As a film critic, I’m often asked the which of the Star Wars films is my favorite. In a response which is facetious but sincere, I earnestly respond by naming J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek reboot as my favorite of the Wars series. Such is by no mean a blatant ignorance of two beloved but wholly different science fiction franchises that happen to share similar names; director J.J. Abrams, along with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, acknowledged in interviews at the time that they purposefully channeled the spirit of Lucas’ Original Trilogy when recrafting Trek for a more mainstream audience. Shortly after its premier, sites such as College Humor and IGN cataloged the extensive similarities Star Trek shared with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Both told the stories of fair-haired farm boys recruited by an aged general who’d fought alongside their long deceased father, offering a chance to live up to his legacy and confront his killer on a grand adventure across a series of single-biome planets and through the depths of space, along the way learning of their destinies from an elven-eared alien and ultimately ending the threat of a planet-busting superweapon.
Though less obvious in its inspiration, the third film in the reboot, Star Trek Beyond, likewise looks to the Galaxy Far, Far Away for much of its plot points and visual cues, albeit not to the films themselves, but rather to BioWare’s 2003 role playing game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR). The film’s creators’ affinity for BioWare’s work was apparent just a few minutes into its run time when the Enterprise docks at Yorktown, a space station which bears a conspicuous resemblance to the Presidium section of the Citadel from the studios’ spiritual successor to Knights of the Old Republic, the 2007 game Mass Effect. What could have ultimately proved a case of common inspiration – a common enough occurrence in science-fiction, with both Beyond and Mass Effect pulling from the art of futurist Syd Mead – becomes increasingly less plausible as the plot progresses, each new thread uncannily close to the fifth act of Knights of the Old Republic.
In both, the protagonists’ vessel crash lands onto a lush planet previously unknown to the galaxy at large. In Beyond, the unnamed planet is obscured by a dense surrounding nebula, whereas in KotOR the planet Lehon is enmeshed in a disrupter field. It is on the planet that our heroes discover that the antagonist – Krull in Beyond and Darth Malak in KotOR – has been seeking out a superweapon built by the ancient architects of a long lost galaxy-spanning empire to unleash against the Federation/Republic. For Krull this is a non-descript bioweapon, but for Malak it is the Star Forge, capable of mass producing a fleet of fighters and other starships. Without explanation, Krull is given access to the same, his swarm of ships sufficient to take on not only the state-o-the-art Enterprise but also the massive space station Yorktown. Moreover, both big bads have access to life extension technology that works specifically by draining the energy from living beings and transferring it to themselves.
To top it off, Krull, like Malak, is a fallen member of the hero’s own order; just as Malak was once a Jedi like Revan, Krull was once Balthazar Edison, a captain in Starfleet in many ways similar to Kirk. In classic storytelling structure, Malak and Krull are the dark mirrors to Revan and Kirk, respectively, who they might have been but for the grace of The Force/Rational Human Enlightenment. Whereas Nero only offered Kirk a chance at avenging his father and Khan only offered him a chance to wink knowingly at the audience, Krull offers Kirk the opportunity for introspection, to evaluate the extent to which he embraces the mission of Starfleet himself, beyond his father’s legacy. Structurally the movie succeeds only partially in this respect, with Kirk choosing to continue on as Captain of the Enterprise, even after becoming older than his father ever had or being offered an admiralty sans ship.
Where it fails is after establishing a villain who repudiates the Federation’s fundamental principles of diplomacy and pacifism, who believes that humanity, far from having evolved past its primitive penchant for violence, can only continue to progress through similar sectarian struggles, only for Kirk, instead of brokering a peace and thereby demonstrating the superiority of diplomacy per Roddenberry’s vision, instead descends down to Krull’s level, able only to oppose the adversary with martial force and not reason. Such is a far cry from classic Trek such as The Undiscovered Country, and while the new movies are certainly more enjoyable, in shedding Roddenberry’s message they’ve likewise lost their raison d’être, existing now merely as special effects spectacles to appeal to the basest emotions of the lowest common denominator – and of course to profit Paramount.
The Original Series proved science-fiction could be both intellectually satisfying and thrilling. The true successors of that tradition were the BioWare projects such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect; but Mass Effect did Star Trek better than Trek does anymore, and despite Justin Lin and Simon Pegg copying Trek’s copycats, they failed to crib their notes closely enough. They stole wholesale characters – Jaylah is clearly just Jarael from the KotOR comics, both white-skinned, white-haired, mechanically adept loners with distinctive face tattoos holed up in a junker spaceship and skilled with a staff – whereas the should have stolen BioWare’s respect for its audience and its desire to push storytelling in science-fiction further.
Still, such is not the only problems with the script. Apart from the obligatory destruction of the Enterprise every few films, the scope of the story seems small. In the opening moments during his “Captain’s Log,” Kirk described his adventures over the last three years (read: seasons) as “episodic,” but this film never rose above being a big budget version of any given episode from the series. Wrath of Khan saw the death of Spock. The Undiscovered Country saw a permeant peace forged with the Klingons. Generations passed the torch from Kirk to Picard. First Contact revisited one of the most seminal moments in Trek’s mythology. The best Star Trek movies have always been about moments too monumental for the small screen. Beyond, at its biggest, is a cross-roads in the careers of both Kirk and Spock, a moment in time when they might have left the Enterprise, but never anything more than that.
And yet, even with the plethora of problems enumerated above, same script and all, Beyond may very well have been a genuinely great movie, at least on par with Star Trek and Into Darkness, had it had J.J. Abrams at the helm once again. Were Abrams to have stayed and Justin Lin directed Star Wars, I’ve no doubt that Beyond would have been significantly superior to The Force Awakens. Directorial decisions are its only truly egregious errors. Lin focuses too long on the action scenes till they become decidedly drawn out. The assault on the Enterprise at the start is sluggishly slow, and a similar raid on Krull’s compound later in the film fulfills many of the fears fans had upon watching the poorly received trailer. To be fair, Beyond is a wholly enjoyable summer blockbuster, but with the right pacing, with better cinematography, engendered with a bit more grandeur and grandiosity, it could have been a modern day myth like the 2009 reboot.
At the very least I’ll always be thankful to have gotten the Knights of the Old Republic movie I’d never thought would be made, even if it substituted the crew of the Ebon Hawk for that of the Enterprise, the latter’s mission, evidently, to boldly go where Star Wars has gone before.