by Dan Marcus
June 20, 2016
Last week, Star Trek Beyond star Chris Pine was interviewed in SFX magazine promoting the latest space adventure in the sci-fi series. When asked why the most recent films in the Star Trek franchise have been more action-oriented than thought-provoking – something the series has been traditionally known for ever since its inception in 1966 – he responded: “You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016”. Well, I’m here to say you can. Let’s take a look at why that’s still possible. Pine’s intriguing quote encouraged me to write some of my own thoughts about the Star Trek franchise and how it can still be intelligent today.
Before getting further into this, here’s the full quote from Pine originally found in SFX (via ScreenRant):
“You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is ‘Does the Federation mean anything?’ And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?”
Now, Pine has a point. It is indeed very “tricky” to balance thoughtfulness and an exciting, thrilling story in today’s modern film marketplace. It’s also something the Star Trek series has actually had problems with before. However, when someone says the word “cerebral” – at least in connection with the Star Trek franchise – what do you think of? Many might point their Vulcan ears toward Star Trek: The Motion Picture, commonly regarded as the most cerebral Star Trek film with big, grandiose ideas and a story that moves slower than the most basic pre-warp ship. Conversely, I don’t think you need to be as weighty or dull as The Motion Picture in order to be considered insightful or cerebral. As a matter of fact, I actually rather enjoy The Motion Picture – although I’ll be the first to admit it’s a highly flawed and uneven movie. It’s ambitious, though, and it’s that ambition which Star Trek has strived for ever since The Original Series. So what’s a better example of a modern action film that’s part cerebral and part fun?
There are many different examples, but it depends on your definition of “cerebral“. Now, I don’t think you need a slow-moving plot or to spend 20 minutes on establishing shots in order to earn that qualifier. If we’re staying in the science fiction realm that Star Trek has bathed in for decades, let’s take a look at one of the more obvious models: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Some might deem that an unfair comparison as Nolan is one of the most successful filmmakers working today, but let’s examine how he got to that point. Nolan understands how to take philosophical and stimulating concepts and successfully translate them for modern audiences. It’s how he can take a movie that literally has a backwards-spinning narrative and make that accessible for most audiences. His Batman/Dark Knight movies are full of allegories on what contemporaneously was going on in our culture and society at the time.
Most importantly, though, Nolan took the mind-bending concept of Inception and turned that into an action film that grossed over $800 million worldwide at the box office – which is twice as much as the last Star Trek film, Into Darkness, made globally – and that was based on an established property, whereas Inception was an entirely original concept. Of course, you could argue the Star Trek films have never been juggernauts at the box office and Nolan was coming off the astronomical success that was The Dark Knight when he made Inception. However, I remember talking to plenty of people that weren’t looking forward to Inception in the summer of 2010 because it looked too “weird” and/or too “complex”. For all of the film’s narrative complexities, Inception is proof you can have a brainy, “cerebral” story and still have audiences embrace it.
How can Star Trek learn from this? It’s simple – it needs to have the right balance of story, character, action AND cerebral thoughtfulness. Seems pretty obvious, right? Well, maybe not for some.
A good film, whether it is cerebral or not, at its foundation has to have a good story. Pine mentions Star Trek Into Darkness and how it has “has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up.” I’m going to pick apart that statement and respectfully disagree. Into Darkness surely has interesting ideas – the militarization and corruption of Starfleet, authority corrupting the innocent, etc – but I would argue why that film fails to work is because those ideas aren’t explored to their full potential. In the same way The Motion Picture is an uneven film because it has all these great ideas but doesn’t know what to do with them, Into Darkness does have interesting questions and themes that are hidden underneath potholed storytelling. What’s worse is that a lot of those “questions” and “themes” are lifted from what is typically regarded as the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan.
Audiences are smart and in the past Star Trek unabashedly knew this. The filmmakers behind even the best Star Trek movies knew this. A lot of people forget when director Nicholas Meyer was brought on to make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he was a complete novice to the Star Trek franchise. He actually pushed for a lot of ideas that Gene Roddenberry disliked at the time – the idea that Starfleet is more of a military organization, the death of Spock, etc – but he pushed forward with those ideas anyway and ended up making what is arguably the best Star Trek film of all time. Even The Voyage Home – a film that is more of a screwball comedy than anything else – is the most broadly accessible Star Trek film but still predicates itself on the idea that humanity can succeed and hope is not lost, even in the darkest of times. There are plenty of cerebral ideas at the heart of The Voyage Home amidst all the goofy and wacky fun.
In the end, it’s all about the execution above all else. Most erudite Star Trek fans disliked Into Darkness because it didn’t move the series forward – it stole from one of the best Trek films and didn’t even do anything remotely new with those ideas. Fans didn’t dislike the film because it was too cerebral – in fact, maybe I don’t think any Star Trek fan has actually disliked a Trek film for being “too cerebral” – besides The Motion Picture. For some reason, Pine and others think in order for Star Trek to adhere to its thoughtful roots it needs to be too abstract for regular audiences to follow and that’s an exaggeration. It’s foolhardy and undermines not only audiences and fans of the series, but the whole Star Trek legacy itself. Some of the best science fiction films are loved because they are cerebral. Look at Blade Runner, Moon, The Matrix, Sunshine – I could go on and on…
When J.J. Abrams was initially brought on with the unenviable task of rebooting Star Trek, his first major objective was to make Star Trek accessible to mainstream audiences again. Based on the massive success of 2009’s Star Trek, he accomplished that. As much as fans dislike Star Trek Into Darkness, for the most part the film is actually a success. It has an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes and the film made almost $500 million at the global box office, which is pretty damn impressive for a franchise that at one point opened #2 to a J. Lo movie… about maids. You can bet Patrick Stewart’s glistening bald head was sweating bullets that weekend.
Regardless of Pine’s comments, I remain excited for Star Trek Beyond. Based on director Justin Lin’s comments about the sequel, I actually think he’s far better suited for Star Trek than J.J. Abrams ever was (Abrams at one point admitted Star Trek was “too philosophical” for him). When Lin talks about Star Trek, he doesn’t talk about specific episodes or moments that he appreciates in The Original Series. He talks about how the show would bring his family together at night. They would all sit around and watch this great science fiction show together that had a diverse crew working in unison. The idea of unification – both socially and otherwise – has always defined Star Trek, more than its “cerebral” thoughtfulness.
Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian society where everyone set aside their differences to work together might seem positively blasé to some now, but Lin’s comments reaffirm to me that he understands Star Trek in a way Abrams never did. Sure, the trailers say he was the man behind the successful Fast & Furious movies – a series about family, coming together to face adversity, etc – but to me he’s the man behind the underrated Better Luck Tomorrow, which Roger Ebert gave 4 stars back in 2002. If you want to understand why Lin was hired, listen to his comments and watch some of his other movies, which all have underlying themes and issues dealing with segregation, diversity and racial bias. Ideas that helped shape Star Trek at its core.
I’m sure some will criticize me for picking apart Pine’s comment, saying I’m over-analyzing and being overly critical of his statement. Perhaps I am. (Then again, which Star Trek fan isn’t overly critical?) However, I take issue with the oversimplification of not only the Star Trek series, but the underestimation of audiences. Audiences turned Nolan’s Inception into a worldwide smash, turned out in droves to watch The Martian and even helped Nolan’s other weighty sci-fi film, Interstellar, garner nearly $700 million worldwide at the box office. Some will surely argue Star Trek is a niche franchise and will never have that kind of appeal, but those same people also said comic books could never be taken seriously on the silver screen. When done right, Star Trek can have as big appeal as any other franchise. Just as Roddenberry believed in a better tomorrow, I believe Star Trek can be cerebral in 2016 – and beyond.
What do you think? Should the Star Trek franchise strive to be more cerebral or should they just be entertaining action movies? Let us know your thoughts on this below.