-known and lucrative franchises. We have scant knowledge of plot, casting and have been granted just one trailer alongside Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a trailer which went down like a lead balloon with much of the fandom given it played a lot like the Fast & Furious pictures incoming director Justin Lin is famous for. For a movie landing on the 50th anniversary of a beloved property, its remarkably low-key at this stage, as are the celebrations for Star Trek as a whole. In response to questions over not showing the movie at CinemaCon this week in Las Vegas, Paramount revealed on May 20th they would be staging an exclusive event to premiere the second Beyond trailer and amp up the marketing, but the question remains… why aren’t people more interested or excited in what should be one of Star Trek‘s biggest moments?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at the franchise and its trajectory over the last decade. Following the cancellation of Enterprise on TV in 2005, Trek seemed almost at death’s door until J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot took the reins, gave it a shake and out rolled Star Trek, the 2009 reimagining of the original 1960’s characters etched in legend: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty et al, to critical and box office acclaim. Despite seriously dividing the dedicated fandom given how it made some serious changes and long-term effects to the entire continuity of the franchise, the picture was deemed a success and Trek suddenly seemed exciting, fresh and modern once again, backed up with emerging stars such as Chris Pine & Zoe Saldana alongside established faces such as Karl Urban & Simon Pegg among the revived crew. It took a few years to get the band back together, but 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t quite strike the same chord; despite the coup of casting Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s dark and explosive tone and flagrant riffing off the revered The Wrath of Khan caused further consternation among fandom and left viewers who enjoyed the colour and verve of Abrams’ previous movie a touch underwhelmed. The box office may have eclipsed the one before but so did the budget, and critical reception wasn’t as positive. People wanted a Star Trek movie to *feel* more like a Star Trek story. If Abrams was listening, by then he’d made a decision which would alter the trajectory of the course he’d set the franchise on – he left to have a baby with Disney and Star Wars.
He left the directorial chair open at least, remaining on as a guiding producer but with a great deal less input given the titanic undertaking of The Force Awakens. With Abrams gone, the third movie would need a new helmsman and it didn’t take long for a very obvious name to fill the crosshairs – Roberto Orci. A long-term Bad Robot compatriot involved in most Abrams projects all the way back to his breakout series Alias, Orci along with Damon Lindelof was one of Abrams’ Trek gatekeepers, a lifelong fan with a passion for the franchise who knew Star Trek inside out. When he was given the chair by Paramount, it seemed to make a world of sense. The honeymoon period didn’t last long however; Orci’s tenure as director and writer in the frame was plagued with rumours that Paramount had shot down his time-travel focused script involving Vulcans attempting to repair the timeline damage that destroyed their planet in Star Trek, which would have facilitated Pine’s Kirk meeting William Shatner’s original Kirk, a la Zachary Quinto’s Spock meeting the late Leonard Nimoy’s. Orci himself denied this but either way, he left or was bumped back to producer and the vaunted chair was once again open. This was at the end of 2014, with the film remaining due in July of 2016. His script with Patrick McKay and John D. Payne was no longer on the table, and with no director attached many wondered if the movie would hit the 50th anniversary release date after all. This is where things got both interesting, and worrying.
Early in 2015, to everyone’s surprise, Simon Pegg landed the gig of writing the script alongside Doug Jung with the promise of a story which would give the people what they wanted – the Enterprise and her crew out on their five-year mission, finally exploring the unknown. Filming began in June of that year which meant Pegg & Jung went from concept to draft to production in that short time frame. Along the way numerous directorial names circulated to replace Orci, including most seriously Joe Cornish & Rupert Wyatt, but in the end the studio opted for Justin Lin. Was he really rising to the top of the pile out of the rest of them? Granted his Fast and Furious movies have been an increasing success and fiscally hiring him would make sense, but creatively he feels a strange and, forgive the pun, but fast fix for an ever-increasingly desperate production. Paramount knew they needed a Trek film out in 2016 for the anniversary, they knew they needed a script fast and a director who could turn around quickly, and that’s what they got. But if they were happy and excited about the product, why such slim marketing as late as two months before the film’s release? Why gamble on a trailer which markets Beyond as less the Trek movie of wonder and exploration than an explosive action adventure, crew stranded on a planet story? Pegg himself appeared disappointed by the trailer, claiming there was a lot more to the film, so why haven’t we seen it? Why aren’t more people talking it up? Is it because the quick turnaround production, and the result, has Paramount worried?
It could be. In my recent article discussing the new Bryan Fuller-led Star Trek TV series landing in 2017, I suggested that there may be reasons why Fuller isn’t necessarily setting his show in the Abrams timeline-continuity, which would have for all the world seemed likely for any new show in the wake of Star Trek or even Into Darkness, and it’s perhaps because the anticipation for Beyond and the continued adventures of nu-Kirk and Spock isn’t nearly as high as it should be for the third movie or the anniversary celebrations. There could be reasons for this beyond the slight loss of faith after Into Darkness. Consider the cast – have any of them since 2009 truly broken out as Hollywood megastars? Pine should have but he’s not chosen his roles carefully enough. Zachary Quinto has always been a TV actor punching above his weight. Pegg’s solo films have made little critical or box office consideration. Urban failed to set the world alight with lead roles such as Dredd, and John Cho & Anton Yelchin have neither broken out beyond the boundaries of their Trek characters. Saldana is perhaps the only member to skirt the A-list, but even she is more tied to the Guardians of the Galaxy ensemble than her own solo career. For the last two Trek pictures, in Cumberbatch and now Idris Elba in Beyond, the main villain has been more famous and a greater draw than any of the main cast. Could you have ever said the same of Shatner and Nimoy? Even Elba, strangely, hasn’t been talked up as baddie Krall in nearly the same way as Cumberbatch was for *whisper it* Khan. Granted, he’s a new character with an air of mystery about his origin, but you think landing a major Hollywood star like Elba would generate more buzz. Yet it doesn’t seem to be there.
If we stitch all of these facts together, the omens for Star Trek Beyond are looking shaky. A steward who went off to concentrate more on another major franchise. Rejected scripts after long periods of pre-production. A hastily written script allowing for a fast production. A box office successful but not particularly critically regarded director. And a promotional campaign that has been lukewarm at best so far. There was a key fact regarding Fuller’s upcoming TV series in which Paramount had stated CBS would have to wait six months before airing any new show, in order to prevent “confusion” with Star Trek Beyond. Truthfully though, more fans are excited and interested in that new series than they’ve ever seemed at the prospect of Beyond, which should be celebrating the 50th anniversary with the same fanfare The Undiscovered Country brought for 25 years or special episodes of Voyager and Deep Space Nine rang in 30 years.
Much as we all want the film to be a success, and ensure the already green lit fourth film becomes a reality, Star Trek may go Beyond this summer… but how many people will really care?