The first tipoff was in the title: Beyond.
I didn’t get it initially because I just figured it was part of the franchise’s excursion into vague abstraction à la Into Darkness. Next up would surely be Star Trek Above It All or something similar.
But I was wrong. The concept of the great beyond, of death, is front and center, in this newest installation of this ostensibly future-positive, life-affirming sci-fi series. “It’s easy to get lost in the vastness of space,” we hear, because “there is only yourself, your ship, your crew.” In short: dialogue that could have been penned by a cigarette-smoking Frenchman in the mid-twentieth century.
Notice the absence of God, gods, overarching meaning or ideals, or even an oceanic phenomenon such as the Force. There’s only the Enterprise leadership, some supporting crew members who are as anonymously battered about the ship’s interior as they were back in the 1960s, and the ship itself—which happens to get decimated in Star Trek Beyond. Not much to hang one’s metaphysical hat on.
In this context, heroism doesn’t equate to valor in defense of a particular cause or belief. Instead, it simply represents pushing back against the inevitability of death. All villains and enemy armies—and the ones in Star Trek Beyond are appropriately generic in this regard—are merely vehicles that bring one face to face with the ultimate adversary, the Grim Reaper. There’s no hint of an afterlife, and per Gene Roddenberry’s optimistically secular futurism, no real religion. Roddenberry posited a tomorrow free of earthbound sectarian strife, and in fact when there were “gods” in TOS they were routinely revealed to be childish and vain.
And so now we have Spock to McCoy: “Fear of death is illogical.” And McCoy, in response: “Fear of death is what keeps us alive.”
Really? Well, maybe. What’s more interesting is how Spock’s stoicism and McCoy’s hardboiled cynicism are shown to be not so much emotional opposites as they’re typically presented (i.e., not-feeling vs. over-feeling), but rather complementary sides of the same bleak coin. “Death is meaningless.” “Agreed—but if we don’t make it mean something, then Life is meaningless as well.”
So if Star Wars is about faith, spiritual combat, and celestial unity, Star Trek, at least in this year's model, is its sober existential flipside—there’s nothing beyond death other than that which can be explained scientifically, and there is no true unity beyond that which we forge and fight to maintain: the “Federation.’’ We like to think there is another, undiscovered world/planet that lies beyond that veil which we can conceptualize only as the nebulous/nebula; a place where our good deeds are rewarded, and the dead deserve to be memorialized. However, Star Trek Beyond’s subtext shows that to be a cosmic sham even as its manifest narrative tells us that this is a matter of routine deception, of a sympathetic character tricking Kirk and the Federation. The script kinda works on that level; it works better if we hold this trickery to represent the charlatans who prey on our hunger for something to transcend the desolate view of reality that’s espoused by Spock and Bones.
Star Trek Beyond is a movie, even more than its predecessors, that seems to have uncompromising mortality baked right into its world-of-tomorrow optimism, which here comes across as more superficial than ever. It’s just never terribly convincing, just as the Yorktown space station that must be saved is clearly devoid of any genuine humanity: it’s all well-intentioned, light-drenched CGI and crowd scenes. There’s nothing authentic and messy, no beating heart. In fact, what we have more resembles the idea of “humanity” than the real thing, and this reveals some of the movie’s honest despair: these days, simply to defend the idea of humanity is the priority. Idris Elba’s character wasn’t willing to go along with what he felt was cheery propaganda that dismissed his strengths as atavistic and thereby relegated him to Shadow status. To this, he asserts, “I am real and I am alive.” The cleverness of the script’s latent content then becomes plain: I may look like a monster, but I am truly human.
Sure, the backbeat to every media franchise that leans heavily on nostalgia is mortality, whether it wants to acknowledge it or not. Some of them obscure things by pausing a beat… and then rebooting. James Bond and Doctor Who muddy the issue by reincarnating their heroes—but for those paying attention, this only underscores the central question: can stories really outlive their original audiences… outlive even their original storytellers?
The answer, of course, is “yes”—it’s evident wherever a franchise finds, keeps, and grows its fandom. The stars come and go—and the real-world death of two beloved actors hangs heavily over Star Trek Beyond—but fandom persists. In fact, it’s arguably our strongest remaining cultural connection to the myth of rebirth: it offers the most consistent, demonstrable, and heartfelt proof.
Star Trek Beyond is a great movie, but not a very fun, or original, or surprising one; its greatness lies in the lowkey dirge that hums in its background—the very thing that undercuts its upbeat ballyhoo. Justin Lin is just too straightforward a filmmaker; he can’t hope to silence the doubt and despair that creeps in from the corners of the screen. Which actually makes Star Trek Beyond well-suited for its times. Star Trek may continue to thrive in a fourth film in this cycle, in its upcoming TV incarnation, and so on. But it’s already written its own elegy, and it’s a thing of sad beauty buried under all the spectacle and cute one-liners. So much so that when Star Trek Beyond closes with the obligatory nod to “the final frontier,” it now only halfheartedly seems to believe this well-worn phrase refers to space.
Gamera Obscura is a column about the ill effects of seeing too many movies over too many years. Peter Gutierrez also writes the Blockbuster Central column for Screen Education, and can be hunted down on Twitter @suddenlyquiet.