By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Dysfunction. Betrayal. A search for unity in a house divided.
Aside from last week’s Republican National Convention, these themes form the underlying basis of the latest blockbuster in the “Star Trek” franchise.
“Star Trek Beyond” is the third big-screen installment of the series since its reboot in 2009, and its ne-generation cast has returned – unfortunately, for the last time as a group.
“Beyond” has had a bittersweet roll-out this week, due to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock, and the tragic, untimely death of Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the latest movies. Yelchin, 27, died last month in a freak accident at his Studio City home.
There has also been some prerelease banter about one character’s personal life, drawing a bit a criticism from an unexpected source.
The film itself, directed by Justin Lin of the “Fast and Furious” series, is sure to please even the most casual fans of “Star Trek,” while certainly delighting rabid Trekkies. There are plenty of obscure references to spot – including Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) lamenting having been in deep space for 966 consecutive days. Well-studied fans will note the reference to September 1966, when the original series premiered.
The story, written by Simon Pegg (also returning to the role of Scotty) and Doug Jung, is as close as the movies have come to the episodic nature of creator Gene Roddenberry’s original concept.
The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are well into their five-year mission to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, etc., and are more than ready to get out of their ship for a while. Despite a brief bit of R&R on a newly built space station – a floating city, really – they’ve begun to feel a fair amount of drudgery in their work.
That all changes quite abruptly, when they encounter a swarming attack of mini-crafts, led by a shapeshifting leader who drains his victims of their very life force to survive and build his own power.
The crew are separated, injured, disillusioned and stranded.
At a mid-July press junket for the film, Pegg explained that the story line sits squarely on the idea of unity being the crew’s biggest asset.
“They are without the Enterprise. We wanted to see what happens when you take away the thing that physically binds them together. Do they dissipate, or do they can come back together?” Pegg said.
Pegg made joking references to the disunity playing out in his homeland, Great Britain, which voted last month to separate itself from the European Union. In a more serious line of commentary, the cast made thinly veiled references to the divisiveness of the current presidential campaigns.
In fact, as the junket at the Four Seasons Hotel was taking place, Donald Trump was hosting a fundraising breakfast mere minutes away.
“‘Star Trek’ really represents inclusivity,” remarked Zachary Quinto, returning to his role as Mr. Spock. “It’s shocking how divisive our culture has become, but I feel like ‘Star Trek’ has maintained a position of inclusivity and unity that is as resonant today as it was in the late ’60s.”
There was, of course, plenty going on in the 1960s, offering a wealth of fodder for social commentary. As much as any television show of its time, “Star Trek” seized the opportunity to express its views, all under the guise of science fiction. This is a program that featured a permanent multi-ethnic cast and even brought the first interracial kiss to American TV screens.
Fifty years later, this country still struggles with issues of acceptance, and an idea (almost literally) floated to Roddenberry during back then has finally found its way into “Trek” reality.
George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu, told The Hollywood Reporter of a 1968 pool party at Roddenberry’s house, during which the actor suggested the inclusion of a homosexual character. Takei, who did not announce publicly until 2005 that he is himself gay, said the idea never came to pass before the show was canceled.
When it was revealed that in “Star Trek Beyond” in would be clear that Mr. Sulu is gay, a voice of disappointment came – surprisingly, to many − from Takei.
“I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he told The Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
Takei feels that re-writing Sulu as gay goes against Roddenberry’s intentions for the character, that Sulu was always meant to be heterosexual.
“I thought it was a beautiful idea,” said John Cho, who has reprised the role in “Beyond.”
“I had concerns about how it would be received by George,” he added. “The handling of it was most important to me, and having seen the film, its nonchalant posture toward it is the best thing about it.”
A fair amount of media attention has been focused on what is a very brief – perhaps under three seconds – shot of Sulu being greeted by his young daughter and then receiving a warm hug from his male partner, played by screenwriter Jung.
Honestly, if you look down to grab a handful of popcorn, you’ll likely miss it.
Cho put the whole thing into an appropriate perspective – that the scene fits in with the progressive nature of the original “Star Trek.”
“It’s kind of news now, but if you re-watch the movie in 10 years, you won’t think anything of it. It’ll just go right by you. That’s the best thing about it,” Cho said.
Pegg added that inclusion of a gay Sulu further advanced the theme of “Beyond,” the belief “that we’re better together. That idea can be, and is, our strength.”
“Star Trek Beyond” is now in wide release and is rated PG-13.