The most thought-provoking aspect of my trip to see Star Trek Beyond this morning wasn’t the movie itself, which indulges in many of the most tired tropes of the 21st century sci-fi blockbuster but nonetheless offers a charming summer diversion. I’ll have more to say about it in a moment, but first, I have to acknowledge the (unintended?) portentousness of a short interstitial that played just before the lights went down at my screening. The clip features Simon Pegg, who’s played Scotty in all three recent Star Trek movies and also co-wrote the script for this one with Doug Jung, earnestly thanking the audience for seeing the movie in theaters, and imploring us to continue doing so in order to preserve the medium’s cultural vitality for future generations.
First things first: many who showed up to the first two installments in this rebooted franchise haven’t returned for this threequel, which will barely crack $150 million at the domestic box office, let alone come within striking distance of the original’s $257 million or the sequel’s $228 million. That meager figure is in line with a dismal summer at the box office — only a few big-ticket blockbusters have ignited, and critics are raising an increasingly furrowed eyebrow at the sorry state of Hollywood’s summer offerings. (Now You See Me 2: I didn’t.) It’s safe to say that, even as the statement appears reductive, movies are struggling — and there’s no way Pegg doesn’t realize it. Why else would he record a video of himself thanking people for seeing his aggressively marketed tentpole movie? It’s not as if Star Trek Beyond lacks brand recognition or built-in interest. If Star Trek Beyond were an inarguable masterpiece or a surefire smash, such a video would be the equivalent of Taylor Swift gasping with fake awe as she collects her 97th music award. Instead, it feels like an acknowledgment: This movie doesn’t work quite well enough to right the ship of a downbeat summer at the movies.
In a time when cultural consensus crowds out nuance, it’s also possible Pegg was feeling the sting of widespread viewer frustration with Star Trek Into Darkness, which bent over backwards to re-create the narrative beats of the beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without advancing the story of these reboots in any compelling direction. That movie was also part of a summer movie lineup in which numerous blockbusters climaxed with lengthy action sequences centered around the cavalier destruction of large buildings filled with innocent civilians, to whom only lip service is paid, if that. Three years later, the run-up to Star Trek Beyond felt dutiful at best, especially given the reports of a troubled production including heated debates over plot points and last-minute reshoots.
There was a time when all of this extraneous baggage would have little to no bearing on a new movie as it hits theaters. But the ubiquity of franchise extension and the popular awareness of Hollywood production place what is perhaps an unfair burden on movies before they even come out. Suicide Squad drew a torrent of vitriol from critics earlier this week, and its steep drop in opening-weekend ticket sales on Saturday and Sunday suggests audiences either heeded those advance notices or, more likely, agreed with them after seeing the film on Friday night and urged their friends to stay away over the weekend. The amiable Ghostbusters remake attracted such outrage from small, sexist corners of the Internet that online discussion about the film all but burned out when it actually arrived in theaters. Star Trek Beyond fell somewhat in the middle — anticipation for the movie wasn’t especially high, but critics were largely kind. The result is the kind of middling performance that might have once caused a studio to reconsider extending the franchise further, but instead, Star Trek 4 is already set to arrive in 2019, with Chris Hemsworth returning to expand on his brief appearance in the 2009 “original.”
I hesitate to characterize this turn of events as a reinforcement of mediocrity, because Star Trek Beyond rises enough above average that I don’t want to damn it with faint praise. Director Justin Lin’s steady hand and sweeping camera movements mark a refreshing contrast to the lens flares and razzle-dazzle of previous helmer J.J. Abrams, who stepped down as a producer for this installment so he could direct that other movie with “Star” in the title. The onscreen pairing of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto continues to reap strong dividends, and the additional screentime for John Cho, Karl Urban and the late Anton Yelchin is welcome. The self-contained adventure narrative proves a more durable course of action for this series than the mythology-laden mess of Into Darkness. This third installment marks a tonal return to form for the series, with a potent blend of comedy and drama deployed so that one enhances the other rather than undermining it.
And yet, the movie never rises above a B or B+. Zoe Saldana remains criminally underused, especially given that she’s the only female member of the core ensemble. Pine’s cheeky voiceover lamenting the “episodic” nature of Kirk’s missions fails both as comedy and as an attempt from the story’s lack of heft. The product of the reshoots, a framing device in which Captain Kirk halfheartedly considers accepting a promotion and leaving his post at the Enterprise, is so poorly developed and abruptly introduced that the obvious resolution would be grating even if it weren’t telegraphed from a mile away. As has become de rigeur for blockbusters of this scale, the central villain Krall (Idris Elba) has murky motivations and no discernible personality, and Elba’s involvement raises the question: Why cast a villain with infinite charisma and then sequester him behind prosthetics and CGI for 90 percent of his screentime? (See also: Oscar Isaac, X-Men: Apocalypse; Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises.)
If Star Trek Beyond points the way forward for blockbuster filmmaking, the outcome is grim — sloppier execution and a weaker foundation of goodwill could easily have rendered this movie far less satisfying than it ended up being. The problem isn’t one of talent, but rather of ambition. Trotting out the old favorites, putting them in slightly different situations and weathering the diminishing returns might be a feasible model in the short term, but in the long term, it spells trouble. Sequels can take more risks than this one does, with potentially greater rewards than a decent temporary escape from the summer heat. If Simon Pegg wants us to keep seeing movies in theaters, he and the rest of Hollywood need to give us good reasons to do so — and we need to do our part to reward the kinds of movies that might get lost in the shuffle with our continued box office support. Star Trek Beyond will sit comfortably on cable in a couple years, but it’s a little slight and scrappy for the mega-blockbuster stage now dominated by an ever-expanding slate of superheroes. That’s not one of its actual flaws, but the movie’s underperformance at the box office might lead studios and creatives to learn the wrong lessons.
Here are a few of the right lessons, delivered with a built-in grain of salt. Maybe the story mechanics and character dynamics of this universe is best suited for TV, where a new Star Trek series is in the works. Maybe these actors and this director would reap stronger creative dividends working from an original concept without the baggage that comes with the Trek label. Almost certainly, this movie doesn’t deserve to be seen as a symbol of the flagging Hollywood blockbuster apparatus. Whatever the solution, and there’s almost certainly more than one, I’m with Pegg on one count: I don’t want to see this kind of movie disappear. The world needs more blockbusters driven as much by their interpersonal relationships as by the flashiness of their special effects. But I also don’t want this solid, unspectacular effort to be the final frontier.