The internet had a weird reaction to the Star Trek Beyond teaser yesterday - it complained that there was too much action and not enough social commentary and stuff. I mean, it's a 90 second teaser intended to let mainstream audiences know there's a new Trek movie coming and that it's fun, so I'm not quite sure why so many jumped to conclusions. We're not as media literate as we think we are, maybe.
After the trailer debuted I had a chance to talk to Justin Lin about it, and about the film, and one of the big questions was about the underlying themes of the film. Yes, there is action and there are stunts and yes, it all takes place on a strange new world... but what is that action on this strange new world saying to us? Lin had a whole lot to say about it.
It starts with the attack on the Enterprise that you see in the trailer. This reflects part of what Lin is trying to say with this film.
Star Trek has a very 1960s sensibility - who has the bigger ships wins. But if you look at the attack, these ships are 40 feet long but there are 40,000 of them. I think even in the way they’re being encountered… What makes Star Trek scifi great is that you can acknowledge what’s happening today. The way we are as a country and the way we engage in conflict, in this Star Trek you see that it’s different [from the 60s].
It's a real post-9/11 view of conflict (although it's also post-Vietnam, it's just that the Cold War overshadowed the lessons there) in that it's about asymmetrical warfare. The little guy can take down the more advanced big guy by attacking in ways that are both surprising and overwhelming. Yes, the Enterprise could blow up any one of those ships, but there are 40,000 ramming into the hull. Yes, we can take out terrorists with drone strikes, but there are always hundreds more.
Lin is also interested in just what makes the Federation tick, and testing the boundaries of its ideals.
What would happen if you go on a five year journey and you’re trying to not only explore but also maybe introduce other people to your way of thinking? What would that mean? What are the consequences of that? You’re spreading a philosophy that you think is great - are there going to be any philosophies that counter you? That was something I thought about since I was a kid, and we got to explore that.
I’m going to use a sports analogy, so forgive me. I can tell you what a great athlete I am, what a great basketball player I am, but when I step on the court you’re going to know very quickly whether I’m any good. In a way I feel like it’s easy to preach what the Federation is about, how you’re supposed to act, but what happens when you [are on your heels]. How do you react?
This is the opposite approach of what Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof did in Star Trek Into Darkness, which was to say 'Maybe the Federation is rotten.' Lin's approach reminds me of the best possible approach to Superman - take this positive, hopeful character and put him through the ringer enough to test his positivity and ideals. The challenge isn't whether Superman or Captain Kirk wins, it's whether they maintain their ideals.
And Kirk's ideals are something that intrigues Lin as well, especially in this timeline where renegade Kirk had to be convinced to join Starfleet.
It’s about why is Kirk doing what he’s doing? When we watched on the TV show we just assume it’s something he did, but I want to know why. Great - you can go out and talk about how great the Federation is, but I want to know why he does it.
He's going to have that tested by the film's villain, Idris Elba as Kraal (spelling is my own!). Kraal has a philosophy that seems to be rooted in questions Lin has had about Trek since he watched the show as a kid, and that philosophy informs the character in a big way.
It’s about building him and having a philosophy and a point of view. I really like his character because he’s challenging the Federation’s philosophy, and it’s something growing up I wanted to see. He’s a character that has a distinct philosophy. Sometimes I watch Trek and I see utopia in San Francisco, and you think “They don’t have money, so how do they live, how do they compete?” Those are things that his character, in a way, has a very distinct and valid point of view about.
When someone is really challenging a way of life, how the Federation should act, I can see - right or wrong - that this is a valid point of view, and that’s a point of entry.
(Kraal, by the way, is a member of a new species, not a Klingon as his name might indicate)
After that teaser hit many people were worried that Lin was going to make a brainless action movie, but after talking to him I'm confident that he's trying to make an action movie that has the true elements of Star Trek at its heart. I'll leave you with this statement, which I think truly sums up how much Lin gets Star Trek:
We want to push it further, introduce new species and have new adventures, but the core thing I love about Trek is the characters and exploring humanity and the Federation.