Last week, the Internet combusted when John Cho revealed that Hikaru Sulu would have a husband in Star Trek Beyond. Almost immediately, George Takei announced his opposition to the reconfigured sexuality of the character he originated in 1966: he played the character as straight, and the reversal implies that his Sulu would now read as “closeted.” The creation of an entirely new gay character, Takei suggested, would be a more prudent gesture toward representation and the authenticity of creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision.
Since then, nearly every actor and creative force behind the new movie has come forward with a defense of Sulu’s re-sexuality, insisting they meant nothing but to honor Takei and his leadership in the gay rights movement. Of course, this is a stupid controversy—overblown and overhyped. (One would think a series that spawned the entire, bizarre “slash fiction” industry, where fans write whole books dedicated to the sexual exploits of its two male leads, would have a better grip on its sexuality.) But it’s also a near perfect encapsulation of what makes this new series so different from anything else Hollywood has created. The reimagined Star Trek movies, which began with J.J. Abrams’s 2009 reboot and continued with Star Trek Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond, are an entirely new kind of movie—if they even qualify as movies in the traditional sense. Really, more than anything, these movies are pop reflections of pop culture: wax-museum movies.
Abrams’s Star Trek was released a year after Iron Man; the MCU and its interweaving brand of storytelling was still three years away and reboots were the way of the future. Star Trek, at the time, was almost a dry run for the entire reboot concept.
Two other series provided the template: while Trek had never commanded the same numbers as Batman, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series was proving that seemingly dead properties could still be profitable—Star Trek Nemesis had killed the franchise only three years after Batman & Robin buried its own. But those movies had been ubiquitous since Tim Burton’s Batman introduced and crystallized the kid-friendly, mercenary Hollywood that we know today. Trek, on the other hand, has always been a niche property with a small but dedicated fanbase. It was ripe for experimentation. Meanwhile, the Star Wars series—its success had been the impetus for Trek‘s move from television to the big screen in 1979—was seemingly over in 2009: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, the ostensible final chapter, hit screens only four years prior. On television, Trek emerged during the height of the space race and had been a sincere attempt to engage with the social upheaval of the mid-to-late ‘60s; Star Wars debuted at the height of the Me Decade and looked forward to the rah-rah nostalgia of the Reagan years. After a generation in Star Wars’ splashy and successful shadow, Trek couldn’t too closely resemble the series in tone. Its look—at its most basic—was another story. Abrams’s Star Trek would be a test of the public’s willingness to play with its own memory of aesthetics.
Today, origin stories are exhausted. That’s partially because, in 2009, Star Trek proved that audiences didn’t need any handholding—they “got” it. Like the similarly conceived and constructed X-Men a decade before, the most common complaint was that the movie was too short. The movie underestimated just how familiar audiences would be with these characters and how on-board they’d be for something so simultaneously derivative and fresh. But unlike the X-Men, the line between character and actor was extremely hazy. (Even Leonard Nimoy, who titled his first autobiography I Am Not Spock, eventually acquiesced; his second is named I Am Spock.) The whole enterprise had moved so far from its western-soap-opera-in-space goof that it’d become something universal.
Tellingly, the most popular element of Star Trek ’09 wasn’t its plot—an over-baked, high-concept sci-fi chestnut involving “Red Matter” that jumped through hoops trying to sell its time-travel premise—but its stars. Thanks to Abrams’s almost preternatural ability to cast a role, the movie clicked with audiences like clockwork. These actors didn’t just look like the cast—they looked like the cast was supposed to look, moved and behaved like our idea of them. But better, sexier. Abrams had conjured an entirely new plane of entertainment where popular hipness and fresh familiarity seemed to coexist. It was the reboot in its purest form: this was a movie, hip to its own joke, that let audiences in on the fun too. The whole thing soared. And like a well-constructed TV pilot, it left audiences wanting more.
Typically tone deaf, Hollywood answered with a slew of zombie duds: Terminator Genisys, Total Recall, RoboCop. But the savviest reworking of the Star Trek ’09 formula was The Avengers. Like Trek, it featured a gang of dead-ringer protagonists and coasted on the interplay between them. (The villain was almost an afterthought.) But in both series, the characters aren’t characters in the traditional sense: they’re comic book archetypes distinguished by haircuts, costumes, and affectation more than personality or self—they’re a collection of tics and traits. The characters’ behavior feels expected because they’re vessels for projections and fantasies, and the plots feel rote because they’re required to adhere to a template of self-reference and established beats and places. (For a series about going where no man has gone before, new Trek rarely goes far.)
We expect that kind of thing from a comic book movie—they’re adapted from material that’s the embodiment of adolescent wish fulfillment. But something more interesting is going on with Star Trek. This is an institution that has inspired people to venture into the most inhospitable climate imaginable. A real spaceship is named in its honor. The show has fundamentally penetrated the pop landscape—a straight line can be traced from Fifty Shades of Grey, NASA, and the design of cellular phones to the original series. So, when rebooting the property, Abrams and crew put the whole thing in context: itself. His version is like a “Saturday Night Live” impression on a grand scale and without a punchline. And like “SNL,” audiences don’t need intimate knowledge of whatever’s being parodied; basic familiarity is enough. New Trek works for fans and neophytes because it takes a glancing familiarity as a given, and it looks enough like itself that we fill in the blank spots. It’s a funhouse-meta-fictional take on the pop culture in which it exists. The characters aren’t even archetypes—they’re xeroxes. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban don’t play Kirk, Spock, and Bones: they play William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley playing Kirk, Spock, and Bones.
So if George Takei is gay, does that mean Sulu is gay too? Is this the future Roddenberry had in mind?
Abrams has built a career reassembling nostalgia-tinted pieces of pop ephemera from spare parts. Super 8 was a nakedly canny Spielberg impression and The Force Awakens was a shining example of his hall-of-mirrors riffing. His first directing credit was for Mission: Impossible III, a series known as a mutating showcase of its own directors’ auteurist idiosyncrasies. He’s almost Warhol-ian.
With the misguidedly reviled sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams revealed his scary version of soup-can cinema at its most cold-blooded. That movie ended with a winking rework of the “death of Spock” sequence from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan punctuated by an unsubtle callback to that movie’s most parodied line: William Shatner bellowing the villain’s name to the Heavens. That the line originally came at a different point in that movie didn’t matter—this wasn’t a remake. The whole thing seemed to exist as an easy joke on Trek fans, and if there’s anything Trek fans don’t take well, it’s a joke. But inside that joke, Abrams was playing with expectation and payoff: he seemed to be asking, “What’s the point?” His version of Trek can never eclipse the original—no version can. (Decades’ worth of spin-offs had proved just that.) Instead, here in the low-stakes world of Trek (he’d already been announced as the director of the upcoming Star Wars sequel), Abrams was taking a chance to directly address the viewer and the state of contemporary big-budget moviemaking. He couldn’t kill one of his main characters (the motivation for Spock’s death in the original sequel was Nimoy’s own impatience with the role), nor could he create anything new: these are movies about the past, not the future.
Really, Star Trek has never been about authenticity. (For most, it’s a punchline. Think of John Belushi in a too-tight uniform hurling himself across a stationary set while cameras shake.) It’s always worked best when playing with form: fusing sci-fi, soaps, and westerns or, like Wrath of Khan, launching a World War II submarine movie into space. But these new movies aren’t just playing with formal expectations—they’re playing with contextual expectations too. Most interestingly, that context includes the context in which Star Trek exists: pop culture. So if George Takei is gay, does that mean Sulu is too? In this universe, you bet. These movies are nothing if not themselves.