The Stakes of 'Star Trek 4'
The voyages of the starship Enterprise will continue on. Earlier this week we learned that Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley will write and direct the next installment of Star Trek, with stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg expected to return. The fourth entry of the rebooted series, which began with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), has spent some time in development. Following the release of the third entry, Justin Lin's 2016 film Star Beyond, Paramount began exploring its options for the next film, with S.J. Clarkson signing on to become the franchise’s first female director with a film that would have seen Pine’s James Kirk, meet his father George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in a time-travel scenario. When options fells through, the project was shelved.
Quentin Tarantino has been developing a separate, R-rated Star Trek entry for the past two years, which remains on the table. When looking at this current Star Trek film series, dubbed the Kelvin timeline, when compared to the original timeline, it’s clear we’re still in the early days of this trek. With so much lore out there, and room for new and familiar faces, it’s worth asking what it is that fans of Star Trek, both old and new, want from this fourth entry, and how those desires could provide the series with longevity in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
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There’s some expectation, given Hawley’s television background, that Star Trek 4 will opt for a smaller scale than what we’ve seen before. From the salary discussions that surrounded the casting of Clarkson’s film, it’s clear that Paramount was hoping to keep the costs down, particularly after Beyond underwhelmed at the box office.
But compared to the $200 million budgets of most major blockbusters, the Star Trek series has been relatively cost effective, with budgets ranging from $150 million to $185 million. Reflecting back on Abrams’ first Star Trek film, it’s amazing what he accomplished with $150 million, compared to films that cost $50 million to $100 million more and don’t look nearly as well-crafted. But is a Star Trek film that costs less than $150 million even feasible given the current state of blockbusters? It’s possible, sure, but a cheap Star Trek movie seems unlikely to provide the kind of effects, action, and world-traveling that has become expected of space movies in a post Guardians of the Galaxy and Force Awakens world.
We’re currently in a dangerous space within Hollywood filmmaking where old IP doesn’t hold the same currency it used to. Star Trek Beyond was the lowest grossing of the rebooted franchise at $343.5 million worldwide. When most studio blockbusters are expected to make $700 million to $1 billion dollars to be considered a success and break into the top 10 worldwide, the kind of success that the franchise found when it was rebooted a decade ago isn’t the same in this Disney-dominated landscape.
While Star Trek has a large fan base, the recent box office disappointments of Terminator: Dark Fate, Doctor Sleep and Charlie’s Angels, are worrying trends. Paramount, which has a distribution deal with Netflix, recently moved Beverly Hills Cop 4 to Netflix, undoubtedly a result of the recent string of box office flops. But lacking any other live-action blockbuster franchise outside of Mission: Impossible, Paramount really has no choice to keep their expectations in check. The reality is that Star Trek is never going to be able to compete with Marvel or Star Wars in the way it was presumed almost a decade ago when Star Wars had seemingly ended and Marvel characters outside of Iron Man couldn’t even break $500 million worldwide. Star Trek can have success as long as those box office expectations are kept in check, and the budget ensures spectacle without breaking the bank.
Another component when it comes to looking at the scale of Star Trek 4, is the fact that CBS All-Access has revitalized the TV component of the franchise with Star Trek Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. For Star Trek 4 to be a worthwhile endeavor, it has to be a story that doesn’t feel like it could simply be told in the streaming format. For this reason, it seems likely that Hawley won’t be aiming too small with the scale and scope of his film. One of the reasons why Hawley’s coming aboard the Enterprise seems so fitting is that he has managed to tell grand stories, heavy on themes of morality and time, within the television landscape. Capturing the spirit of Gene Roddenberry certainly doesn’t seem out of his reach, and if he can balance that tone with a story that attracts fans to theaters, then Star Trek 4 will be in safe hands.
Story may be the most difficult thing to crack, because it relies so heavily on the expectations of the villain. Abrams’ first film was celebrated, but its villain, Nero (Eric Bana) was criticized for not being an interesting enough threat. Abrams’ sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which deserves far more credit than it gets from fandom, introduced the most famous Trek villain, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and was criticized for leaning to heavily on the old continuity and The Wrath of Khan (1982). Star Trek Beyond scaled back on space travel and had the crew stranded on a planet, similar to an episode of the original series, but the villain, Krall, kept its performer, Idris Elba, buried under makeup, and trailers didn’t give a great indication of the stakes. As a rebooted series, Star Trek will always be caught between leaning on the past and setting up new worlds and characters. Hawley will have to find a balance between appealing to fans and providing surprises. The Klingon, who made a cameo appearance during Into Darkness, have been a frequently requested adversary and a war with the race has been brewing over the course of the films. But again, Star Trek isn’t Star Wars, and while a war film may have some action appeal, Star Trek is, at its heart, about exploration.
The best bet for the future of Star Trek is to travel to new worlds, encounter new challenges and maybe enter a new galaxy while bringing in some familiar faces new to the Kelvin timeline. The Next Generation is arguably even more popular than the original series at this point, thanks to syndication and Netflix. Perhaps introducing new cast members as younger iterations of Picard, Data, Riker, Worf, Deanna Troi, and Geordi La Forge could be the very thing that sparks renewed interest and excitement in the franchise, and gives Paramount the license to stay within the $150 million dollar range as well as look at success for the franchise in the same way they did a decade ago. The fact that Star Trek is continuing on in cinematic fashion is worth celebrating, and audiences and Paramount can understand its place and necessity within the contemporary landscape of cinematic universes, then we should be able to boldly go to Star Trek films for a long time to come.
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