Before we go any further, it’s probably bad form to not jump up and down while waving my hands and shouting, “STAR TREK BEYOND SPOILERS! TURN BACK NOW!” All set? OK. Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond ends with Captain Kirk (a weary, graying Chris Pine) and crew in a desperate chase to Stop An Evil Alien Dude From Using A Doomsday Device To Destroy Life As We Know It.
By now, it’s a predictable plot point in a supermassive summer film, irrespective of the franchise. In fact, it can hardly be a spoiler when it happens all the time, in all the movies.
Things get interesting when you get down to the details in Beyond. I’ll attempt to set the scene without giving too much away: three ships — spearheaded by the villain — are being tailed and shot at while they dip and weave down a narrow corridor on the way to blow up a planet-size base.
In other words, it’s the assault on the Death Star in reverse.
This Star Trek–Star Wars cross-pollination started with the first theatrical trailer for 2009’s Star Trek. (The one in which an angsty tween-aged Kirk lashes out by trashing his stepdad’s muscle car.) The premise of the trailer, and really the first hour or so of the movie, is this: A young person with complicated parentage but plenty of potential is plagued by the feeling that life should be more than what it is, and beguiled by the thrill of space adventure. It’s textbook Hero’s Journey stuff — especially so if you count Captain Christopher Pike as a “supernatural aid.”
Last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was set up in the exact same fashion. Rey (Daisy Ridley) was wasting away on Jakku, picking over wrecked Star Destroyers for scrap, until she and Finn (John Boyega) escape the desert planet aboard the Millennium Falcon.
There’s a lost-and-found mystery item (the map to greatest-Jedi-ever Luke Skywalker’s last known location) and a dogfight over/inside a planet-size base in Force Awakens, too. So when you couple this with Beyond, you get two sci-fi blockbusters that have unfolded in similar ways in just seven months’ time.
For all this, you can thank J.J. Abrams, who revived a long-dead Star Trek franchise by using a bevy of talented actors (Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, and the late Anton Yelchin) just as they were cresting toward movie stardom. Abrams hit two home runs (box-office-wise), then walked into George Lucas’s house like what up, I live here now and hit a third batting for the Republic.
While Rian Johnson is directing Episode VIII and Lin helmed Beyond, Abrams still has a finger in each pie. He’s pulled off one of the greatest finesses in history. There may have been a handful of others like it — the Yazoo land fraud, Credit Mobilier getting U.S. congressmen coming and going while building the Transcontinental Railroad, Charles Ponzi creating his scheme, and that might be it.
In approaching both Star Wars and Star Trek as a fan, Abrams brought both series back to prominence by playing off the obsessions people have with past iterations of each story. With Star Wars, he directed a sequel and restarted the franchise; with Star Trek, he executed a hard reboot. And while both featured a grip of fresh faces and characters, Abrams knew he couldn’t push the new without revisiting the old. So we get new Kirk marooned on an ice planet with old Spock in 2009’s Star Trek, and Rey telling Han Solo she’s heard “stories about what happened,” in Force Awakens. (Solo, now older and over his special brand of pyrrhonism, responds, “It’s true. All of it.”) The Abrams-directed Star Trek films and The Force Awakens feature explicit and implicit variations on plot points and iconic characters — Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren as a gluten-free Darth Vader. To propel forward, Abrams first goes backward. And he watches the money pile up.
Abrams is feasting on our dire need for things to come full circle, and counting on us never being able to fully let go. And by recycling the same themes throughout both franchises, he’s all but smushed them together.
This is at once easy and hard to do. Trekkies and Star Wars fans are diametrically opposed to each other. Star Trek is rooted in just enough scientific theory to suspend disbelief, while Star Wars is basically mythology. Where mind control in Star Trek might be the result of, say, a neural neutralizer, Star Wars uses handwavium and weird declarative statements. Khan’s 100-inch vertical was explained away with genetic engineering that freed him from human physical limitations. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn easily leaped between platforms inside of a poorly designed Nabooian power generator complex (where the hell were the railings?) and moved stuff with their minds thanks to tiny little sentient beings in their bloodstreams.
Star Wars deals more with the dichotomy of good and evil using a slightly less cynical kind of two-party system (the Empire and the Republic), while Star Trek uses deep-space exploration to wrestle with timeworn human questions, both abstract and empirical.
Each faction (Trekkies and Star Wars fans, that is) is also convinced that theirs is the absolute best franchise, and will start online flame wars over the matter or meet up to debate it physically if necessary. Meanwhile, Abrams is out here playing both ends against the middle by grafting a Star Wars pastiche inside of a Star Trek movie and getting paid twice over.
If you’re annoyed by the intensifying homogenization of risk-averse, big-budget action films, this is a bad thing; Star Trek Beyond pretty much goes where literally everyone has already gone before, as did The Force Awakens and everything else Abrams has had a hand in. But if you just want to enjoy yourself and not think too hard, there are worse ways to spend your money. And if you’re still fiending for that elusive Star Trek–Star Wars crossover movie that currently exists only in our imaginations and on internet message boards, take heart. We may still get that love child.