There aren’t many pop culture franchises that endure 50-year spans, but 2016 marks the golden anniversary of perhaps the most beloved screen science-fiction saga of all: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Still, longtime fans might be approaching the latest Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, with some trepidation. The franchise’s last installment, Star Trek Into Darkness, was a polarizing affair. New director Justin Lin, replacing J.J. Abrams (who remains only as executive producer), is best known for the very un-Star Trek-like Fast and Furious movies. And screenwriter Simon Pegg (who returns to play eternally exasperated chief engineer Scotty) is more synonymous with comedy than cerebral science fiction. As a lifelong fan myself (who first discovered Star Trek in reruns in the 1970s), I too had doubts. But upon visiting the film’s Vancouver set last summer with a group of other reporters, and speaking with Lin, Pegg, and the cast, my mind was slowly but surely put at ease. After reading what I heard and saw, you too might share my optimism, and hope that Star Trek Beyond will prove the high point of this anniversary year…
It Deconstructs Star Trek
Director Lin and writers Pegg and Doug Jung wanted to take the age-old beloved franchise apart, to see what makes it tick, and to put it back together so it will be stronger than ever for the next 50 years of space exploration. Part of that came down to examining our heroes’ core philosophy.
“I felt like I’ve had years and years as a fan,” says Lin. “As a kid growing up watching the TV show, I wanted to really explore the five-year journey, and also explore all the relationships. I think what J.J. did was great in setting the world up, and I feel like it’s important to try to deconstruct why the Federation, Starfleet, and Star Trek is special. Hopefully, at the end of it, we reaffirm why it’s been around that long and hopefully we can help keep it going.”
He continues, “It is very different than the other two. I had a very strong opinion on what sets this journey off. That’s been the centerpiece of this film. So that leads to a literal kind of deconstruction, but also, at the same time, a thematic deconstruction of Star Trek.”
Pegg adds, “We liked the idea of looking at [Gene] Roddenberry’s original vision and questioning it. The whole notion of the Federation and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing and how productive is inclusivity and what is the true cost of expansion.”
Idris Elba’s Krall Is a VERY Formidable Opponent
The living embodiment of the film’s deconstruction is its alien antagonist Krall. Played by the superstar Idris Elba, he stands diametrically opposed to the beliefs that have fueled Starfleet throughout its long history. What makes him especially effective, however, is that he may actually be right in his reasoning. Like the best screen villains, he’s not evil for evil’s sake. His attack on the Enterprise one quarter of the way into the movie is what fractures the crew, splintering them into separate teams, each with a distinct mission.
“That’s why I feel very fortunate talking to Idris,” explains Lin. “I remember our first conversation. It was just so much fun talking about it, because I wanted the character to have a very specific and valid philosophy and point of view. And I wanted to create something that would challenge, in a very valid way, the philosophy of the Federation. My goal is to really have him do that. So far we’ve been having a lot of fun doing that.”
Lin continues, “It definitely is not a character you’ve seen before. It was important because this film would not exist without this character. When I had that first meeting, and once I decided what journey this film should take, it really was hinged off, again, this antagonist’s philosophy. Also, getting someone of Idris’ caliber and talent has been amazing.”
The Characters Develop Through Action
Anyone who’s seen Lin’s four Fast and Furious movies knows he’s beyond compare when it comes to contemporary mainstream Hollywood action filmmaking. But how do his high-octane gifts mesh with a space adventure that’s best known for its cerebral side? By making the action a part of the characters’ growth.
“Action to me is no fun if it’s not built around character,” Lin tells us. “And that has to come from the very original impetus of why this movie exists. So far, all the action pieces are set off of that incident and how our characters react to it. So it’s exciting because it’s organic. It’s not artificial. It’s not something that I do because people want to see action. It’s because this journey, whatever causes this to happen, whatever our characters do to try to counter it, somehow organically creates that.”
“Everything he does tells a story,” says Pegg. “As such, when it comes to choreographing the bigger action scenes, [Doug and I] have been able to say, ‘This happens,’ and Justin will turn it into something magical.’ He’s had a huge say in terms of how the story’s moved as well. Sometimes he’s gone, ‘Look, I really want to do this bit here.’ And Doug and I have gone, ‘Okay,’ and we’ve fed that into the story. I really love doing all the small stuff, the character stuff, the lighthearted stuff. Then, when it comes to an action set piece or whatever, we hand it over to Justin and he handles most of it. He’ll feed the dialogue into that.”
Kirk’s Feeling His Age
In the film’s latest trailer, Kirk can be seen sharing a drink with McCoy on his birthday, the day his father died. Except Kirk is now one year older than his father was when he died, and he’s feeling the weight of his own mortality as well as his command.
“For Kirk,” says actor Chris Pine, “it’s like all these archetypal films where it’s the young man dealing with the spirit of his father. How do you live up to the qualities that he showed so well? That’s a big deal, and a lot of it is about that he’s not the young impetuous man of his twenties. He’s older and he’s captain of this ship. How do you reinvent yourself and how do you find new meaning in something that you come to everyday?”
Trekkers Helped Make the Movie
More so than perhaps any other franchise, Star Trek owes its existence to its fans. After all, it was a fan-letter writing campaign that earned the original series its third season, which is what gave it enough episodes to survive in syndicated reruns, which is how its popularity swelled to the point that it spawned a film series and five (including the animated Star Trek) spin-off shows. So it’s only appropriate that Pegg called on fans when he found himself in a pinch.
“We actually went out to the Memory Alpha guys,” says the actor-writer, “the two founders of the Memory Alpha Wiki, and asked them to name something for us. There’s a specific thing in the screenplay that we wanted to get a name for. So I just wrote an email saying, ‘Hey guys. There’s this thing. I can’t tell you what it’s for, but there’s this item…’ Three hours later I got a full etymological breakdown of the word and the history of the thing. So they’re gonna be in the credits for that.”
It Goes Easy on the Easter Eggs
Pegg is well aware that one of the faults of Star Trek Into Darkness is that it referenced the original Trek a little too heavily, with entire pages of script pulled from favorite stories like Wrath of Khan. So while Star Trek Beyond should have enough winks and nods to warm the hearts of the faithful, Pegg and Jung chose not to overwhelm the script with Easter eggs.
“There will be things in there for every Star Trek fan,” says Pegg. “It is the same world, and so some of the points of reference will be the same. But they are off in a part of the galaxy that they’ve never been before. They’re far away from the usual suspects. As such it’s not like they’re meeting up with an old adversary or someone they’ve met before. We toyed with that. You look at the great episodes and think, ‘Why don’t we do ‘Mirror, Mirror’? or ‘Why don’t we do ‘Arena’?” But that was Galaxy Quest, so that’s off the table.”
Kirk and Spock Take a Break
After two films focusing on the Kirk-Spock dynamic, Pegg and Lin were keen for the characters to explore new relationships. The destruction of the Enterprise was intended in part to allow for some mismatched pairings, chief among them one that lay at the core of the original series: Spock and McCoy.
“I felt like the Kirk-Spock thing, we’d done that now. Arguably maybe too soon in a way. I think there’s still a lot of time for those guys to become super friends. Maybe we’ll do that further down the line if we do more. I felt like now it was time to move away from the bromance thing and concentrate on the idea of the crew as a family living in a small space together, and what it means to all of them. I really love the dynamic between Bones and Spock, so that’s something we’ve kind of concentrated on a little bit with this one.”
It Takes Place in Year Three of the Five-Year Mission
While the Enterprise crew never got the chance to complete their fabled five-year mission in the original TV show (since it was cancelled after three seasons), Star Trek Beyond finds its crew with a full two years of deep space exploration already under their belts. And they’re starting to feel it…
“They’re dealing with what would inevitably be the psychological impact,” explains Pegg. “It’s not they’re, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ No one’s over it. It’s just that they’re doing their job. They’re going from adventure to adventure and it’s kind of tiring, and they’re wondering what the end game of it all is. The idea of the movie, the story in the film, is that what they encounter helps to clarify what their job is.”
Actress Zoe Saldana chimes in about each Enterprise crew member’s mindset.”You are no longer immature. You are no longer inexperienced. You are getting really good at what you are doing. You are a little older. You are a little wiser. And you are starting to think about life, going, ‘What is it that we’re doing here? Why are we doing this? Why are we representing Starfleet away from home? Is it even worth it?'”
There Are 50 Alien Races Depicted Onscreen
The Enterprise’s mission statement has always been to seek out new forms of life and new civilizations. Unfortunately, TV budgets and the marketing demands placed on big budget films haven’t always made that possible. For this chapter in the saga, though, the filmmakers decided to go for broke and present a total of fifty distinct alien races, one for each year of Star Trek‘s history. Many of these will be present on a Starbase the Enterprise visits early on in the film.
“Part of the story begins with them docking at a new Starbase at the very edge of space,” says Pegg. “It’s a new kind of diplomatic hub. It’s called Yorktown, and it’s right on the edge of Federation space. It’s where all the most recent Federation inductees can come and mingle with each other and sort of learn about each other. It’s basically a place where they can understand what being part of the Federation means, and it’s an important kind of tactical establishment for the Federation. It’s where the Enterprise docks up. For the first time in 10 months it’s had proper contact with other people.”
Justin Lin and Simon Pegg Work Well with One Another
On the day we visited the set, we saw firsthand the unique way in which Lin and Pegg complemented each other on set. The scene being filmed was one in which most of the Enterprise’s bridge crew assemble around a table to discuss Kirk’s plan of action for rescuing their comrades from their enemy. As the camera slowly panned around the table, each actor read a line. But Sofia Boutella, who plays the crew’s new alien ally Jaylah, found she couldn’t get her line out in time for the camera to catch her saying it. Lin immediately asked Pegg, who sat next to Boutella, for his input. Pegg closed his eyes and thought for a moment. Then he told Boutella, “Say this…” and proceeded to give her a new line that matched the camera’s speed… Having been on any number of film sets, I can attest that this level of quick, creative efficiency is a rare thing in big Hollywood movies.
The Camera No Longer Needed a “Hand Job”
When J.J. Abrams shot his two Star Trek movies, the bridge was a stationary set. Which meant that when the Enterprise was under attack, the actors flailed their arms while the camera operator shook the lens to complete the illusion that the ship was shaking. For Star Trek Beyond, the bridge, and indeed much of the Enterprise, was built on a giant gimble that could more realistically create whatever motion was required.
“It wasn’t the kind of set where they are jerking the camera, doing the camera hand job,” laughs Zoe Saldana. “You have to see it. It’s really comical. You always have that one camera guy: ‘And, action!’ It used to be J.J. too! He’d be, like, jerking the camera… This time the set really moved. So they went all out to give us that experience, and it was cool. There is one set that rotates 360 and there are two sets that shake a lot.”
Pine adds, “It’s actually way more physical in that regard than the first two films. Something I could equate it to would maybe be in the first one when me and Sulu have this fight outside. It’s definitely the most physical film. I would say once the setup is established, three quarters of the film is just nonstop action beat after action beat. I don’t think it’s senseless blowing shit up for blowing shit up’s sake, but I think it has a real drive to it, and I think that Justin’s aware of not wanting to dumb the audience down that way.”
There’s More Humor This Time Around
After a witty initial installment, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot took a grim, dour turn in the much criticized Into Darkness. But in Star Trek Beyond, the humor is back. Some fans might worry that Pegg, best known for his comedic chops, might lighten things too much. But Saldana—who, after Guardians of the Galaxy, is no stranger to sci-fi laughs—insists the mix is just right.
“I think there’s going to be just as much humor as there was in the first one, maybe a little more,” she says. “Because now it’s our third time coming around, there’s a lot less pressure, and there’s a lot of trust. Now that we kind of speak sci-fi, we are able to add to our lines and improv sometimes, and Justin welcomes it when the time is right for it. So we’ve been having a lot of fun.”
Are you looking forward to Star Trek Beyond? Let us know below!
Images: Paramount Pictures