More than any other franchise, Star Trek represents the possibilities of science fiction as a genre, mixing the otherworldly with the devastatingly human and letting wonder and philosophical explorations sit side-by-side. Star Trek’s hopeful utopian nature sets it apart from other long-running franchises and is the reason many fans have been drawn to it. In 2016 this also feels like a liability, at least on the big screen.
Fifty years after the first episode of Star Trek aired, the franchise finds itself in a precarious place artistically. Sure, the J.J. Abrams rebooted film series has been successful financially. But these films come across as almost embarrassed by the cerebral nature of the incarnations that have come before it. The recent films trade philosophical exploration for the generic sheen of a well-crafted action movie. Watching Star Trek Beyond, it’s clear that the new series of films, even at their best, feel like Star Trek in name only, lacking the heart and interest in framing humanity’s intelligence and diplomacy as its best traits.
The Justin Lin-directed Star Trek Beyond goes a long way to fix the missteps of the previous J.J. Abrams films. It pretty much feels like Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t even happen, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Star Trek Beyond has great alien designs, sleek visuals, and the cast chemistry is undeniable. But the moments that affected me most weren’t the new elements but nostalgic fan service nods and updated aspects of what Star Trek: The Original Series already mastered.
This is evident in everything from the film’s obsession with caves to the Spock/Bones dynamic to the way it talks about the friendship between Spock and Kirk (even though it doesn’t develop it much further). It’s there, too, in the way it seems interested in the philosophical underpinnings of its main villain’s actions (even if it doesn’t spend much time exploring those underpinnings). I’m not saying that Star Trek Beyond or anything else in the franchise shouldn’t reference its predecessors or incorporate anything we’ve seen previously. But when nothing gets added to the mix besides stellar action sequences and more sophisticated production design, that’s a problem. Which begs the question, if Star Trek can’t evolve beyond its past, what does that say about its future?