I didn’t want to cringe. Even though my husband said, “This movie’s going to be awful. It’s the Fast and Furious guy! How can it be Star Trek?” I still believed in Simon Pegg. I also believed that Justin Lin was unfairly pigeon holed as a hack, and we should give him a chance. I still wanted to go experience it in the theater, and support it on opening weekend.
I was so, utterly disappointed—but not because of Lin. And not for the reason my husband expected.
I’m a writer. Star Trek has been a part of my life since I was four, and inspired me to write my first stories. I was THAT KID in kindergarten, cosplaying as the Vulcan half-sister of James T. Kirk. Who could fly. And had her own theme song.
Hey, I didn’t say it was brilliant.
But it was a beginning.
Later, movies like ST II, IV, and First Contact proved that Star Trek could have excellent writing—believable villains, moving character arcs, and a satisfying ending.
Star Trek Beyond COULD have been one of those. The ideas were excellent. The acting was (in places) spectacular. The directing was great.
But the execution was truly, truly awful. Not because it was Trek, but because some basic writing principles were not followed.
SPOILERS AHEAD. I’m about to go into detail here, and I will discuss EVERY part of the movie, including twists and endings. If you don’t want to know, STOP READING until you’ve seen it.
Basic Writing Principle One: Show, Don’t Tell:
They started so well with this: Kirk was feeling claustrophobic after 900+ days in space. He was feeling like life was becoming “episodic” (wink, wink) and things were becoming too predictable. (The shot of his closet here was great.) He wonders (again) if he is in the wrong career field, and just joined Star Fleet because of Daddy Issues.
“Ooooohhhhhh, that’s some good whiskey!” <—great line.
That’s where the “showing” ends. Suddenly Kirk is getting a lecture on very personal, internal issues from Some Random Admiral who’s processing Kirk’s application for a Starbase position. We weren’t ten minutes into the movie and I was going, “What? Who is she? Why is she counseling him? Why should we care?”
She was probably supposed to be a supportive, maternal character, but since we DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HER NAME till the end, she came off as:
If Kirk is going to discuss life-altering decisions with someone, we at least need to know her name, and have some basic interactions with her before she spouts off life-altering catch phrases.
The entire movie was full of this.
-Uhura barely knows Krall, but lectures him about Starfleet Unity.
-Jaylah consistently saves “Montgomery Scotty’s” hide, but for some reason LISTENS to this man-that-she-has-to-keep-saving when he tells her to put her life at risk. With a rousing speech. And lots of catch phrases
-Kirk seems to only have a decent philosophical thought when he’s holding a phaser on someone.
Instead of SHOWING us unity, indecision, loyalty, and philosophy, the characters routinely gave rousing speeches about it. It feels great to write them, but it’s painful to listen to them. It’s A LOT more difficult to show us characters being unified, indecisive, loyal, and philosophical than it is for them to lecture the bad guys about it.
He is one scary Blue Alien.
Idris Elba is mesmerizing, threatening, exotic, and THEN they added the blue makeup. I could deal with that. He still made use of his body posture, mouth, and costumes/armor in a way that let the audience know more about his character. There’s just one problem:
Yes, this is the big twist, my friends. Idris-Freaking-Elba is put into more makeup and prosthetics than a Cardassian/Klingon love child, only for it to be discovered that he’s a human who found some life-prolonging technology.
Guess when we find this out?
At the END.
Uhura STUMBLES upon video evidence of this.
We’d spent the previous 4/5ths of the movie dealing with a Big Blue Bad Guy who was looking for “The Thing That Could End The Universe As We Know It (and is small enough to fit in your tricorder holster)”.
We saw some sort of technology that looked like the Borg had met the Blob assimilate some poor Red Shirts to give the Big Blue Bad Guy more life. We saw that Big Blue Bad Guy had Little Nasty Ships that could break the Enterprise. We heard that Big Blue Bad Guy had a “mission”.
You know what’s MORE interesting than this?
Elba’s character had once been a Federation hero. He felt betrayed when peacetime came, when he had to break bread with those who had been his enemies. In turn, he betrayed every ideal he’d once fought to uphold. Then he developed new technology and FOUGHT the Federation with every ounce of hatred that he’d built up over his long life.
Whoa! That’s a good story!
Guess how we find out about it?
In a ventilation shaft, as “The Thing that Could End The Universe as We Know It” is about to be unleashed into the air supply.
We know that Fizzy Lifting Drinks won’t kill them…um, I mean “The Thing That Ends the Universe as We Know It” is not going to work, because the movie is about to end. Since everyone will OBVIOUSLY be okay, I’m left wondering why this fantastic actor has been stuck in blue paint. What is this life-prolonging technology? Can it be combined with Kahn’s Super-Blood? How did they know to use it? Why did he go insane?
This is infinitely more interesting than nameless Super Weapons that turn Ensigns into charcoal powder.
But, instead of showing us this story, on screen, they TOLD us about it, as part of a fight scene.
Then, the Goddess of Empathy shows up again to give us a denouement.
“Go drink, rebuild the Enterprise, and call a Vulcan ‘Romantic.’ Be sure to show that Sulu’s husband and daughter are safe.”
Basic Writing Principle Two: Characters drive the story
If you’re a Trek fan who hasn’t seen Shatner’s “Chaos on the Bridge,” go watch it, now. There, the merry-go-round of writers from The Next Generation explain how they eventually abandoned an “Alien of the Week” writing formula, and focused each episode on a specific character development. Data gets a daughter. Troi deals with her mother during Betazoid Menopause. Picard and his brother bury the hatchet. Worf has a son, and so forth.
How do we find out what’s going on with the characters in Beyond?
They tell us!
“I want the Thing!”
“You can’t have the Thing!”
“I want to leave Starfleet.”
“We broke up.”
“Spock Prime died, and this is how it affected me. I broke up with Uhura so I could produce more pure-blooded Vulcans. Even though I’m half-Vulcan.”
“I knew she was bad all along. This is how I knew she was bad all along.”
“I won’t die.”
“We need a diversion.”
“I’ve got an idea.”
Oh wait, this goes back to the whole, “Show, don’t tell” principle.
This is 2016–we’ve seen enough alien technology, super-cool special effects, and explosions to last us a lifetime. What every generation will STILL care about is the growth and maturity of the characters. Since Star Trek Beyond didn’t harness the “Show, don’t tell” principle, then it left us with a bunch of people who literally had to tell us everything they were feeling. It robbed us of the chance to grow with them, to see them making hard choices, and to feel what they were feeling without it being spelled out for us.
The only character I actually felt emotion for in this movie was Sulu. The director took GREAT advantage of that wedding ring. Every time the Enterprise crew was in distress, the camera found a way to pan right past Sulu’s wedding ring, reminding us that he had a husband and toddler daughter at home waiting for him. Internally, without me wanting it to, my heart went, “Please don’t die!” Then, God help them all, the husband and toddler daughter are IN THE SPACE STATION, ABOUT TO BE ATTACKED!
I don’t blame the writers. In fact, right now, as I’m writing this, my kids are clamoring for me to stop, to get them cookies, to settle a dispute, even though I have a babysitter here. I have to work under a certain set of constraints that will probably affect the quality of this short blog post. So I don’t blame the writers—I blame the people who set the constraints. I blame the film culture that appeals to the lowest common story denominator in an attempt to rake in the most money. I truly think that setting a higher bar for story will bring in a more sustained income, but SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, thinks explosions and fight scenes are the only things that do that.
I wanted to be emotionally moved when Spock Kelvin was looking through the personal effects of Spock Prime. I wanted to care about Krall’s journey. I wanted to wonder if Kirk would leave Starfleet (again) but I couldn’t do any of these things. I was too busy shaking my head at all the things that brought me out of the story—and because of my constraints, I’ve only listed about half of them. I don’t have time to mention how feminism doesn’t mean 120lbs can beat up 350lbs, Jaylah’s scream adding nothing to the story, serious plot holes with the Random Warp Four Ship, and Tarzan Cloaking Devices.
Trek, you can do better. You have so many more resources than this stay-at-home-mom of four.
Please do better.