The U.S.S. Enterprise is murdered early in “Star Trek Beyond.” “Slit its throat,” the villainous Krall (Idris Elba) commands after invading the ship. His soldiers do just that. The vessel is decapitated.
This is not in any way a spoiler. The destruction of the Enterprise is seen in the movie’s trailers and serves as the basis for the entire story. “Star Trek Beyond,” which opens Friday, finds out what happens when Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew of the most iconic sci-fi spacecraft of all time are robbed of the thing that brought them together — their ship — and left to fend for themselves on the surface of a hostile planet.
Simon Pegg, who plays the engineer Scotty and also co-wrote the screenplay for the new film, says the decision to take down the Enterprise within the first 30 minutes of the movie was not made lightly.
“When we were writing the script, we talked about possibly taking out a member of the main crew,” he says. “But we decided to go with this. I was very antsy about it, because it has been done before, in the third [“Star Trek: The Search for Spock”] and seventh [“Star Trek Generations”] movies. If you’re doing it just to shock people, that won’t work. But [director Justin Lin] wanted to see what would happen to these characters if you took away the thing that physically bonds them together. If the Enterprise is gone, do they have something in common other than their jobs? Are they still a family?”
The love of family is the seed from which all of “Star Trek Beyond” sprouted. Lin was in Ventura, CA directing an episode of the second season of “True Detective” in Dec. 2014 when he got a call from producer J.J. Abrams, who had directed the previous two entries in Paramount Pictures’ rebooted “Star Trek” franchise. Abrams had hopped over to the “Star Wars” universe to make “The Force Awakens.” Would Lin be interested in directing the third “Star Trek” film himself?
There was one huge catch: The movie had to go into production in June 2015 in order to meet its 2016 release date. And although all of the cast members were on board, there was no script for Lin to read and consider. There wasn’t even an idea for what the third “Star Trek” would be about.
“I had been preparing to make another small independent movie when J.J. called,” Lin says. “He was gauging my interest. I don’t think he even knew if I liked ‘Star Trek.’ He said ‘If you want to do it, it’s yours.’ But the scary thing about it is that we were starting out with nothing and we had to be shooting in six months.”
Lin, 44, was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. with his family (he has a younger brother) when he was eight. He graduated from UCLA in the late 1990s and began making movies the way many other indie filmmakers did at the time, before the digital revolution — by financing them with credit cards and his personal savings. His breakthrough came with 2003’s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a drama about a group of Asian-American high school students who take up crime as an extracurricular activity. The movie was a hit at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. MTV won a bidding war to release it in the U.S., where it grossed nearly $4 million.
Since then, Lin’s films have raked in more than $2 billion at the global box office, including parts 3-6 of the “Fast and Furious” franchise. His experience with large ensemble casts and complex action pictures heavy on special effects made him a natural for a “Star Trek” movie. But Lin didn’t make up his mind until he had dinner with his parents the weekend before he had to give Abrams his answer.
“After we moved to the U.S., my parents ran a fish and chips restaurant in Anaheim, so they worked all the time,” he says. “They would close at 9 every night, and we would have dinner at 10 p.m. Then [the original] “Star Trek” would come on TV at 11 and we watched it together. From the time I was 8 until I turned 18, that was our family time.
“What’s funny is that because ‘Star Trek’ only ran for three years, we would be watching the same episodes at least three times a year. As I got older, I understood the show better. And we had no other relatives in the States. It was just the five of us. ‘Trek’ was so progressive — a group of people from different backgrounds coming together and going on this journey — it taught me that family doesn’t only have to be about blood ties. And it instilled a sense of exploration in me.”
Sitting across from his parents having dinner again all those years later, the “Star Trek” flame was rekindled and Lin told Abrams he was in. Now came the work. First, the filmmakers needed to come up with an idea for their movie.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Screenwriter Doug Jung, who had previously worked with Abrams and his Bad Robot production company on a heist movie titled “Diamond” that never came together, was hired to collaborate with Pegg and Lin on the “Star Trek Beyond” script. The trio met in London, where Pegg was filming “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” and holed up inside the Soho Hotel for a weekend to throw ideas around.
“Writing a ‘Star Trek’ movie is a huge responsibility,” Jung says. “We wanted to do something that would please the fans but also appeal to people who may not be diehard Trekkers. The possibilities were wide open, because we were starting from scratch. Usually that’s a blessing. But we had a deadline. We had to compress all that time you usually spend trying things out and throwing them away — the normal process of writing a script.”
This movie is essentially what you get when you’re given $200 million to make an episode of “Star Trek
Jung says that including Lin in the writing process was a huge boon, since he was able to visualize ideas that, on paper, might not have seemed promising — such as the destruction of the Enterprise, a thrilling, show-stopping setpiece that will bring a tear to the eyes of hardcore “Trek” fans.
“I give Justin all the credit in the world for that sequence,” Jung says. “Destroying the Enterprise has been done before, so how do we do it differently? Justin said we needed to do it early in the movie. But we’re still just destroying the Enterprise again. Then he walked us through how he wanted to do with it, and by the end you realized he had a great vision for it, but it wasn’t just spectacle. It was also emotional, because you’re essentially killing a character.”
For Pegg, an actor who has written many of the movies he’s starred in (including “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), getting to play a critical role in the creation of a new “Trek” movie was an enormous bonus.
“It’s a great privilege to be given the keys to the kingdom,” says Pegg, who is also hardcore “Trek” fan. “It was great to be able to inform the ‘Star Trek’ universe as creators and also just as friends. The planet Altamid, where most of the film takes place, is an anagram of my daughter’s name [Matilda]. Justin’s son is in the movie disguised as a green alien. It was fun to be able to put our stamp on that world.”
More importantly, “Star Trek Beyond” allowed the writers to revel in the company of Kirk, Spock, Sulu and the rest of the iconic characters. No longer relegated to the confines of the Enterprise, the crew splits up into pairs, letting us to savor their relationships in ways we haven’t seen before.
FOCUSING ON CHARACTER
“We know a lot about the characters, but a lot of their personalities hadn’t been explored with this cast,” Jung says. “These movies have inferred a lot about Kirk and McCoy’s friendship, but you really haven’t seen [Chris Pine] and Karl Urban interact very much. Chekov and Sulu have never had a long conversation on-screen. What would they talk about? Seeing Kirk in action, away from Spock, is fun. We got to shake up the character dynamics within the context of the story.”
Lowering the stakes and focusing on the personalities that form the “Star Trek” universe is a gamble that could pay off, especially in an era when every would-be blockbuster ends with a big finale in which the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
“I'd be a little surprised to learn that the [new] ‘Trek’ film was a smaller scale, more intimate picture — but also relieved,” says Mark Clark, author of “Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise.” “Those smaller-scale stories are an anomaly for the ‘Trek’ movie franchise, but not for ‘Trek’ generally. There were plenty of episodes of the various series — including some of the best ones — where the stakes were small but had a great deal of dramatic power. ‘The Menagerie,’ for instance, was ultimately about Spock risking his career to help his former captain find peace of mind. If he failed, it wasn't like the Romulans were going to overrun the galaxy or something.”
But even spending time with beloved characters when they’re not trying to save the world can be risky. One revelation in “Star Trek Beyond” — that Sulu, played by John Cho, is gay — has resulted in some consternation among fans. George Takei, who played the character in the original 1960s TV series and has a massive online following, stated he wished the filmmakers had opted to introduce a new character who was gay instead of changing Sulu’s established persona.
Pegg politely disagrees.
“If it had been a new character, it would have been a much bigger deal,” he says. “The decision didn’t have anything to do with his sexual orientation. It was meant to be simply poetic. The idea was to give Sulu someone to care about, so when the crew comes home at the start of the movie for a break before heading out on another mission, Sulu’s family is there waiting for him — his partner and his daughter. [‘Star Trek’ creator] Gene Roddenberry and George had spoken about tackling the issue on the original TV show, but they couldn’t do that back then. The episode with the interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura was the lowest-rated in the series at the time it aired. It was a different era.”
A DIFFERENT STYLE
The style and look of “Star Trek Beyond” is noticeably different from the previous two films, “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which were directed by Abrams. Lin’s camera moves not only on vertical and horizontal planes but also bobs and weaves around the action, giving chases and fight scenes unusual fluidity and intensity.
“A lot of the ideas and shots in this film have been in my head since I was a kid watching the show,” Lin says. “One of the things I wanted to explore was the sense of three-dimensional space. The spatial relationship of things inside the frame was so important to me. I wanted to convey the sense of a humanistic camera — that there was an actual person, a camera operator, capturing these shots instead of everything being slick and beautiful and gyroed out, the way most big action movies look today.”
The scope of “Star Trek Beyond” is also different: The story is more intimate and smaller in scale than “Star Trek Into Darkness,” in part because the filmmakers felt there was no way to top what took place in that film, including Kirk sacrificing his life for the sake of his crew.
“Where do you go from there?” Lin says. “We decided to make something that was more personal and maybe smaller. The great strength of ‘Star Trek’ is its characters.”
In one scene in “Star Trek Beyond,” Kirk makes a toast in front of a large group of people. When he raises his glass and says “To absent friends,” we see a shot of the crowd, with Chekov, played by the late Anton Yelchin, standing in the middle of frame.
The expression on the actor’s face — he seems to be deep in thought, not necessarily aware he’s being filmed — implies the shot wasn’t intended to be in the movie. Lin admits it was a last-minute addition during a final round of editing that took place just two weeks ago, after the 27-year-old actor was killed in a tragic accident in his own driveway in June.
“I had just seen Anton a week earlier for some final [dialogue recording],” Lin says, becoming emotional. “When it happened … it was really tough trying to finish the film. All of us were still processing his loss. I was doing one last recut of the movie and was looking through all the takes. When I saw that one, it embodied a lot of what’s so amazing about Anton. He comes in to the set every day with a smile. We would huddle up and talk about every scene, regardless of whether or not he had dialogue. He was so pure. He will live on with me and anyone who ever interacted with him. So when I saw that take, I wanted to make sure to share it with people.”
The production of “Star Trek Beyond” was so rushed that distributor Paramount Pictures was unable to screen the movie weeks early to generate advance publicity. But the reaction from the initial screenings this week thus far has been mostly enthusiastic, particularly from hardcore fans, who are usually the toughest to please.
“This movie is essentially what you get when you’re given $200 million to make an episode of ‘Star Trek,’ really,” Pegg says. “We wanted to recreate the structure of an episode from the original series — they’re orbiting a strange planet and they go down to explore — but told on a gigantic scale. The fans have been there for 50 years and they deserve to be looked after, but it’s also important to be able to bring new viewers into the film. Hopefully ‘Star Trek’ will go on for another 50 years. Hopefully one day, it will become a current affairs show.”