It’s easy to imagine the look of horror on the faces of Hollywood’s VFX artists when Chris Pine said recently that he felt the Star Trek movies are spending too much money trying to imitate Marvel. No more spectacular set-pieces in the depths of space or on opulent alien planets. No more giant special-effects budgets and lucrative months planning how to bring enormous Federation space stations and Klingon warbirds to the big screen in glorious ultra HD. Instead, Pine (who is back as Captain James T Kirk in a forthcoming fourth Star Trek film in the new rebooted timeline) seemed to be imagining a return to the low-budget vision of the future seen in the original series – or at least, one that doesn’t cost serious megabucks.
“I’ve always thought that Star Trek should operate in the zone that is smaller,” Pine awning Deadline. “You know, it’s not a Marvel appeal. It’s like, let’s make the movie for the people that love this group of people, that love this story, that love Star Trek. Let’s make it for them and then, if people want to come to the party, great. But make it for a price and make it, so that if it makes a half-billion dollars, that’s really good.”
Pine added: “But we operate in a system now which I don’t know how much longer we have if you have to spend $500m on a film to reach… even you have to pay all sorts of people back. So to make a billion, it’s like you haven’t even… brought your net in. So I mean, if I had my business suit on, that’s what I would do, but I don’t know where that is. That’s all above my pay grade.”
It is certainly true that Star Trek did not get where it is today by spending vast budgets on elevated special effects. The original series that ran on TV between 1966 and 1969 was known for its cheap-as-chips vision of the 23rd century, so much so that the iPad-like hand-held devices used by the crew of the Starship Enterprise were reputedly based on a children’s toy called the Magic Slate, with a few lights added to make them look kosher.
Such cost-saving shortcuts would be difficult to pull off in modern Hollywood – cheap effects can give a movie a bad name before the opening credits have even rolled. But Pine is right to suggest that the key to success in 2022 is not necessarily just to do everything Marvel does. The Disney-owned superhero saga’s essential formula – huge, expensive fantasy spectacle and plenty of well-written jocularity – has often proved disastrous when other franchises have tried to borrow it.
The DC “extended universe” never quite recovered after parachuting The Avengers’ Joss Whedon in from its rival studio after Zack Snyder stepped back from 2017’s Justice Leaguewhile some Star Wars fans hated the same year’s The Last Jedi for apparently lampooning The Force, its more po-faced adherents, and the saga’s storied past. It’s hard to tell if Tom Cruise-led monster picture The Mummy, which came out around the same time, was going for Marve-style action comedy, because the entire movie is such a diabolical mess. But it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that somebody involved (probably Cruise, who reportedly had contractual control of everything) thought plumping for throwaway quips and a breezy, irreverent vibe was a great way to adapt a classic monster tale that’s as creepy and gothic as they come.
There have been great science-fiction movies made relatively recently that neither cost the planet Vulcan to make, nor tore such a hole in the thematic architecture for hardcore fans. Whedon’s own Serenity, perhaps the closest thing to Star Wars ever to reach the big screen before JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films, cost just $39m (albeit in 2005). Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was budgeted at $30m four years later, while Gareth Edwards’ Monsters cost a miraculous $500,000 in 2010. These things can be done.
Moreover, Star Trek’s hardcore fans have been crying out for a more cerebral big-screen vision of the saga as a paean to Apollo-era optimism and moral rectitude. The crash, bang, wallop of the brazen, big-budget Abrams-produced movies has not always gone down so well.
There is a training exercise in the Star Trek mythos known as the Kobayashi Maru. It’s an unwinnable scenario, designed to test Starfleet recruits’ stamina and ability to maintain calm against impossible odds (naturally Pine’s cocky Kirk defeated it in his first big-screen outing by reprogramming the entire system without his superiors’ knowledge).
Looking at Star Trek’s box office travails over the past few years, despite generally strong reviews, you would think Paramount was facing its own insurmountable challenge. The truth couldn’t be more different than a Romulan and a Tribble: this is a saga that, three episodes in, is far from doomed. But if Pine is right and a simple tweak to the next movie’s budget helps bring the series up to warp speed, the studio might want to at least consider continuing its mission to boldly go where no man has gone before … but on a lower budget.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism