ABOVE AND BEYOND
The man steering Star Trek on its 50th birthday must balance the needs of a multiplex audience and a possessive fan base,
For Justin Lin, Star Trek always meant family. Before Lin became Hollywood’s $US1.96 billion director — courtesy of the Fast and Furious franchise — he was just an immigrant kid growing up in the 1980s, when his family would gather in their modest Californian home at the end of a long day to watch TV re-runs of the voyages of the starship Enterprise. “I started watching it with my parents when I was eight years old. Until I went to college at 18,” Lin recalls down the phone from Los Angeles, the day after he finished editing the $US150 million ($203m) Star Trek Beyond, the latest iteration of the science fiction franchise.
“They had a fish and chip restaurant and they closed at 9pm, so even at eight years old we would have family dinners at 10pm. And then we would talk our way into staying up and hanging out so we could have some family time and then there was Star Trek at 11pm.
“It was definitely a big part of our family. We had just emigrated from Taiwan so it really informed me of the notion of what a family could be in an untraditional manner.”
Star Trek, originally pitched as a western in outer space, ran from 1966 to 1969 before decades of re-runs touched millions of fans worldwide. Some tuned in as the Lins did, for the camaraderie of Captain Kirk and his crew, notably wisecracking medical officer Dr McCoy and coolly logical alien science officer Spock. Others watched for the phaser battles, still others for the tantalising ideas of what society in the distant future could become.
It taught the Lins about family but also about America. “That’s quite true in the original series,” says Lin. “And since then the world has connected more and more. I wanted to embrace that because now Star Trek can hold up a mirror to us as a world.”
Which brings us to Star Trek Beyond — the blockbuster of 2016 no one is talking about. While multiplexes were thick this year with superhero outings Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Deadpool (which generated massive buzz and even bigger box-office takings) in contrast the advance buzz on Beyond is desultory.
I would like to tell you more about this film, but I can’t. Simply because just like seemingly everyone else, I haven’t seen it. All anyone has to go on are three brief trailers, in which the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of intergalactic piranhas, Scotty falls in with an albino female kick-ass alien who toughens him up, Kirk channels Evel Knievel on a motorcycle, prestige British actor Idris Elba, totally unrecognisable as super baddie Krall, menaces defiant communications officer Uhura. And Spock and McCoy face a dangerous peril together until Spock is unsportingly whisked away via a transporter beam.
Might the film, which opens on July 21, suffer the fate that befell 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. In the face of more exciting alternatives, including Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, cinemagoers overlooked the film, prompting Paramount Studios to put the series into hibernation before rebooting the franchise very successfully in 2009 under JJ Abrams, who has since moved on to Star Wars. Publicity is still low key. The recent death in a car accident of cast member Anton Yelchin, who won fans with his humorous portrayal of junior Russian helmsman Chekov, caused the cancellation of some publicity events.
All that changes on Thursday when Lin strolls the red carpet with cast members Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock) and Karl Urban (McCoy) for the Australian premiere.
So why is Lin, film-school graduate with a $US1.96bn box-office pedigree, thanks to making four films in the cars-and-crime Fast and Furious franchise, keeping so quiet? Not even the Internet Movie Data Base website has any Star Trek Beyond plot details. Lin mentions the corrosive effect of social media, which he believes can destroy the excitement of moviegoing. “Plot is only there to service what we are trying to accomplish thematically. That’s something you can hopefully enjoy on a first run and hopefully something I can preserve.”
Preserving surprises is a growing preoccupation for those who serve up blockbuster en- tertainment, particularly in the obsessive world of sci-fi. Steven Moffat, show runner, writer and producer of Doctor Who and Sherlock, works hard to keep those franchises under wraps.
The tactic certainly worked for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which made $US2bn even though virtually nothing was known about it until it hit the cinemas. But Star Trek, cultural phenomenon that it is, is rather a more modest commercial venture for Paramount. After the original series, there followed a cartoon version, four more TV spin-offs and an intermittent series of feature films, of which Beyond is the 13th (and the third since the reboot).
So what’s it about? “We are hitting 50 years of Star Trek on this film and it felt like it was important to find a journey for our characters so that we not only get to know them better hopefully as an ensemble but at the same time hopefully in many ways deconstruct Star Trek and the Federation,” Lin says.
“And hopefully by the end of the movie we get to reaffirm why it’s been around for 50 years why there is so much love and passion for it.”
It’s a nice answer, although we are no further in our quest to uncover the plot. However, thanks to a thrilling sequence in the trailer, we know Lin is talking literally when he mentions deconstruction: the Enterprise is destroyed and the crew must fend for themselves (as happened in the series’ original third film).
“That’s a very literal example, we are doing that in other ways too,” he says. “Through the years the crews and cast might have changed but the Enterprise has always been there. I felt like part of the journey on this one was maybe to take that element away.”
In an act of desperation I ask him for some words to describe the film if he won’t go into details. He laughs, before offering up three: “I would say mirror, evolution and respect.”
To label Lin an unthinking action director would be simplistic. In some ways he was an unusual choice to direct 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift but it taught him to be attuned to the needs of both a multiplex audience and a possessive fan base. “I have a little bit of experience of that. When I first did the Fast and Furious movies I wasn’t an action director and I didn’t have any love for cars. But it was important to understand and respect that there was a passion out there for cars.
“Star Trek’s fans, it goes beyond the TV show and the movies; it becomes a way of life for a lot of people. I actually have a lot of friends who are like that. They know everything. My job is not to pander, but to understand somebody’s passion and hopefully respect that.”
The first trailer, action-focused to the exclusion of all else and with a rock soundtrack, has drawn a sharp reaction. Some fans are worried the film dials down the cerebral and ups the action. (In fact, both elements have always been crucial to Star Trek.) Does such negativity sting, even a little? “I think as a human being you do a little bit but it doesn’t surprise me. When I saw the teaser I had the same reaction. I knew that was going to be the case.”
Lin says the film was a “brilliant detour of his career”, but one he didn’t seek. Rather, he was approached by Abrams after the studio dumped the work of an earlier team. Just like with Tokyo Drift, Lin was called upon to take a well-established franchise and give it new life.
“We went from nothing when I came on. I actually don’t know what came before me. All I knew once I signed on was that I was going to be working with Simon [Pegg, who plays Scotty and also wrote the script] and Doug [Jung, cowriter]. Everything in this film was built from the ground up and I think that’s the only way I would accept the job.”
So he was brought in to fix things? “Hmmm. No. There’s nothing to fix when there is nothing. It’s about building.” (In fact, writers from the abandoned version are credited.)
“This is and will be the most intense and relentless experience I have had in my career in the greatest way. I am very fortunate in my career right now. I have a lot of options. I am really excited to finish this film strong, and very excited for July 21 to see where it takes me.”
Star Trek Beyond opens on July 21.
Justin Lin, above; Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Zachary Quinto (Spock) in Star Trek Beyond, top; Chris Pine (Kirk) and Sofia Boutella (Jaylah), left