Who knows what’s next for the Trek film franchise? With new CEO Jim Gianopulos at Paramount Pictures, the future of Star Trek movies at the studio is nebulous at best – at least to fans. Not long ago, interim Paramount CEO Bob Bakish tossed out a nugget that, yes, the future of Paramount movies at least includes Star Trek in the lineup somewhere, but beyond that, everyone’s in the dark – even Kirk and Spock.
Is there anything left to be made of that kinda desperately timed, “Chris Hemsworth-returns!” announcement of Star Trek IV last summer? And even if there were, by the time a hypothetical nu-Trek IV sees release, will the return of a dead character from the first ten minutes of a ten-year-old movie drive audiences back to the theater for more Kelvin Universe? I’d guess not and, for my quatloos, not much would, short of The Rock Pon Farr dueling with Spock for the finger-kink love of Vulcan Beyonce.
Between the turmoil at Paramount and Discovery’s launch on the horizon, Trek seems to be transitioning to a new chapter. Hell, we may not find anything out about new nu-Trek movies until Discovery is out and the powers that be at CBS and Paramount have a chance to see if it’s space-worthy. It’s all a quiet inflection point for the franchise but, as we wait to see how the next years and months unfold, it’s time to acknowledge the Kelvin Universe for what it was – a fun, interesting, and only partially successful experiment in 21st century Trek which, with any luck, is now at its end. For Star Trek to move forward, the Kelvin Universe must die.
Let’s slingshot around the sun back to 2009 – at which point fans who grew up on the 90’s shows and movies had just experienced the longest Trek-less stretch of our lives. Nemesis whimpered its way to a 54th place box office finish in 2002 and Enterprise sputtered out in 2005. I, for one, was frothing at the mouth for new Trek – any Trek. Paramount announced that J.J. Abrams would take the helm for the new re-booted movie in 2006 and by 2009 anticipation had reached a fever pitch. Every trailer looked incredible, rumor sites posted more and more positive pre-release buzz, some of which came directly from Abrams himself. And then the movie came out and promptly blew my mind.
After Nemesis, where the prevailing direction to the cast seemed to be "look exhausted," Trek 2009 injected fresh blood into the franchise (haha no not Magic Blood, that comes next). Those first ten minutes tho! The action and effects upgrade! The cast so young and fresh! Death to technobabble - we’re gonna implode Vulcan with “red matter.” It blew the media’s mind, too. Critics cried triumphant upon Star Trek 2009’s release, and, at least compared to what came before, why wouldn't you? It was all just so much “awesome.”
I saw Trek 2009 four times in theaters and watched at least a dozen more times at home. And of course, it’s those repeated viewings that became problematic, where the sugar rush of seeing Star Trek just look and feel so damn good burns off, and you realize the movie had barely enough story to string all the awesomeness together.
Fans know the cliff notes complaints: weak villain, wrenched-in Spock cave, all action, minimal character development. Watching it the first time, I remember being so thrilled that Trek could even sustain such over-the-top levels of energy for a full two hours. Watching it just before Beyond came out with my fiancée – a non-Trekkie, and therefore perhaps someone less dazzled at all the movie’s fancy trappings – it struck me how little of it seemed to matter to her (and, maybe now, to me too). She enjoyed the opening Kelvin sequence and Kirk’s Mickey Mouse hands, but by the “fire everything” climax, I’d lost her to a smartphone k-hole.
Still, though, a flawed but fun first film in a franchise, a just-promising-enough start! At least as good as Iron Man, and it doubled its box office returns! Hope lived on. And then came Star Trek Into Darkness, a master-class in transforming hope to crushing disappointment in two hours or less.
Full disclosure, I watched STID at least a dozen times in 2013, too. Again – great trailers, much anticipation (though less pre-release buzz – no J.J. note to fans this time. Maybe the creative team knew they had a problem on their hands?). There were more Star Trek movie money shots crammed into STID than anything that had come before – a gargantuan Enterprise rising out of an ocean or careening wildly into Earth’s atmosphere or being hunted down at warp by a battleship twice its size. But for each, there’s an equal and opposite facepalm. The Khan reveal that wasn’t. Kirk’s blink and you miss it “death.” Magic Blood. The underwear shot destined to fuel years of movie trivia clickbait.
If it’s not the worst Trek (Ron D. Moore argues it’s Generations, I'd counter with Nemesis), STID may be the most hated. Certainly, it’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been with a flick I also watched habitually for a year. And even by blockbuster standards, it’s rare for a movie to be so off the mark that it so completely deflates enthusiasm for a franchise - even Fast and Furious recovered from Tokyo Drift. But unlike so many modern franchises, Trek has never been quite so critic-proof. STID made money, sure, but even $467 million looks disappointing for a movie positioned as a Dark Knight to Trek 2009's Batman Begins - even down to the freaking title.
The Into Darkness hangover lasted into 2016, which is almost a shame, because Star Trek Beyond is far and away the most complete of the three films (all the more remarkable for how quickly it was made). Unlike both of the previous two, you don’t need to read tie-in material for the story in Beyond to make sense (though, really, even the tie-in material doesn’t help STID much). New character addition Jaylah is delightful, the Nimoy tribute is touching, and there's an enjoyably worn-in quality to the performances from the main cast. But “complete” is a low bar – it all had the feeling of being too little too late. Audiences apparently agreed, and gave Beyond the lowest box-office returns of the Kelvin-verse movies. To truly reignite the franchise, Trek needed a home run – Beyond hit a solid double.
And that’s it. Three attempts turning Trek into a truly blockbuster movie franchise, three results only good enough to justify taking another crack at it. Given the rapturous reception at the time, the successful-enough box office and the blunders yet to come, I can’t help but think Star Trek 2009 would have served everyone better as a franchise epilogue. A chance to say, one more time after the failures of the TNG films and Enterprise: “Hey, remember that Star Trek stuff? It can still please a crowd, really!” and then warp the whole damn franchise into the sunset. Old Spock declared “Thrusters on full” at the end of Trek 2009 but, for these movies, they were never really at more than half-speed.
It’s a damn weird thing being a fan of a monster entertainment franchise – an experience filled with love for the stories I grew up with and the communities built around them, but ultimately still so much corporate product. It feels a little ridiculous to have cared so much, to have wanted so deeply for these movies to succeed on the same level as Marvel or Star Wars, and stranger still to feel frustrated, even a little heartbroken that it never happened. And it’s downright bizarre to me that these productions could spend the time, effort, and $$$ to do something like make a tunic design full of tiny Starfleet insignias and still whiff on the fundamentals.
Now, though, with a trilogy order fulfilled and the end possibly nigh, maybe there’s still something to love, or at least appreciate, about three movies that went big – even for a swing and a miss. For years, Trek has been in the hands of the hottest blockbuster teams in Hollywood, a far cry from the excitement no one felt when Stuart Baird directed Nemesis. Surely, everyone involved, from studio to talent, wanted to deliver something spectacular. Has J.J. Abrams ever said anything about his Trek movies that’d make you think he wants them to be anything other than “emotional,” “delightful,” or to take you on a crazy adventure?
Everyone talked so much about how they wanted to “get it right.” Hell, some of the plot points in STID would appear to have been taken straight from the fans – Kirk got the big E too quickly so let’s keep ‘em at Earth for a bit, let’s make Kirk really earn the Enterprise this time. Though, given STID’s now toxic reputation, one wonders if they wouldn’t have been better off listening to the advice of Nicholas Meyer at Mission New York: “With all due respect, the fans don’t want what’s best for them.”
But I’m still grateful that Trek got the chance, got to be treated like a big boy at the blockbuster table for the first time in decades, even if it wasn’t really the franchise’s speed. Can you spend $150 million on Star Trek and still make a truly great movie, something that succeeds on more levels than being a well-produced series of action set pieces clinging to a cellophane story? Probably, but no one’s done it yet. Better, perhaps, to stick to Star Trek’s strengths and play it cooler. Trek, like so many creative endeavors, thrives under pressure, uses limits to transcend them. If there is another trilogy of Trek movies, asking how all three combined could be made on the same budget as STID would be a smart start.
If there’s hope to be had (and, in an age where the Gul Dukat-as-President gag is all too real, we surely need it), perhaps it’s that someone – maybe even the Discovery team now – has learned from the triumphs and mistakes of the Kelvin Universe and builds a better, more thoughtful Trek to entertain and endure in the turbulent times to come. The action blockbuster suit, slick and oh so tight, never really fit Trek. Its most beloved movies are still the ones with the plump, aging cast and/or the whales.
The galaxy’s greatest sandbox is still full of stories – geeky, thoughtful, transgressive stories, stories less obsessed with catastrophe and all-encompassing bigness, stories we’ll remember and dissect and nerd out about in 20 years, stories that achieve coolness as byproduct over prime directive. Maybe now, someone will finally get back to telling them.