It's also the meta-question threaded throughout Star Trek Beyond, a film that sees the weighty franchise reflecting on it’s relevance to cinema audiences today. The 50 year-old property now finds itself in a world strikingly similar to the one of the original television series that spawned it; a world assuredly better than the decades preceding it, yet still gripped by the queasily familiar torments of political strife, violent protest, civil rights struggles, war, disease and poverty.
Seeing beyond his own troubled times to an enlightened humanity exploring the galaxy together in peace, creator Gene Roddenberry’s boldly optimistic vision of the future finally unlocked the secret to blockbuster stardom in 2009 when a controversial choice to revisit the original characters paid off. A spectacular recasting ushered in a new generation of bright young things to fill the boots of Kirk, Spock and the rest in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, a critically and financially successful reboot that reinvigorated the series.
Steering the ship across two exuberant adventures, the Spielbergian wunderkind implanted a bracing kineticism and scope, embracing the iconography and injecting some darkness while keeping the focus squarely on the beloved original characters. Taking over for this third instalment, longtime Trek fan Justin Lin shepherds a return to the series’ original utopian vision.
With malaise setting in three years into their deep space mission, we find the crew of the Starship Enterprise questioning their purpose. Suddenly encountering a culture which pushes back against their expansion of frontier humanism, our heroes find themselves shunned by the coveted new lifeforms and new civilisations they have sworn to seek out. Forced to confront the values that drive them and consider what good their mission really brings to the galaxy, stark mediations on their own relevance become a non-too-subtle proxy for the relevance of Star Trek itself.
Boldly threading pop-philosophy and an optimistic view of humanity through a mainstream summer blockbuster, Star Trek Beyond features diverse characters working together to find purpose beyond their individual selves, even while they ruminate on the meaning of friendship, love and legacy.
The incorporation of the death of original Spock actor Leonard Nimoy is woven into the storyline in a surprisingly intricate and emotionally resonant way, as is appropriate for the pop-culture impact of both character and actor. Similarly, the too-soon death of actor Anton Yelchin is quietly acknowledged in a moment of sublime subtlety.
Chris Pine, Zachary Qunito and Karl Urban continue their stellar work as the incumbent Kirk, Spock and Bones, while the rest of the crew do their duty, each getting their own moment to shine. With Idris Elba buried under the weight of narratively-necessary prosthetics and a rushed character arc, it’s over to Sofia Boutella to breakout as a resourceful scavenger and brilliant foil for Simon Pegg’s jaunty Scotty.
It is through scintillating character interaction that the film truly excels, the moments of playful, often quiet back-and-forth a welcome distraction between overlong, darkly-filmed action sequences and the superfluous machinations of the main villain. The tension and contrast between these elements showcases the limp state of current mainstream four-quadrant filmmaking as Lin understandably struggles to find a studio-satisfying balance, ultimately crafting a film of two frustratingly disparate halves.
And yet, the good half is an absolute joy. Correcting the course and lightening the tone considerably from the somewhat bleak vision of the previous film, Lin’s true success comes in bringing the optimistic, dreamy soul of the series back for today’s audiences.
So why Star Trek?
Because it remains a gloriously goofy and romantic beacon of hope in an oftentimes grim pop culture landscape, a joyous take on our future together that stands - as it did fifty years ago - in stark contrast to the times we find ourselves in.
Strikingly, this inspirational vision has proven itself prophetic. That a black woman officer in the midst of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, a Japanese helmsman a few scant years after the surrender of Japan in World War II, and a Russian navigator at the height of the cold war were once startling, seemingly impossible ideals and are now our everyday reality is a sobering thought. Just imagine how such a radically-diverse crew would look today.
That humanity is decent with a bright future ahead of it is a message still needed in pop-cinema, a message reaffirmed in a film that honours the past while setting the stage for the next fifty years and beyond.
Star Trek Beyond is now showing at at FACT in 2D and 3D.