The Fast and the Trekkiest

Justin Lin might not have been the director fans hoped for, but he could turn the Trek franchise around.

In case you missed it, with JJ Abrams otherwise occupied the director’s chair of the third reboot-universe Star Trek film was set to be directed by producer/co-screenwriter Roberto Orci. This made a lot of fans unhappy and a lot of industry people irritated and/or nervous, as Roberto Orci is… well, he’s Roberto Orci, unfortunately.

Those same people got some unexpected good news recently, though, when Orci abruptly abandoned the job, relegating what was to have been his starmaking directorial debut to the pile of high-profile projects he’s recently walked away from. (Weird, huh? Hm… maybe his blood wasn’t magic enough?)

But fan excitement turned to fan hand-wringing on Monday, when it was revealed that the new director Paramount had selected to put the film together instead was not fan hopefuls like Edgar Wright or Jonathan Frakes… but Justin Lin, director of all but the first two Fast & Furious movies.

And y’know what? I’m okay with this.

I know that I’m not expected to be. I’ve made my disdain for much of the Fast franchise known previously, and also my general dislike of what has happened to these new Star Trek films since they first appeared. Abrams’ inaugural reboot was passable, at best, while Into Darkness was a stumbling disaster. None of that is good pedigree for what might come of a merger.

Plus, it doesn’t send a great signal that Paramount is opting for a filmmaker known mainly for action movies to helm what used to be the Thinking Man’s Space-Adventure Series. It reinforces the idea that, while Paramount is likely aware that they haven’t been releasing especially good Star Trek movies, the only thing that’s really bothering them about it is that the films, while profitable, have failed to rise to the global-blockbuster status of Avengers or Transformers — if you’re going to dumb Star Trek down into a generic action franchise, you probably were expecting Action Franchise Money… and Paramount hasn’t been getting that out of the deal.

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I see all that. I take it into account. It’s not a sure thing. Maybe Lin is a one trick pony and this is the inexorable moment where Paramount just gives up and lets Trek sink down to Michael Bay territory. But I also see other angles, and they make me hopeful — more hopeful, in fact, that I’ve been about Trek in decades.

Let’s not get carried away, though: I think the reboot series has been a bad idea from the inception. Anyone coming aboard is going to be saddled with Abrams’ boring new mythology and a cast headed up by the profoundly uncharismatic Chris Pine and Paramount very likely is looking for an action-heavy installment that can play to a global boxoffice in ways that earlier films in the series simply haven’t managed to. I’m under no illusions that history won’t judge the Trek reboot to have been either a poorly-executed, over-ambitious plan or a new Black Sheep for the overall franchise — something that the next wave of films/shows will likely work hard to dismiss from continuity or “correct” as the writers see fit.

BUT! I still like the idea of Justin Lin taking over this installment. In fact, I’m excited by it.

Firstly, Lin is a legitimately great director. Say what you want (and I have) about some of the Fast movies, but the guy can block and shoot the hell out of a sequence. I’m not just talking about action/chase scenes (though he’s really damn good at those), I’m talking about more general business. He builds solid scenes around rooms full of characters plotting out actions and hashing over details that could play like rote exposition dumps but don’t because of his expert staging and good touch with actors.

Secondly, the fact is, I liked Furious 6 a lot, and in the time since then I’ve re-evaluated my view of the series as a whole. I’m still not a big fan, but I can at least acknowledge that Part 3 basically works and I get what people see in the 4th and 5th installments even if I don’t. Finally, even the ones I don’t like still evidence a sense of camaraderie among its heroes that’s been the #1 thing missing from the Abrams Star Trek films up to this point: Its crew still doesn’t feel like a crew.

Finally… yeah, I’m going to “go there:” Under Lin’s stewardship, the Fast franchise sneakily became among the most forward-looking action franchises on the block. Yes, it’s still fundamentally dumb, but lots of films are dumb — these movies are dumb while also providing the global movie scene with an admirably diverse cast whose diversity is treated like a fact of its universe rather than a magic-trick it expects to be applauded for. In both of Lin’s two most recent episodes in the series, a surrogate family of black, latino, white, asian and biracial heroes save the world and nobody seems to regard this as worthy of comment in the film itself: It’s just the way their world works.

And while that’s maybe a small thing, I think it counts. Lin has taken ownership and left his stamp on the Fast series, and that stamp is a decisive transformation of the franchise from a douchebag-panderfest into a series where a diverse group of people come together as a surrogate family in order to accomplish missions. That sounds an awful lot like Star Trek to me, after a fashion — certainly more in line with Gene Roddenberry’s original vision than anything Abrams and company managed to dream up.

Actually, speaking of “vision,” that’s probably the most encouraging part: For a guy mainly known for making action movies about car crashes, Lin’s outlook as evidended through those films is notably progressive and forward-looking. At its core, the best of Trek has consistently been about a creator’s positive vision of a better future. I want to find out what Justin Lin’s version of a better world (in space) looks like.


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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.