Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Finding the Balance in Star Trek Beyond [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]

When it comes to classic pop culture properties, nostalgia can be something of a double-edged sword. Remaking, rebooting, or planning a sequel to something as far-reaching and influential as Star Trek requires a careful balance: too many references to the well-known films and television episodes can come off as cheap or pandering, while too little shows a poor understanding or lack of appreciation for the franchise’s legacy. Add in the often volatile feelings of die-hard science fiction fans, and you’ve got the makings of a potential disaster that will require great care and consideration to avoid.

The first of the reboot movies, Star Trek (2009), pulled the original series characters out of the 60s and into a much more aesthetically modern setting. It had all the sleek polish and action of a very good summer popcorn film. And even though people mocked the lens flares and explosions as decidedly un-Trek, the movie was still solid entertainment that tapped into that nostalgia section of the brain while also introducing new fans to the classic archetypes of the old series and setting the groundwork for things to come. Despite not quite feeling like the Star Trek I knew and adored growing up, I absolutely loved it — mostly because of the possibilities for telling new stories it brought along. I found its use of time travel clever and full of potential, and I couldn’t wait to see what they did with the timeline they had created and the universe they had remade.

Unfortunately, the second film, Star Trek Into Darkness, didn’t live up to the expectations established by its predecessor. Someone on the writing team had notched their reference-o-meter up a bit too high and ended up completely rehashing the plot of the fan favorite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but with questionable changes. Star Trek Into Darkness was still a fun movie, but it left fans — myself included — doubting whether the reboot could actually do anything new. Nostalgia was fine to play around with and I do love a good callback, but exploration is Star Trek’s whole deal. You know, continuing the mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new plots and characterization, boldly go where the previous dozen films hadn’t gone before...

So the delicate balance between new and nostalgia hadn’t been reached for the reboot series yet. The first film was good but too new, too shiny, too explosive. The second film went too far in the other direction and felt like it was lazily cashing in on what fans loved.

Enter Star Trek Beyond.

Writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung clearly understood the necessity for the Star Trek reboot films to stand on their own while still paying homage to that which came before them. It’s evident that they cared about the franchise and wanted to make something as close to a Star Trek film as possible while keeping in mind box office numbers and audience appeal. Explosions would still have to happen, of course. Fight scenes would have to be action-packed and exciting, dialogue would have to be interesting and fun, and the days of quoting classic literature were over (well, mostly — they do manage a little something), but that didn’t mean the film couldn’t still evoke a little Star Trek thoughtfulness.

Rather than concentrating entirely on ramped-up action and sex appeal like fans accused the previous two films of doing, Star Trek Beyond blessedly let the audience breathe a little. It let the characters live a little. It let the universe grow a little. We got to see some of the psychological effects extensive space travel could have on a person, and we got to feel some of the loneliness that would come hand-in-hand with this world, no matter how much like a utopia it presents itself as being. While not anywhere near the level of philosophizing that the series was known for, Star Trek Beyond’s thematic undertones of duty, changing ideals, and getting lost in the vastness of space (and life) were at least echoes of Star Trek’s past.

Also pulling from the spiritual makeup of past Star Trek was this movie’s focus on the crew, rather than just Captain Kirk or Spock. I could tell that Pegg and Jung really wanted to bring the crew back into the story, for which I am endlessly thankful. Despite being mostly known for the triumvirate of Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy, Star Trek has always been an ensemble and has a history of prioritizing the crew’s existence as a makeshift family in its stories, especially in the post-original series films.

While the tragic loss of Anton Yelchin, who played crew member Pavel Chekov, makes this accomplishment bittersweet, the camaraderie and unity that had been barely believable in the previous two movies finally feels real in this one. Furthermore, the crew’s connection with each other actually plays a role in the movie’s story and holds significant emotional weight for the characters as well as the audience. Star Trek Beyond remains conscious of the fact that it’s a continuation of a long-standing legacy, one built on a family unit of characters that millions of people have loved over the years.

This taps into the crux of the matter: legacy. It means paying proper respect to the past, but also building upon it. That, I believe, is where Star Trek Beyond succeeds while a film like Into Darkness faltered. This film uses nostalgia not as a cynical way to get old fans in theater seats, but as a kind of subtle love letter to the franchise during its 50th anniversary year — a respectful nod to Star Trek’s legacy. The references scattered throughout the film (and there are so many of them!) are what they always should have been: Easter eggs that established fans could find and enjoy, but not things that would get in the way of the plot or confuse newcomers. The movie doesn’t break if the nostalgic allusions are taken away, but it is made better by the presence of them.

Finding the balance of new and nostalgia is critical for something like Star Trek because in the end, I don’t think it can ever escape its nostalgia. Nostalgia rules it. The franchise is too embedded in pop culture to ever fully emerge as its own entity again, but this film proves that doesn’t have to mean the end. The universe of Star Trek can be the final frontier we all expect it to be, as endlessly new and fascinating and full of dangerous wonder as it is simply endless. For the first time since the reboot series began, this film assures us that Star Trek still has stories to tell and worlds to explore. Once again, I’m looking forward to it.


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