Every good Star Trek movie asks one or more philosophical questions. These questions are the heart of what separates Star Trek with other franchises, and ultimately, the quality of the questions and the film’s engagement with them is what determines the legacy of the movie. It’s why Wrath of Khan, which is about mortality, age,& no-win scenarios, is the best of the Trek movies, and Undiscovered Country, grappling again with age, entrenched attitudes, and the end of the Cold War, is likewise fertile ground.
This is the first of the new Trek movies to embrace philosophy. The reboot had a little, but it was incoherent. Into Darkness pretended to ask questions about the modern security state, but cared more for action sequences than answers – it didn’t meaningfully engage. Star Trek Beyond, while it’s not Wrath of Khan or Undiscovered Country, has one question for every character who gets an arc – that is, Kirk, Spock, Jayla, & Krall. Kirk’s question is “If I’ve lived up to my father’s dreams, who should I be now?” and that IF is a big one, making him uncertain throughout the first act. Spock’s is “Is this the best course for my life and the good of my people?” which is really just Kirk’s question asked from the position of the superego, not the ego, as befits the Spock-Kirk partnership (and if the new movies have an ongoing structural weakness, it’s that they make Kirk too much the Id of the trio, leaving McCoy inadequately to pluck at Ego, and Spock too distant and disconnected because he has to counterbalance the other two all on his own)
Jayla’s question is the more urgent “Can I find a better home?” or perhaps “How can I get to a better home?” an aspirational question we all immediately relate to, which is part of why we like her so much. I hope she sticks around next movie. And Krall’s question is “Is growth in peace a betrayal of the suffering of war?” and what makes him a villain, you see, is that he is not asking himself that question, but insisting on an answer. Every moment we spend during the climax of the third act seeing humanity in his eyes is us seeing his wary acknowledgment that he does not have the answer, and his tragedy, his loss, is that he is unable to let go of the answer and return to a state of uncertainty. (I learned this stuff about the question and the answer, phrased a little differently, at 4th Street).
And what makes the movie gel is that all four of those questions hover around, at the center, one other question. “Is the Federation the greater good we want it to be?” For Kirk, Spock, and Jayla, the answer is yes, and the affirmation of purpose is what gives them the resolve they need to continue to work together, to be a crew, a family, a bundle of sticks that cannot be broken. Krall believes the answer to be no, and his refusal to honestly engage with the question dooms him, as the symbolic unity represented by his swarm of ships, following his singular, violent vision proves less potent than the unity of spirit found and indeed created by Jayla, Scott, Kirk, & Spock (with a little help from their friends. And the Beastie Boys.)
To the audience, of course, the question is not the purpose or good of the Federation, but we are given a question of our own to join with the whole. “Is Star Trek the good we want in our lives?” And to the extent that this movie was philosophically superior to the other two reboot films, readers, I say thee YES.
I would love it if you would engage with the philosophical questions discussed here in the comments below, and fulfill therefore the dreams of the franchise.