Paramount Pictures
Darren Franich
July 29, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise — and the release of Star Trek Beyond, the 13th feature film in the series. To celebrate this big year, and ponder the deeper meanings of Trek’s first half-century, the Entertainment Geekly column has been looking at a different Star Trek film each week. Last week: The much-despised ode to architectural decadence. This week: Beyond, and something different.

The best Star Trek movie in 25 years came out this summer. It stars one woman, was directed by another woman, and lasts less than four minutes.

I have no idea why a song called “Sledgehammer” became the tie-in song for Star Trek Beyond. Hell, I can’t even remember the last time a big blockbuster movie had a tie-in song — and there’s a very throwback-‘90s feel to the “Sledgehammer” music video. It’s like director Floria Sigismondi took a couple ambient visuals from the movie (alien-lady makeup, buzzard attack-bots) and plugged them into her own very woozy hallucinogenic notions of an extraterrestrial space-goddess dancing across star-splattered rock formations and starchilding into cosmic ultrasentience. It’s our own modern variant of “Come With Me,” the music video where Puff Daddy raps toward Godzilla, which is coincidentally the only halfway entertaining Godzilla movie ever made outside of Japan.

The “Sledgehammer” video has no obvious plot, which actually makes it less confusing than Beyond, a film whose plot depends on a hazily-explained space-tech thing getting passed among at least two never-seen, barely-remarked-upon alien races. In the video, Rihanna plays a superpowered god-person — maybe a Q, or a shirt-tail cousin to Trelane, or an Organian in a dancing mood. (If you take the music video’s canon seriously — no reason not to! — then Rihanna’s command over the Beyond space-swarm would imply that she’s the alien whose long-abandoned technology provides bad guy Krall with his military-industrial might.) She’s on a purple-toned rocky landscape…

…which uncannily resembles the God Planet at the center of the Universe from The Final Frontier

…and that similarity is no accident! Because — and I swear to god I didn’t know this until five seconds ago — “Sledgehammer” was actually shot in the exact same place where William Shatner filmed the climax of his Star Trek movie. It’s the Trona Pinnacles, one of those beautiful corners of California that looks like the sunblasted hemisphere of a lifeless planet. I have no idea if director Floria Sigismondi knew that — she didn’t mention the connection to my colleague Nolan Feeney — and I have no idea if the video’s other apparent Trek homages are intentional or not.

But “Sledgehammer” honors some visual cues from Treks long past; it is one of the trippiest products the franchise has ever produced. By the end, Rihanna has ascended to some greater cosmic plane, and her face silhouettes outward from a nebular expanse. It reads — to me, at least — as an uncanny riff on the faces on the poster for The Motion Picture, floating in space with laser-lines emanating skywards.

The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier both get a bad rap; I’m on the record liking them both, and so maybe I’m just grasping at crazy straws here. But this has been a year with lots of loose talk about what Star Trek is, and what Star Trek should be. (Some people like Beyond specifically because it feels so much like Star Trek.) So I’m tickled that Sigismondi’s version of Star Trek is either inspired by, or inadvertently akin to, two of the most willfully strange variations of Star Trek in the franchise’s 50-year history.

There’s a point where Rihanna seems to be transubstantiating, her body etched in glowing lights across the cosmos; it recalls nothing so much as Spock’s tour through V’ger, with another cosmic female form at the center of it all.

The final shot of “Sledgehammer” finds the Enterprise staring at a planet-sized face of Rihanna. The shot holds for a few long seconds. There’s nothing like it in Beyond; Justin Lin’s film has some gloriously geometric notions about outer-space civilization, but it’s not a Giant Floating Head kind of movie.

Which, fine: There’s always been a tense coolness to the Star Trek movies, a sense that childish things like Greek God Aliens and Wesley Crusher and The Possibility Of A Story Without Violence ought to be left behind on the small screen. But I’m struck that this final shot dares to combine two different visual ideas from two of the least-loved Star Trek movies. Take the extreme long shot of the Enterprise from The Motion Picture….

…and combine the floating godface over the Trona Pinnacles from The Final Frontier

And voila: Discover Rihanna’s Star Trek!

Now, I have no idea how much Rihanna actually knows about Star Trek, nor do I remotely care. It’s always suspicious when a famous person self-describes as a nerd for anything — but maybe the central sin of modern fandom is the idea that fandom is something you have to qualify for.

And fact that Rihanna calls out “La Forge” as her favorite character feels personal and truthful, insofar as it’s completely at odds with Paramount’s official messaging around their corner of Star Trek franchise. Paramount loves that you love Star Trek, but doesn’t really acknowledge anything that happened in the 40 years between the TV show getting canceled and the first J.J. Abrams movie. I quote from an official press release that arrived in my inbox a couple weeks ago: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Bad Robot announce a Fourth ‘Star Trek’ Film. I know this is pedantic, but: The fourth Star Trek film is 30 years old, and it’s a damn masterpiece, so maybe some attention should be paid, oh ye Writers of Official Studio Press Releases.

I’m not going to make the case that, like, “Sledgehammer” exemplifies some bold new take on the franchise’s iconography. There’s a cynical read on this video: A studio wants to reach out to some non-nerd dude demographics; a singer willing to plug a song about Sledgehammers into the end credits of a space action movie; a music video director thrilled to shoot on-location using IMAX cameras.

But there’s no reason to be precious about whatever Star Trek is supposed to mean. Here’s a franchise born out of candy-colored Pop Art imagery and lysergic cheap-puppet visions of life beyond the cosmos — and, 50 years deep into its existence, one of the most prominent visual concepts in its latest $185-million incarnation is putting Kirk on a motorcycle. Maybe we need Rihanna’s swooning saturnine telekinesis; maybe Sigismondi could do a whole lot more with a feature film budget; maybe we need a Star Trek movie daring enough to be silly; maybe Beyond could’ve used a Giant Floating Head.

 

The best part of Beyond is the first act. Essentially a prologue, it finds Captain Kirk and his crew far on the outer reaches of space. They’re three years into the five-year mission. Maybe we can credit co-writer Simon Pegg for that bit of metatextual cleverness: The original Trek ended at the three-year mark, and even factoring in alternate-reality chrono-twists, it still feels like Beyond could be the premiere of a never-filmed fourth season.

Kirk is bored; things are getting “episodic.” The crew is passing the time: Collecting artifacts from distant planets; falling into bed with each other. Starfleet used to vibe naval, until Next Generation reimagined its Enterprise as a family-friendly work environment, half-Googleplex and half-Sea Org. In Beyond, serving on a Starfleet ship most closely resembles a lengthy study-abroad session, with Chekov the prototypical nerdy-teen who goes to college and rediscovers himself as a baby-faced Don Juan.

The exception is Kirk. He’s feeling a bit listless. He’s getting older; Beyond starts with McCoy insisting on celebrating his birthday. We’ve been here before — McCoy demands that Kirk celebrate turning 50 in The Wrath of Khan — but there’s some true resonance to the referentiality. This Kirk was born the day his father died; he’s now older than his father ever was. In real life, Pine is a few years older than onscreen father Chris Hemsworth — and Pine is the exact same age that William Shatner was when Shatner started playing Kirk back in 1966. “To perfect eyesight and a full head of hair!” toasts McCoy — a line that I choose to believe is a deeply embedded nudge-nudge to the original Kirk, shown here with a convincing haircut:

In Beyond, Kirk is wondering: Just why the hell is he doing this? He never really wanted to join Starfleet, like his dad; he just signed up on a dare. There’s a clever new idea here, and I think the reference to Wrath of Khan is important. That Kirk was having a midlife crisis; nowadays, nobody waits until 50 to have a midlife crisis.

“I loved playing the first 10 minutes of this film greatly,” Chris Pine told me, about Beyond. “It’s a willfully different energy than Kirk has been in the past.” We met Pine’s Kirk as an angry young man, recall. “He was louder, maybe at times more abrasive. He’s emotional, he’s volatile, he’s a raging adolescent kid, who’s pissed off at the system that killed his father, pissed off at his father for dying, using all this rage as fuel, to make him as good of a Starfleet captain — or even better! — than his father.”

In Beyond, that angry young man has gone. “He’s quieter. He’s more subdued. He still has his sense of humor. But there’s a mundanity to it, an everydayness to it.” Pine told me that he could relate to this new Kirk — at least, to the Kirk we see at the start of the movie. “It’s only the first 10 minutes,” he said.

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What happens after those first 10 minutes? The Enterprise visits Yorktown, a nifty space-sphere with skyscrapers pointed upwards and downwards and inwards and outwards. On the Yorktown, Sulu meets his family, and gives his husband a hearty thoughtful rub on the back. At long last, confirmation: Sulu is married, and the spark is gone. It’s probably too much to expect that Sulu would kiss his husband (a kissing scene was filmed, however, but then cut, according to John Cho); physical sexuality has been pretty well banished from this version of Star Trek. Pine has never had a love interest. Uhura and Spock are trapped in the late stage of a bad romance: They are that college couple who could never quite break up.

Actually, these new Treks mostly treat sexiness as a sight gag: Kirk’s cat-lady strippers from Into Darkness, a shirtless Chekov kicked into the Enterprise corridor for a walk of shame, the lingerie-clad Orion woman from Trek ’09. Maybe that’s why Beyond casts Idris Elba — acclaimed actor and forefront exemplar of contemporary sexual charisma — as a face-shifting roach-monster with a placeless accent and a slipstream motivation.

Elba is playing Balthazar Edison, a hero of the Federation, someone who fought in the early Romulan wars before launching bravely into the far reaches of space in the first era of Starfleet’s adventures beyond the stars. At the risk of playing Monday Morning Quarterback on a film that everyone openly insists was rushed into production with a rapidly-written script: Everything about Elba in Beyond is backwards. It’s the Cumberkhan problem all over again, really. The villain in Beyond is constructed around a Big Twist — the monster was human all along! — when the movie would be vastly more interesting if it showed you all the cards at the start.

Imagine if we got to see Elba as a great mythic hero of the Federation, a swaggering inspiration to all who followed him: Imagine if Elba got to play Kirk’s Kirk. (The tie-in viral videos practically write themselves; they could be shot like the original Star Trek series, with Captain Edison beaming down to San Fernando-looking planets to fight lizard-men and kiss space-gals with prosthetic foreheads.) Beyond buries that possibility, and backloads all of Elba’s motivation to the final act, by which time his plan only really makes sense as a suicide mission.

Was this always the plan? The trailers for Beyond promised something unusual: Cut to Elba, as Krall, declaring that “This is where the Frontier pushes back.” When I talked to Simon Pegg a few months ago, he explained, “We’ve moved on a little bit since the ’60s. It’s enabled us to ask certain questions that might not have been asked then. Is the Federation a good idea or not? Is it just colonialism?”

That is a good question — and it echoes one of the best throwaways lines from The Undiscovered Country. It’s in that great dinner scene between the Enterprise and the Klingons. Chekov claims that the Federation believes “all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.”

“If only you could hear yourselves!” says Azetbur, an intelligent young Klingon woman. “‘Human rights.’ Why, the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.”

From what we see, there are an awful lot of humans in the Federation, and in Starfleet. There are probably reasons for this in the canon, and we all know that it’s just because it would take too damned long to give every actor wacky forehead ridges. But why is Starfleet so overrun with humans? And why does Starfleet refer to outer space as the “frontier,” when we can clearly see that most of the alien civilizations Starfleet “discovers” have been living happily for hundreds of thousands — if not millions or billions — of years? These are questions we aren’t supposed to ask about Star Trek, which makes them the most interesting questions to ask.

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Here’s a question: Why does Old Spock stay in the past?

Trek ’09 requires all the usual leaps in time travel logic. Spock has some red matter called, well, “Red Matter,” capable of creating continuum-puncturing black holes through which spaceships can travel uninjured. Pointless to nitpick this; in my favorite Star Trek movie, time travel is achieved by flying into the sun at top speed and withstanding an Easter Island CGI-Head dream sequence. The actions of Spock and Nero launch a new branch off the great Lifetree of Space-Time, creating a new alternate reality where Kirk had no father but at least his eyes were blue.

The movie doesn’t dawdle too much on the great questions of time travel, because secretly, Trek ’09 doesn’t really consider Spock a time traveler at all. This is a new universe, with familiar-looking characters who are nevertheless completely different people. When I spoke to Pegg, he stressed that was the interpretation framed by himself and Beyond co-writer Doug Jung. “We’re not governed by what happened in the original timeline,” he said. “We discussed the potential fate of everybody being completely open. It’s not like they have to survive. This isn’t that universe. Their life experiences might be slightly different…[it] might not be the same sperm that fertilized the same egg.”

Of course, part of the intriguing tension of the new Trek films is that their universe is never entirely different. In fact, these “new” characters often seem to be trapped on destiny’s rails; Kirk and Spock are inevitably friends (even though they initially hate each other). They must inevitably fight a madman named Khan. If they inevitably watch one Enterprise get destroyed, they will inevitably find a shiny new Enterprise-A waiting for them in spacedock. Spock and Uhura might date, Sulu might have a husband, Chekov might be flirting with half the ladies onboard the Enterprise, but you could make the argument that all of that could have happened on the original series. Uhura would occasionally flirt with Spock; Sulu doesn’t really have onscreen love interests; who knows what Chekov does after hours?

Like: It doesn’t require too much imagination to go back to the original series and imagine that Koenig’s Chekov is handsome young cad, that Takei’s Sulu is a cool professional who doesn’t talk about his family, that Spock and Uhura are casual co-workers-with-benefits. (Remember: The Final Frontier implicitly establishes that Uhura and Scotty have been/always shall be shore leave sweethearts.) It’s true that we don’t see that stuff on the original series.

But when you watch all of the Star Trek movies in quick succession, you may notice just how little we really see of these characters — and, maybe, how little we understand the galaxy around them. In Wrath of Khan, Starfleet is clearly a military endeavor; the scientists constructing the Genesis Project don’t quite trust that Kirk and his fellow Admirals have good intentions. In Search for Spock, Starfleet is a corroded bureaucracy, with an extremely Kremlin-y tendency to imprison aging heroes for acting unmutual. Starfleet is uniquely terrible at defending Earth, nominally the governmental center of the whole galaxy; maybe Starfleet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Some people flipped out over the idea of the nefarious false-flag Starfleet plot in Into Darkness — but there’s a military conspiracy in The Undiscovered Country, and in Insurrection, the Federation Council officially signs off on a plan to forcibly relocate an alien race.

And so it’s worth asking a question that the movies never bother to answer: Why doesn’t Old Spock go home?

I suppose one answer is: “There’s no way for him to go back.” But that’s a bit of a cheat, given that everything is inevitably possible in the Star Trek universe, given that Spock literally died and then literally came back to life thanks to a radical confluence of a protomatter-infused rapid-growth organic matrix and psionic soul-transference and Vulcan mysticism and the curious decision to fire a torpedo coffin straight at a planet created yesterday. Spock was doing important work, before he traveled through the Red Matter wormhole. He had spent decades trying to repair relations with the Romulan Empire. Of course, he left his original timeline right after Romulus was destroyed — a natural disaster that must have sewn disarray throughout the quadrant.

Actually, if you think about it, Spock must have left the original timeline at a miserable point in history; it doesn’t take much imagination to consider remnants of the Romulan Empire going rogue across the Neutral Zone, nor to imagine that the weakened Starfleet of Insurrection and Nemesis — recovering from war with the Dominion and the Borg — wouldn’t necessarily be prepared for such wild incursions. Is it possible Spock didn’t want to go back? Is it possible that, having found himself in some far-flung simulacrum variation of his own youth, he preferred the 23rd Century? Do Vulcans feel nostalgic? What about half-Vulcans who apparently don’t care anymore about the Temporal Prime Directive? Did Spock just wish he could go back to when things were simpler? Did he give up on his own future?

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Beyond asks none of these questions, maybe because they’re too complicated. The film makes time for a fullhearted tribute to Spock, and to Nimoy — even if that tribute forcefully requires you not to overthink anything too much. Spock finds a picture of the original Enterprise crew in their cinematic red uniforms — a nice moment, albeit a reminder that Ambassador Spock abandoned his entire history to hang out on New Vulcan and bring transwarp technology to the Federation several decades early.

It’s difficult not to talk about Beyond in meta-franchise terms — difficult not to treat Kirk’s existential crisis as the crisis of a bored Star Trek fan, or a listless Star Trek creator — because there’s not much to Beyond, really. It’s an okay film with a thoughtful prologue, a cool space colony, and one cool action scene, and I can’t quite get over the fact that nothing interesting happens in the movie. True radical change is flirted with, and abandoned; an Enterprise is destroyed, and a new Enterprise appears in record time. (In the ‘80s, it took a whole movie to resurrect people, a whole movie to build a new Enterprise.)

It’s stunning to realize that this is the third straight Star Trek film that ends exactly the same way: Glamorous exterior shot of the Enterprise going to warp, while a narrator restates the “These are the Voyages” speech. In Trek ’09, the ship was setting off on its five-year mission. In Into Darkness, the ship was… well, actually setting off on its five-year mission. And in Beyond, they’re setting off for a new corner of space, beyond the Whatever Nebula, with the promise of wilder adventures yet to come. It’s nice that Beyond lets the whole Enterprise crew jump into the narration — but it reminds you that all three of these strange reboot films always feel like they end right when the characters are getting to the good stuff. Have they found new life or new civilizations yet? Is there anything left to discover?

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Beyond opened last week with a $59.6 million opening. Here’s a fun game: Try to see how many different opposing interpretations you can create out of that information. Like:

1. That’s an impressive opening. It was a crowded weekend at the box office — the top five films all grossed more than $20 million — and the culture was dominated by extra-cinematic events like the RNC and Comic-Con. $59.6 million is also more than Nemesis grossed in its entire run — proof that this new Star Trek franchise has ascended into the modern blockbuster echelon.

2. It’s a problematic opening. That’s a significant decline from Trek ’09 (which made $75 million in its opening weekend) and continues a downward trend already present with Into Darkness. Maybe people didn’t like Trek ’09 as much as Paramount thought they did — and Into Darkness surely didn’t help matters.

3. It’s a healthy opening for a series that has been, and maybe always will be, a middle-class financial earner. No sequel number means anything anymore, but consider that the third Captain America movie (actually the 13th Avengers movie) grossed more in its opening weekend than this third Star Trek movie (actually the 13th Star Trek movie) will likely gross in its entire domestic run. This would be helpful information if Hollywood was equipped to make mid-budget blockbusters — if, say, Paramount were interested in making a $50 million Star Trek film with only one or two action scenes, a latter-day Voyage Home. But the latest reports are that Beyond cost $185 million. By comparison: The Conjuring 2 cost $40 million, and its opening weekend was just a bit less than the Beyond debut.

4. But the film’s opening clearly proves that the fan base is strong. Paramount spent the last couple months repositioning this rebooted series toward forever Trekkers, with a fan event in May and a fan-friendly Comic-Con world premiere. After Into Darkness, the fandom was upset; now, they are happy.

5. But that doesn’t matter, because the whole point of Trek ’09 and Into Darkness was to pivot Star Trek forward from the fandom-clogged Next Generation era — to create a global blockbuster franchise. Maybe Beyond will open big in China in September — and maybe “Hoping for a big Chinese box office” is just a trendy euphemism for “box office disappointment.”

6. No matter how hard it tries, Star Trek will never beat Star Wars. Not even close; not in this generation, nor in the next one.

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Whatever: There will be another Star Trek movie. Maybe it will be good. (If they’re looking for a director, I hear Floria Sigismondi is available!)

Last weekend, while Beyond was doing modest box office, there was a 50th Anniversary celebration of the franchise at Comic-Con. Future Trek showrunner Bryan Fuller hosted a panel of only luminaries. Voyager star Jeri Ryan provided some food-for-thought interpretations of the Borg. (“They certainly weren’t exclusionary,” she pointed out.) Brent Spiner did an impression of Patrick Stewart, which averages out to Data doing an impression of Jean-Luc Picard. Michael Dorn nerded out about Captain Kirk. Scott Bakula, clearly just happy to be invited to the party, delightfully suggested that the world would be better if everyone took a cue from one of the cheesiest scenes in Star Trek: Enterprise. “We could go around rubbing gel on each other,” he explained, which in the context of this miserable year sounds like a tantalizing utopia.

William Shatner was there, tireless. At one point, someone in the audience asked him what was going through his mind, during the historic filming of “Plato’s Stepchildren,” when he had to kiss Nichelle Nichols — the first televised interracial kiss on any TV show.

So what was going through Shatner’s mind?

“Warm moist lips, slowly coming towards me,” said Shatner. “You know what I mean, Jeri? It was wonderful, are you kidding me? Beautiful woman. That was what was going through our mind.”

At that point, Fuller leapt in to underscore the historic importance of that moment — and to connect “Plato’s Stepchildren” to the greater saga of Star Trek as a diversity-centric forebear of a progressive future. This is what we all tend to talk about when we talk about Star Trek: The ideas, the philosophy, the notionally science-fictional hope for a better tomorrow. But there was some truth in Shatner’s unreconstructed-horndog act, too.

There’s a stifling effect to the core aesthetic of Star Trek: The essential staginess of people-on-a-bridge-staring-at-a-view-screen, but also the greater existential idea of a society beyond recognizable desire. The most interesting Star Trek movies attack that aesthetic; think of Nicholas Meyer, who made Starfleet into the navy and decided Kirk was Captain Ahab. Or, sometimes, they ignore it, as in the demi-Christian Great Man philosi-pulp of the goofy Final Frontier, or the cryptic money-mad kid-fascism of Into Darkness.

This is why everyone is so excited about Fuller. He is one of the rare creators who seems capable of balancing tremendous intellectual seriousness with high-camp pulp thrills — and the rare fanboy equipped to honor traditions while also challenging them. People used to sift through Thomas Harris’ Hannibal books for homophobic undertones and transphobic ubertones — but Fuller’s Hannibal managed to honor its source material while landing on the idea of Harris’ protagonist and antagonist becoming lovesick post-sexual murder husbands.

This is why we’re all stoked for Fuller’s Trek — and why a few people think there’s a puckish self-awareness that the new TV show abbreviates to STD. Did Trek always belong on the small screen? Are these films a weird hiccup in the space-time continuum — visions of an expensive Mirror Universe where everything looks more expensive, and there are never any unhappy endings?

Maybe that’s why I like “Sledgehammer” so much. It is a vision of far-out femininity at the outer edge of the cosmos, beyond coherence, beyond plot, beyond canon, beyond sense. It is boldly going for something. And it turns out Beyond is a place we’ve all gone before.

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