Star Trek Beyond and the Meta-films of Hollywood

Star Trek Beyond is the third film in J.J. Abram’s modern cinematic reboot of the Star Trek franchise and like the majority of blockbuster Hollywood franchises, Beyond has started to wear itself short, coincidentally, in a manner similar to its prequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness. One of the problems that I found with Into Darkness (2013) was its redaction of characterization from the first film (simply titled Star Trek). The premise for the two biggest characters in the first Star Trek was that Kirk couldn’t deal with living up to his father’s legacy, so he behaved immature and brashly; Spock, on the other hand, was dealing with being a half-Vulcan, half-Human, and the problems that entails. Mainly, Spock’s extreme need for being logical putting him at odds with his comrades, specifically Kirk whose actions were dictated by his emotions.

By the end of that film, Kirk and Spock’s characterization arc ends with a better understanding of not only themselves but each other and so their bond is strengthened.  Star Trek ended on a note that allowed the film to push forward, yet when Into Darkness was released, not only did it recycle the theme of Kirk and Spock fighting—a small note here; it’s not that I think Kirk and Spock can never argue since it is a fundamental aspect of their relationship, but when the characters mature, I think the flaw is making those arguments their centerpiece of their relationship once again—but the character arc doesn’t end with a sense of progression. Rather, the character arc in Into Darkness ends with a return to the status quo.

Why is a return to the status quo a problem? It’s a problem because of another element that’s common in Hollywood franchises, and that’s a lack of risk-taking. When there’s a return to the status quo and there isn’t a lack of risk either on a thematic or story level, these Hollywood films become repetitive, and so we end up watching the same film under the guise of a different subtitle. This return to the status quo and lack of risk is my main problem with Beyond, and the one that I think prevents it from being something more than an average blockbuster which is unfortunate, because Beyond does attempt something new with its characters but just doesn’t seem to know where to take it. The character arcs are done more as problems for the film to have for the sake of having them rather than as a complex issue that allows the film to evolve into something more than just an industry standard.

Beyond opens up with a scene that, to my glee, recalls Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968). Like Charlton Heston’s captain George Taylor, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is dictating an audio log while staring across the vastness of space. Both Taylor and Kirk are intimidated by the vast emptiness of space which threatens them both existentially. Where Kirk differs, however, is that while Taylor fears space because its unknown, Kirk fears it because it’s repetitive. As Kirk tells his audio log, their ship has been in deep space for over 900 days and nothing new has happened. In short, Kirk is bored and alienated.

Kirk’s state of affairs changes when the crew is given the task of rescuing a group of scientists who have gone missing, leading to the film’s first action set-piece and perhaps the best in this new franchise. The USS Enterprise is attacked and obliterated by an unknown enemy, forcing its crew to escape into the planet down below. Separated from one another, the plot of the film entails separate but ultimately connected narratives of the crew traveling the planet in order to reunite and defeat their new enemy.

In my review for Captain America: Civil War I discussed how the film’s theme and story gave it a sense of meta-awareness. I don’t think that meta aspect was done intentionally but with Civil War discussing the destruction wrought by superheroes, and the role of superheroes in society, I think and argue that that meta aspect does arise. Here, in Beyond we have a similar situation. As I argued earlier, Beyond never really progresses forward, and the way in which it avoids that is that like Civil War, Beyond can be seen as being about itself. This meta aspect can be seen in Beyond’s opening scene; Kirk’s questioning of the role of a captain and the repetitiveness of their quest can be applied to the making and progression of the franchise. At one point in the introduction Kirk even says that their journey feels “episodic.” That might be one of the many nods to the original Star Trek television show which did feature episodic stories and while I do agree with that reading, I also have my own.

Kirk’s questioning of where does the Enterprise go from here is one I then apply to the franchise as a whole. With Beyond at the helm in being the latest film, where does it take the Star Trek franchise? Well to answer that question, Beyond is a bit more serious than its counterparts. As campy as it was, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek used the science-fiction genre in order to explore more serious themes whether silly or serious. Beyond takes on this more explorative tone and applies it to its characters, and that execution is helped by its narrative which splits the characters up in order to give them their own stories.

This want to explore its characters is what I find most commendable about Beyond, but as I stated earlier, the film’s display of characterization merely returns it to the status quo rather than progress forward. Had this not been the third film in the franchise, the story could have been seen as self-contained and thus episodic yet that’s not the case. Telling stories in film is different from telling stories in television so while Roddenberry’s Star Trek could get away with telling an episodic story, I don’t think Beyond can because Beyond is a film and that entails that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, separated from its film prequels. To excuse Beyond would be to accept a lack of change and thereby stale works.

Just because Beyond doesn’t advance forward and has stale elements, however, doesn’t mean that it’s not damn fun. Justin Lin serves as the film’s director, and Lin really knows how to choreograph an action scene. Beyond’s most powerful moment comes during its first action set piece. The USS Enterprise is being literally torn to shreds by a group of enemy ships that move like a swarm of bees. Lin’s camerawork accentuates the bee-like movement, and the dog fight is made spectacularly dizzying; this is how a fight in space is done. There’s fear, there’s risk, and we’re unsure how the fight will end. At one point, part of the Enterprise explodes, and Lin cuts off the sound while also slowing down the movement on screen. Through these small tricks Lin really brings out that tense atmosphere which blockbusters often fail to achieve.

Star Trek Beyond offers to take the Star Trek franchise in a new direction but it never really gets there. That doesn’t mean Beyond doesn’t have anything new to offer. There’s a combination of slow-paced character exploration and eye-popping entertainment that strikes the right balance. Beyond is as fun as its predecessors without sacrificing depth. It’s just that that depth still remains pretty shallow.

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