To Boldly F*cking Go: Star Trek Fans Doomed Obsession with a Tarantino Dream
After a disappointing third installment of the rebooted classic franchise, the studio’s vision has stalled out. Now legions of Star Trek faithful are putting their hopes in an iconic director known for influencing pop culture with his grindhouse style filmmaking. And that just might be the worst idea in Hollywood history.
Although it is one of the most recognizable and lucrative brands in the world of science fiction, Star Trek is a film franchise that is currently lost in space. Ever since 2016’s Star Trek Beyond under performed at the box office ($158M domestic total against a $185M production budget), the studio has refused to commit to making another feature film.
And yet one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation, Quentin Tarantino, has repeatedly stated his desire to captain the franchise on its next adventure.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Tarantino made it clear his vision for a Star Trek adaptation would be edgy and unlike anything audiences have seen before:
“I have never read a science fiction movie that has this shit in it, ever. There’s no science fiction movie that has this in it. And they said, I know, that’s why we want to make it. It’s, at the very least, unique in that regard.”
The script for this proposed project was written by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) and the “they” Tarantino refers to are studio execs at Paramount. He also told the VF the script “has some things I need to work but I really, really like it.”
In other words, he’s excited enough to talk about the project with the press but the script still needs his input. Tarantino writes his own films and is technically a more prolific writer than director (29 writing credits versus 9 feature films per IMDB).
Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s a fact that Tarantino has his own unique writing style, especially when it comes to dialogue. No one writes dialogue like Tarantino (although many have tried to emulate his signature style).
So now picture if you will the next Star Trek movie being told as a collection of seemingly unconnected narratives (episodes) that eventually intertwine in a climax of gory violence. Along the way, we can expect our heroes and villains to talk like we’ve never heard before with an uncanny knack for using the F-word as both precious adjective and profound noun.
Yeah, that’s boldly going for sure.
The Real Big Question
While there has been plenty written about Tarantino’s interest in making the next Star Trek film, there has been much less written about the bigger question: why?
As in, why do we need a Tarantino directed Star Trek film?
I’m sure some readers are saying to themselves right now, “hey why do we ever need certain films?” and yeah that’s a valid point. The vast majority of films are pure popcorn fare that adds little of any real social value to society. And that’s just fine. In its purest forms, cinema has always been about escapism.
But why does such a valuable property and storied film and television franchise need Quentin Tarantino?
Once we get over the juvenile obsession with hearing Captain Kirk utter an F-bomb or seeing Spock carrying on for ten minutes with poetic verbose about the trials being both Vulcan and Human, what have we really got?
How is a Tarantino Star Trek film anything more than a cheap gimmick?
Isn’t it just another incarnation of the caged freak behind the curtain that otherwise good people can’t help but gawk at to satisfy a ferocious curiosity? It’s the kind of thing that you’ll go see because you can’t help but wonder what it’ll be like, only to feel like you need to take a three-hour cold shower afterwards?
This is the predictable outcome that Star Trek fans everywhere seem to be unwittingly asking for.
From J.J. to Mayday
It’s hard to understand how Paramount and the global tribe of Star Trek fans reached this point. It was not long ago that the franchise seemed to have a rebirth of Biblical proportions thanks to the master of the “mystery box.”
In 2007, J.J. Abrams was brought on board to direct a reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Working with Robert Orci (Transformers) and Alex Kurtzman (The Mummy) on the story and script, Abrams’ film found a way to reboot the franchise while honoring the past films.
This was a critical step for Star Trek more so than any other franchise that a studio has rebooted. The original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise continue to be among the most recognized and beloved characters in science fiction lore. So simply recast younger versions and start over would be the type of ham-fisted approach that would alienate the most loyal of fans.
Instead Abrams worked like a skilled surgeon to craft a story that included the original Spock (the late, great Leonard Nimoy) and created an alternate timeline (so that major events won’t be a forgone conclusion — i.e. even the core characters could die).
The end result simply titled Star Trek launched to theaters worldwide on May 8, 2009 and remains one of the single best examples of how to properly restart an over-the-hill film franchise. The film made over $400M at the worldwide box office and set a new IMAX record for opening weekend.
Four years later the second of the newly reboot film franchise was released: Star Trek Into Darkness. This time the critics were mixed on the film, but audiences remained enthusiastic about the new crew and Abrams’ vision. The film pulled in $467M at the global box office (source: Box Office MoJo).
The third film, Star Trek Beyond, arrived in theaters in the summer of 2016. This time Abrams (who was now contracted to continue the rival Star Wars saga) stepped aside from the director’s chair and was replaced by Justin Lin (Fast and the Furious 6).
Also stepping away were Kurtzman and Orci as actor Simon Pegg (Mission Impossible franchise) and Doug Jung (The Cloverfield Paradox) took over as the film’s main scribes. Kurtzman and Orci both filled their plates with several high profile television projects including Sleepy Hallow (Fox), Hawaii-Five-O (CBS) and Scorpion (CBS).
Whether it was the change in director, writers, franchise fatigue or just a misfire, Star Trek Beyond failed to meet box office expectations. While the film did make $343M at the global box office, it was the lowest performing of the new trilogy by far. Moreover, the domestic box office returns of $158M fell far short of recouping the film’s bloated production budget of $185M (source: Box Office MoJo).
It was likely this factor more than any other that caused studio execs at Paramount to put on the brakes. Complicating matters was CBS (who retains key rights to the property) launching its own streaming service and leveraging a new Star Trek series (Discovery) as its first signature series.
Star Trek Discovery has been largely received with applause from fans and that success is inadvertently complicating the matter of continuing the film franchise. Not to mention, the success of Discovery and the announcement of the upcoming new series Picard, takes some of the pressure off the studios to make another film as fans keep the pallets moist on the small screen.
No one is seriously doubting that there will be another Star Trek film … the franchise is too valuable and has too strong of following not to make more movies … but the exact direction forward is cloudier now more than ever.
I’m Giving It All I Got, Captain!
Although it was Justin Lin who replaced J.J. Abrams for the most recent Star Trek film, it was actually Simon Pegg who stepped up in attempt to fill the creative void. Pegg gets a writing credit for his work on the story and screen play of Star Trek Beyond. But based on numerous reports, Pegg was heavily involved in both pre-production and behind-the-scenes during filming to interject his creative thoughts.
Although the film was a financial disappointment, no one is openly blaming Pegg. Few writers or directors can match the magic that Abrams brings to nearly every project he is associated with. And more critics and fans agree that Star Trek Beyond was faithful to the history and spirit of the storied franchise.
So naturally Pegg was recently asked about the possibility of Tarantino helming the next film:
“Everyone sort of assumes it’s gonna be like Pulp Fiction in space, but I think his devotion to Trek and his understanding of it… It won’t be ordinary, it’ll have him all over it, but it won’t be anything a Star Trek fan will have to worry about.”
— Simon Pegg speaking to Coming Soon in May 2019
Pegg went on to clarify that he was not writing the next Star Trek film regardless of Tarantino’s rumored involvement.
While Pegg’s comments don’t seem on the surface to be insulting or disparaging, the often volatile Tarantino took exception to them.
I get annoyed at Simon Pegg. He doesn’t know anything about what’s going on and he keeps making all these comments as if he knows about stuff. One of the comments he said, he’s like “Well, look, it’s not going to be Pulp Fiction in space.” Yes, it is! [laughs hard]. If I do it, that’s exactly what it’ll be. It’ll be Pulp Fiction in space. That Pulp Fiction-y aspect, when I read the script, I felt, I have never read a science fiction movie that has this sh*t in it, ever. There’s no science fiction movie that has this in it. And they said, I know, that’s why we want to make it. It’s, at the very least, unique in that regard.
— Quentin Tarantino interview with Deadline, July 17, 2019
Can the summer feud between Pegg and Tarantino be smoothed out before a potential Tarantino Star Trek movie starts filming? Certainly. Will it be smoothed out? That’s yet to be seen. The talented filmmaker often has made as many enemies as friends in the industry and frankly, he seems to like it that way.
Tarantino Doesn’t Solve Star Trek’s Biggest Problem
Many elements of film making has changed in the past twenty years. From special effects to marketing to distribution and so many other elements of the craft. Making a motion picture is different than it used to be. One element that has changed dramatically just in the past several years is the production costs to make major motion pictures.
We now live in an age where a film is made on “the cheap” if it’s made for under $10M. The biggest summer blockbusters routinely have a production budget over $200M (note that Avengers:Endgame cost nearly $400M to make by some reports).
Even a budget conscious director would not be able to make the next Star Trek film without a production purse over $150M and probably closer to $250M. That presents a significant risk for Paramount as production costs continue to rise, domestic box office revenues continue to fall.
There are a whole lot of reasons for this including better home entertainment technology (4K, UHD, etc.) streaming services and more. But the bottom line is this: a major blockbuster film will rarely be profitable if it doesn’t make solid money in the non-US markets.
That’s one of the biggest difference between the rebooted Star Trek films and the newest Star Wars films. Star Wars does considerably better in the foreign markets.
Abrams’ first rebooted Star Trek film took in $127M in the non-US markets. By contrast, his first Star Wars film (The Force Awakens) took $1.1B overseas.
Some might cry foul contending that the hype around the continuation of the story of Luke Skywalker and co. was greater than any other film hype in our lifetime … and maybe that’s right. After all, most of us never thought we’d ever get another Star Wars film with our childhood heroes.
But even the Star Wars film that did NOT include Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, etc. easily outperformed every recent Star Trek film at the overseas box office.
Compare the half a BILLION dollars that Star Wars: Rogue One made overseas with the paltry $184M made by Star Trek Beyond.
Maybe Star Trek will never be financially what Star Wars with the original mythology and characters is … at least not financially.
Any successful future Star Trek film needs perform much more like Rogue One than Beyond if it’s going to be a financial winner.
And this is where Quentin Tarantino is of no help to the franchise.
Indie Film Gold Does Not Equal Big Budget Magic
Setting aside any critique on his work, the numbers on Tarantino’s films don’t lie. From a business (i.e. financial) side of things, he does best when given a budget of $30M or less. Films where he’s been required to keep production costs down (relative to the norms of the industry today) he’s done his best work … at least according to the studio accountants.
Here’s a summary (source: Box Office Mojo):
What the average observer fails to appreciate is that Hollywood studios are not simply looking at total box office return. The more money a film makes at the box office is not usually the most important factor for studio execs.
Instead they focus, as any savvy investor does, or rate of return. That is to say, the studios are looking for a films that make the most money as a multiple of the production budget.
Considering this criteria, Pulp Fiction (1994) which made $213M is far more profitable than Django Unchained (2012) at $425M. The later film made more gross money but only at roughly a 4-to-1 return rate. Conversely, Tarantino’s first big hit returned 26-to-1 because the production budget was a mere $8M.
So what happens if you had Tarantino a $200M+ budget to make an R-rated film in from one of Hollywood’s most marketable sci-fi brands? Even he manages to match his career best box office gross, best case scenario has the studio making 2-to-1 profits.
That might sound reasonable to you, but studios are looking for much better returns on their more marketable films to cover all the losses from numerous films that will bomb each year.
Not only does Tarantino fail to crack the overseas market for Star Trek, he’s not likely to deliver the rate of return the studio would be looking to get from one its most prized possessions.
Momentum (and Madness) Continues to Build
Karl Urban (Amazon’s The Boys) who plays Dr. McCoy in the latest films recently weighed in on the possibility of Tarantino directing the next Star Trek film. Speaking to the HuffPost, Urban made his position clear:
“He is definitely one of the most exciting filmmakers that’s currently working and if he has an interest in making a ‘Star Trek’ film, I think the studio would be insane not to let him do that.”
It certainly seems that no matter how little business sense it makes for Tarantino to be involved with the next Star Trek film, the momentum is building. No longer just the fodder for fan boy message boards and Reddit rumors, Tarantino’s Hollywood fan club seems to be running a skilled (if not orchestrated) campaign to get Paramount to make an offer.
It may turn out to be a case of a major studio giving a large fan base what they say they want … whether it turns out to work or not. The sad truth is that Tarantino is not the savior the Star Trek franchise needs and his cinematic contribution (if it happens) is unlikely to do anything to help build a foundation for future movies.
There is zero chance of Star Trek becoming an R-rated franchise in the vein of Deadpool. Paramount knows it needs a younger (and more internationally diverse) fan base to see the franchise continue. If Trekkies are going to be the best films they can in the years to come, they will have to move boldly into new territory.
Getting there just doesn’t involve that “bad mother f*cker” whose influence pop culture in so many ways over the past twenty five years. Let Quentin continue to be a fan, but keep him out of the captain’s chair.
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