IIt’s easy to imagine the horrified expressions on the faces of Hollywood’s VFX artists as Chris Pine recently said he felt the Star Trek films are overspending trying to emulate Marvel. No more spectacular set pieces in the depths of space or on opulent alien planets. No more massive special effects budgets and lucrative months of planning as you bring massive Federation space stations and Klingon warbirds to the big screen in glorious Ultra HD. Instead, Pine (returning as Captain James T. Kirk in an upcoming fourth Star Trek film in the rebooted timeline) envisions 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 a smaller zone,” Pine told Deadline. “You know, it’s not Marvel appeal. It’s like, let’s make the movie for the people who love this group of people, who love this story, who love Star Trek. Let’s do it for them and then when people want to come to the party, great. But do it at a price and do it in a way that’s really good if it fetches half a billion dollars.
Pine added, “But we’re operating in a system now that I don’t know how long we’ve got if you have to spend $500 million on a movie to get there… even if you have to pay back all sorts of people.” So to make a billion, it’s like you didn’t even bring in your net. I mean, if I were wearing my business suit I would, but I don’t know where that is. This is all above my pay grade.”
It’s certainly true that Star Trek didn’t get where it is today by spending huge budgets on upscale special effects. The original series, which ran on television between 1966 and 1969, was known for its cheap vision of the 23rd century, so much so that the iPad-like handheld devices used by the crew of the Starship Enterprise were reportedly based on a child’s toy called Magic Slate, with a few extra lights to make them look kosher.
Such cost-saving shortcuts would be difficult to pull off in modern Hollywood – cheap effects can give a film a bad name before the opening credits have even played. But Pine is right to point out that the key to success in 2022 isn’t necessarily simply doing everything Marvel does. The basic formula of Disney’s very own superhero saga – a huge, expensive fantasy extravaganza and a slew of well-written jokes – has often proved disastrous when other franchises have tried to borrow it.
DC’s “expanded universe” never quite recovered, having parachuted out The Avengers’ Joss Whedon from its rival studio after Zack Snyder retired from Justice League in 2017, while some Star Wars fans cast The Last Jedi out same year for apparently mocking The Force. its rather butt-faced followers and the storied past of the saga. It’s hard to tell if the Tom Cruise-led monster film The Mummy, which came out around the same time, wanted a Marve-style action comedy because the entire film is such a devilish mess. But it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that someone involved with it (likely Cruise, who was said to have contractual control over everything) thought it would be a great way to adapt a classic monster tale that’s so spooky and gothic , accepting throwaway jokes and a breezy, irreverent atmosphere as they come.
Great sci-fi films have been made relatively recently, the creation of which neither took the planet Vulcan, nor made such a hole in the thematic architecture for hardcore fans. Whedon’s own Serenity, perhaps the closest thing to Star Wars ever to hit the big screen before JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films, only cost $39 million (albeit in 2005). Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was budgeted at $30 million four years later, while Gareth Edwards’ Monsters cost a wondrous $500,000 in 2010. These things can be done.
Additionally, hardcore Star Trek fans have been clamoring for a more cerebral, big-screen vision of the saga in praise of the optimism and moral uprightness of the Apollo era. The bang, bang, bang of the brash, big-budget Abrams films didn’t always go over well.
There is a training exercise in the Star Trek mythos known as the Kobayashi Maru. It’s an unwinnable scenario designed to test the stamina and ability of Starfleet recruits to remain calm against impossible odds (of course, Pine’s cocky Kirk defeated it on his first big-screen mission, by reprogramming the entire system unbeknownst to his superiors ).
Given Star Trek’s box office woes in recent years, despite generally strong reviews, one might think that Paramount faces an insurmountable challenge of its own. The truth couldn’t be more different than a Romulan and a Tribble: this is a saga that is far from doomed after three episodes. But if Pine is right, and a simple adjustment to the next film’s budget helps propel the series up to warp speed, perhaps the studio should at least consider continuing its mission of boldly going where no man has gone before was… but on a smaller budget.