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The Current Debate: What "Star Trek Beyond" Learns From TV

Borrowing from the small screen may be good for Hollywood’s major franchises.
This week’s debate constitutes a kind of sequel to last week’s weighing of the value of a big-budget Hollywood film like Ghostbusters—which is appropriate enough, since we’re of course talking about yet another sequel, the new Justin Lin-directed Star Trek Beyond. The latest entry in the almost 50-year-old franchise is the second since J. J. Abrams introduced a new main cast in 2009’s Star Trek, and for many critics, including Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, Beyond is the best nu-Trek yet:
Sometime in the 1980s, before Internet trolls roamed the Earth, television’s original Star Trek got a bad name, or at least a lot of side eye, for spawning legions of nerdy, trivia-spouting loyalists who were boring at parties. Those were the days! Star Trek, as created by Gene Roddenberry, was an unapologetic expression of optimism, a vow of faith in interplanetary civic values. Its gentle spirit is something we could use more of these days, especially during summer blockbuster season, and if you can look past a degree of special-effects bombast, Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond shimmers with it—the actors, in particular, carry the essence of Roddenberry’s inclusive vision into the present.
In practice, carrying that vision into the present mostly means fitting elements of the original television series into the constraints of a modern Hollywood blockbuster, as Bilge Ebiri elaborates at the Village Voice:
Star Trek Beyond might be the Star Trekkiest film of the new, J.J. Abrams–ified Trek era. That is to say, it's the one that feels the most like a turbo-loaded episode of the original series, and has at least some of that classic spirit of exploration and derring-do. That's not to say the film is cerebral, mind you; the Abrams reboot pretty much did away with the allegorical, topical angle of Gene Roddenberry's creation, cross-breeding it with Star Wars–style space opera. The Trek of the so-called "Kelvin Timeline" that we're now in is less about traveling to distant worlds to learn valuable lessons regarding society and more about running through corridors and leaping off big, high moving things before the madman destroys the city/planet/space base/cosmos/whatever. This one still falls heavily on action-adventure, as Hollywood demands of all modern blockbusters. But somewhere in there, you can sense a template taking shape for how this series might proceed — and it's a familiar, welcome one.
It’s a template familiar not only from the original episodes of Star Trek, but from television in general, as well as from Justin Lin’s previous work on four of the seven Fast & Furious movies. With those, Lin managed to pivot a mediocre ripoff of Point Break into something more like a serial version of Seven Samurai, with an emotional core built around loyalty and an inclusive idea of “family.” As Eric Kohn points out at IndieWire, the new Star Trek depends on similarly-reassuring character dynamics:
The rest of the cast just toys around, making it clear just how much these movies are driven by personalities. Much has been made in news reports about the decision to turn Sulu gay, a revelation that fills approximately three seconds of screen time. That’s as it should. Even as the last two films emphasized Kirk’s challenges with his father’s legacy in the captain’s chair, the core “Star Trek” cast have very little in the way of backstories. They’re defined by their exchanges with each other: Forget about Spock’s complicated backstory as a member of the Vulcan race; the stone-faced character’s big challenge in “Star Trek Beyond” is his relationship troubles with Uhura, and when he winds up stranded on the planet alongside the surly Dr. McCoy, the doctor takes on new duties as a shrink.
This emphasis on satisfying moments, rather than on presenting comprehensive or even consistent backstories, is the bread and butter of a modern television show. It’s not surprising, and maybe even a little satisfying, to see sequel-obsessed Hollywood borrow from the medium that has long mastered the serial form, and Star Trek’s roots in television only seem to make for a better fit. Still, not everyone is pleased. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz makes the case that Beyond’s sometimes cookie-cutter spectacle goes so far as to even run against the ethos of Star Trek:
At this point it's worth asking what, if anything, this franchise is good for besides generating cash for Paramount and its above-the-line talent. Everything that made the original TV series and its follow-ups, small- and big-screen, seem so open-hearted, intelligent and playful is marginalized to make room for hyperactively edited action scenes and displays of hardware and production design. These are technically state-of-the-art but ultimately not all that different from what you see in most other CGI-driven action pictures, superhero as well as sci-fi—long, loud spectacles that are filled with people fighting, blowing up cities and planets, and crashing things into other things, instead of finding some other, more surprising way to move the plot along. What's the point of giving up pleasures that the "Star Trek" franchise is good at providing, to make more room for pleasures that most big-budget science fiction and fantasy already give us, month after month and year after year? Why boldly go where everyone else is already going? 
To be sure, that sounds bad—but is this really where everyone else is going? Unlike the comic book movie universes, Star Trek doesn’t give each of its characters a spin-off or three, and doesn’t even introduce many new characters. Perhaps that limited focus is what leaves space for the kind of visual inventiveness that Anthony Lane, at the New Yorker, finds in the new movie:
Such is the surprise that is sprung by the latest film: it’s not just a blast but, at moments, a thing of beauty, alive to the comic awesomeness of being lost in space. Did Kirk ever dream that he would slide down the outside of the Enterprise as it keels over, firing his phaser upward at the bridge? He is dwarfed by the immensity of his craft, which itself is reduced to a mere sliver, near the beginning of the film, when it docks at Yorktown—a planet-size base that hangs in the heavens like a Christmas bauble, with inverted boulevards and skyscrapers curving around inside.
Last week, Lane’s colleague Richard Brody wrote of Ghostbusters that “the age of aesthetics in movies is near its end in the studios,” and he had a point. But Star Trek Beyond, if not quite a rebuttal, seems at least like a complication: studios may be moving past aesthetic innovation involving physical cameras, but they remain at the forefront of investment in bigger and better visual effects, which sometimes, as with the film’s Yorktown, support a different kind of visual imagination. In my view, a movie that gives itself over to that kind of imagination, paired with moments of comforting character dynamics, is probably not so different from the original Star Trek after all.
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.
This review is a much appreciated addition to the ongoing conversation about the worlds of Star Trek. It changed my mind about how urgently I want to see the latest iteration of the original vision. Sounds well worth it.

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