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‘Star Trek Beyond’ Director on Avoiding Plot Overlap with ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
Justin Lin, who took over the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise, discusses ‘Star Trek Beyond,’ including the influence of producer J.J. Abrams and destroying the Enterprise.
“We are trying to be bold and take risks,” Fast & Furious franchise director Justin Lin asserted Monday in Los Angeles, hours after offering up the first teaser for his threequel Star Trek Beyond to the scrutiny of a half-century old fandom. “Whether they’re successful or not, I don’t know.”
Trekkies saw some of that risk-taking on display in the minute and a half teaser: Nonstop action, witty repartee, two new alien characters—hailing from species new to Trek, no less—and the cheeky feel of those classic TOS episodes where Kirk & Co. venture down to the surface of an alien planet for an off-ship adventure. Absent were the canon-twisting mystery of 2009’s Star Trek, the pointed heaviness of 2013’s Wrath of Khan remake Into Darkness. Coming from the director of Fast & Furious 3, 4, 5, and 6, motorcycle jumps and a Dom/Letty-esque mid-air transporting death leap sound just about right. “When I saw the teaser I was like, ‘Aw shit, did you really have to put the motorcycle in there? Well, you know—I am who I am,” Lin laughed.
If Star Trek vs. Star Wars is the Rolling Stones vs. Beatles of sci-fi, Lin’s an avowed Trekkie. “I’m showing my 6-year-old [Star Trek] and trying to take him away from Star Wars,” he joked to a roomful of journalists Monday afternoon in Los Angeles. The two most monolithic geek properties in the galaxy, ironically, overlap through Star Trek Beyond producer J.J. Abrams, who directed the first two rebooted films before handing over the reins to go helm Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “We’ll be writing in a room and I’ll hear Chewbacca coming from the editing suite and you’re like, whoa!” said Lin.
While working on both projects, Abrams would occasionally let slip when Star Trek Beyond’s plot shared similarities with The Force Awakens. “J.J.’s been nothing but respectful and it wasn’t anything big, I’m always trying to milk him for plot points to Star Wars so I can look cool to my son. But there were a couple of instances where he was like, ‘We kind of have this in the new Star Wars.’ But it was never like, You have to take this out.”
Lin is now halfway through editing the July 22, 2016 tentpole, which filmed this summer in Canada, Dubai, and South Korea and will be released in 3D. “They were always coming to me even on the Fast movies saying, ‘Can you do 3D?’ and I felt like you’re just trying to milk people for more money. So I resisted,” he said. “In this case, especially with space and depth, you get a different experience with 3D.”
Scrambling to complete a VFX-heavy blockbuster on what he calls an “insane” schedule is exhausting enough. Going boldly where one of science fiction’s longest running and most popular properties has never gone was its own challenge. But Star Trek Beyond, set two and a half years after the events of Into Darkness, promises to preserve the spirit and characters of what series producer Abrams built—note the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” nod in the teaser, written into a scene between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Scotty (Simon Pegg, who also co-scripted)—while allowing the crew of the Enterprise to breathe and evolve.
“I had to really look within myself and say, this is an opportunity—what would that be? [The Trek franchise is] 50 years,” he said. “It was around before I was born. So at its core I felt that on this chapter if we could deconstruct Trek and then reaffirm why it’s great, maybe send it off and it’ll have a long run after this, that to me in a more cerebral sense was the mission on this one.”
One of Lin and writers Pegg and Doug Jung’s ballsiest moves might be the most shocking to Trek fans: The destruction of the Enterprise. “The Enterprise being taken down is a big piece of the film,” Lin said, referring to it frequently as Star Trek Beyond’s “inciting incident.”
One of Star Trek’s most enduring strengths as a franchise has always been its ability and willingness to reflect the social and political realities of its time through a sci-fi lens. While Star Trek Beyond was scripted well before the spate of tragic mass shootings and attacks we’ve seen committed in America and elsewhere this year, Lin acknowledges the real world parallels represented in the takedown of Trek’s symbolic starship.
“I grew up [when] Star Trek had a very 1960s sensibility of whoever has a bigger ship usually wins,” Lin said. “If you look at the attack, these ships are 40 feet long—but there are 4,000 of them. I think even in the way they’re being encountered and how people are coming… we live in a world that’s ever evolving, and I think that that’s always made Star Trek and sci-fi great, when you’re able to acknowledge what’s happening today… Even in the way we are as a country, and the way people engage in conflict. That’s something that I felt in this Star Trek, you see it’s different.”
The attack on the Enterprise brings Kirk face to face with Beyond’s new villain Krall—played by Idris Elba, under four hours’ worth of makeup. “This is where it begins… this is where the frontier pushes back,” Elba snarls in the teaser, which reveals a look at his character and shows him tossing Kirk around like a rag doll.
Theirs isn’t just a personal beef but a philosophical conflict with implications for the Federation and its foes, said Lin. “I felt like the recipe was to do the two things that I love about Trek: To push it further, introduce new species and hopefully new adventures, but at the same time the core thing I love about Trek is it’s about the characters, and about reexamining humanity and the Federation.”
Kirk meets new enemy Krall and new ally Jaylah, played by Kingsmen’s Sofia Boutella, as he and his crew are in the middle of a five-year tour spreading the gospel of the Federation. “[Krall] is a character who has a distinct philosophy that’s very different. A lot of times you see Utopia, San Francisco, and you’re like, they don’t have money—how do they live? How do they compete? Those are things that his character has a distinct and very valid point of view of.”
“What would happen if you went on a five-year journey and you were trying to not only explore but maybe introduce other people to this way of thinking? What would that mean? What are the consequences to that?” Lin said. “Spreading philosophy you believe in that you think is great, are there going to be any other points of view that are going to counter you?”
“It’s easy to preach what the Federation’s about and how you’re supposed to act,” he said. “But what happens when that gets stripped away? Who are you?”
Paramount went on a helmer hunt when Abrams decamped to Disney to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Abrams, who stayed on to produce Trek for his Bad Robot shingle, called one of the only other directors in Hollywood with a proven track record in four-quadrant mega-franchise filmmaking.
Lin had transformed Universal’s flagging Fast & Furious series when he helmed its game-changing third installment Tokyo Drift and spearheaded its evolution into a global box office titan. He was deep into his LA Riots passion project when Abrams rang. But he was also a lifelong Trek fan who grew up watching The Original Series with his father, and it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I didn’t plan on doing a Star Trek movie. There was a big price to pay for me personally, I was ready to go do my LA Riots movie and for me to walk away from that was a really big deal,” he said. “I didn’t even realize how emotional it was until the first day, it was in preproduction, I walked into the hallway of the Enterprise and it just kind of hit me. It’s been a big part of me. From age 8 to 18, I watched Trek at 11pm on Channel 13 with my dad. He worked all day, closed shop at 9, we had dinner at 10 and watched Trek. And so a lot of that is trying to hopefully create something that embraces the essence of Trek for me.”