Star Trek Beyond Is a Search for Meaning

Star Trek Beyond poster

The years leading up to Star Trek Beyond’s release were not kind to the rebooted Star Trek Universe (now known officially as the Kelvin Timeline).

Despite critical acclaim and box office success, many fans regarded Star Trek Into Darkness as the worst Star Trek film ever. I still like it because it works as a large summer blockbuster. But like other modern Hollywood tent-poles, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t hold up well to repeated viewings. JJ Abrams admitted, “I found myself frustrated by my choices, and unable to hang my hat on an undeniable thread of the main story…so then I found myself on that movie basically tap-dancing as well as I could to try and make the sequences as entertaining as possible.”

Speaking of JJ, there was a vacuum of leadership on Star Trek Beyond when he left for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Roberto Orci was hired to direct…and then was let go. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were hired as writers while Fast and Furious veteran Justin Lin was brought in to direct.

Despite this exciting writing/directing team, Star Trek Beyond's first trailer was horrible. Paramount’s marketing went on to spoil the film’s big twist. Then there was all that disgusting gatekeeping around Rihanna’s Star Trek Beyond “Sledgehammer” music video. Things weren’t looking good for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary film.

Does Star Trek Beyond work? Yes, as well as the other Kelvin Timeline films have, but not for the reasons you might think. Spoilers ahead.

A Beautiful Celebration of Star Trek’s Optimistic Future

Star Trek Beyond - Starbase Yorktown

There’s a lot to like about the film. Star Trek is an optimistic story about humanity overcoming prejudice, poverty, disease, and uniting in the peaceful exploration of space. Star Trek Beyond feels like it’s built on top of this foundation. Starbase Yorktown is a stunning example of that – a giant optimistic bubble of future technology filled with many alien species working together on the edge of Federation space. It also honors The Original Series and Star Trek: Enterprise with subtle references scattered throughout the film that fans will enjoy but won’t distract mainstream audiences.

The cast continues to be charismatic, entertaining, and validating of the original characters. Zachary Quinto’s Spock brought me to tears when he sees Leonard Nimoy’s Spock's photo of The Original Series cast. It was beautiful to see a gay character in the final frontier and wonderful to have it be Sulu. Both Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Commodore Paris are welcomed additions to the crew and I hope we see them again in future films.    

The film also looks and sounds amazing! I LOOOOOOOVE the interstellar-esque warp effect as well as the GoPro Justin Lin installed on the Enterprise. Michael Giacchino created a score that nicely extends upon the previous two films. While the destruction of the Enterprise was tough to watch, it looked fantastic (thanks to Lin’s childhood dreams).

A Simple Message for Complex Times

Star Trek Beyond bridge crew.

The underlying message of Star Trek Beyond is simple – it’s better to work together than to be divided. Krall literally divides the crew by destroying their ship and scattering survivors across the planet. By uniting under a shared goal, this very diverse group overcomes their challenges.

This is a very Star Trek message, but it isn’t done in a Star Trek way. The franchise has always started dialogue about the complex issues of the day. It uses political allegory to bypass your brain’s political defenses and make you reevaluate your position on polarizing political issues (like The Original Series’ Vietnam War episode, “A Private Little War”).

Sure, Krall could represent the authoritarianism of Donald Trump or the xenophobia behind Brexit, but it doesn’t say much about these things besides “they’re bad”. Krall could have started a real discussion about why the world is becoming so politically polarized and how we can overcome our differences through shared values. Or, he could have become a more compelling story about homegrown terrorism. Instead we get another amazing actor (Idris Elba) buried under layers of makeup playing an underdeveloped villain with simple motivations (like most Marvel Cinematic Universe films).

Finding Meaning in Each Other

Star Trek Beyond Bones and Spock.

While the unity versus division theme isn’t well developed, I love how Star Trek Beyond explores psychological meaning and purpose.

The film begins with Kirk feeling as though life has become “a little episodic”. Both he and Spock are struggling with their decision to enlist in Starfleet and are debating if this path still makes sense for them. As the Enterprise is destroyed, and the characters lose the thing that kept them together, each character has to find themselves, each other, and rediscover what they really care about in life.

Something we’ve discovered from positive psychology is how important meaning is to our long-term happiness. Meaning is about contributing to something that is greater than yourself. Some develop meaning through family, a career, service to a community, belief in a religion, or by advancing a cause. Being connected to a purpose doesn’t always make you feel better, but it does help you endure hardships. Viktor Frankl said it best in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” This is the reason finding renewed purpose in your work is a great way to cope with a job you don't like.

Like Kirk in Star Trek Beyond, at some point we all feel like life has become a constant rerun of the same events. That’s because of habituation/hedonic adaptation – we get used to things that remain the same. Your new job is exciting for a while, but eventually it’ll feel like a boring routine. We also don’t form many new memories when we do the same thing every day, which is why time flies as we get older. Connecting with something that gives our lives purpose, something that will continue when we're gone, that’s what helps us overcome these ruts.

That’s exactly what Kirk and crew do in Star Trek Beyond – each discovers that it’s not the exploration of the final frontier that give their lives purpose, at least not anymore. It’s the journey they're taking together, their friendship, their love for one another, the family they have formed that really matters now.

That's a far better tribute to Star Trek than a simple message about unity versus division.

An Uncertain Future

Star Trek Beyond Enterprise

While Star Trek Beyond was well reviewed, this time by critics and fans, it bombed at the box office. Maybe a big budget Star Trek film can't work against the new Star Wars films. Star Trek has never been good at blowing stuff up, it’s much better at asking big questions about tough issues. If Star Trek 4 goes into production, I hope it returns to making us think about big questions rather than awe at big spectacle. There’s always room for both in science fiction (e.g. Children of Men, Inception, Moon, Looper, Interstellar), but this isn’t something the Kelvin Timeline films have been able to achieve, yet.


For more on Star Trek Beyond, check out my conversation with Josué Cardona at Geek Therapy.

The Psychology of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Could a Stormtrooper Become a Hero?

John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: No big spoilers here, at least nothing beyond what’s shown in the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and what occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film. 

The essential psychology of the Star Wars saga is mindfulness. “Using the force” is all about embracing the present moment. That’s what Yoda taught Luke and it’s something Anakin never picked up from Obi-Wan. 

Mindfulness continues to be a part of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I can’t get into specifics because things would get spoilery, but it’s safe to say the climax of the film is a moment of mindfulness. We also see new characters develop meaning in their lives, just like Han Solo did in the original trilogy. The way The Force Awakens honors the past mythology (and psychology) of Star Wars while also refreshing it for a new generation is a big reason why I’m a fan of the film. 

My favorite thing about The Force Awakens is how it approaches good and evil. Star Wars has always been a fairytale about people being tempted by the dark side. What’s new in this film is seeing people being tempted by the light side. That’s why John Boyega’s Finn is a compelling addition to the Star Wars universe — he’s a stormtrooper who disobeys an order to kill innocent civilians. In doing so, Finn teaches us that we don’t need supernatural powers to become a hero. 

Could this happen in real life — an average person standing up against an evil organization, risking their life, all to help innocent people? Yes, absolutely! Here’s how. 

The First Order and the Psychology of Evil

The First Order in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Before we look at Finn’s heroism, we have to understand why his actions are so heroic. 

The First Order, and the Galactic Empire before it, are basically space Nazis. Like real Nazis, the villains in The Force Awakens use everything we know about social psychology to create an organization that is built on following orders and making it easy to hurt others. 

How does The First Order do this? By manipulating one of the most basic human desires — our need to fit in. In the classic Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience to authority (and a recent follow up), most everyday Americans followed orders even if it meant hurting someone else. Like the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, Americans in this experiment didn’t feel responsible for their actions because they were “just doing what they were told”. The stronger the authority, and the less interaction there is with the victim, the more likely we are to follow commands that harm someone else. The First Order carries out a strong obedience to authority through Captain Phasma, the woman who commands all stormtroopers.  

The First Order combines obedience with conformity and anonymity. This is very dangerous and “greases the slippery slope of evil” according to psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. When we’re in unfamiliar situations, we look to others to see what to do. Again, we want to fit in. If everyone is doing something that’s wrong, it becomes extremely difficult to do what’s right. People are also more likely to kill, torture, or mutilate if they feel anonymous. Stormtrooper armor makes conformity easy and eliminates anything that could identify who's wearing the helmet.  

This is what you need to remember — people aren't born good or evil, everyone is capable of doing good and evil. Situations can pull us in one direction or another. 

Finn and the Psychology of Heroism

Finn and Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is why Finn’s actions are such a big deal — he was “raised to do one thing”, follow the First Order. After a lifetime of obedience, he disobeys Captain Phasma's order to destroy a village of innocent civilians. By putting himself at great risk to save lives, Finn transforms from an ordinary person to an extraordinary hero. 

We’ve never seen a character like this in Star Wars. Sure, Luke has a traditional hero’s journey and Anakin’s story is a tragic fall to the dark side, but we’ve never seen a bad guy turn into a good guy. Finn, more than any other Star Wars character, brings to life the psychology of good and evil. 

What is it about Finn that helps him resist the First Order? We don’t know yet. The Force Awakens doesn’t reveal much about who he is. Similarly, we don’t know too much about the psychology of heroes. A lot of heroes end up dying, which makes them difficult to study. But we do know some basics:  

Each of these elements of heroism fight off the psychology of evil. Acting on impulse gets around worries about fitting in. Being comfortable with conflict makes it easier to stand up to authority. Having imagined what you would do in a dangerous situation reduces bystander apathy and diffusion of responsibility — two of the biggest barriers to helping others. We see some of these qualities in Finn and more will be revealed in Episode VIII and IX

A Hero’s Journey for the Rest of Us

John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hollywood is full of superheroes. But you and I can’t fly or lift objects with our mind. 

That’s why Finn’s story is so important. It shows us that heroism is normal, something any of us can do. Like Joe Darby, the U.S. Army Reservist who exposed the torture occurring at Abu Ghraib despite being embedded in a "First Order" like environment. Or Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who jumped onto subway tracks to save a stranger. Whistleblowers Cynthia Cooper, Sherron Watkins, and Colleen Rowley who exposed fraud and incompetence at WorldCom, Enron, and the FBI. And Satwant Singh Kaleka, a Sikh temple president who died protecting his congregation from a skinhead gunman. 

Can a stormtrooper become a hero? Absolutely! This stormtrooper might even help others become real-life heroes. Preliminary data suggests you can increase heroism by teaching people that situations are powerful, we can grow our ability to resist social pressures, and acting when others are passive can turn you into a hero. With Finn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the potential to help all of us begin our own hero’s journey. 


For some spoiler thoughts on Finn and Rey, check out my reaction to The Force Awakens. I like AV Club's criticisms of the film. Vox has a harsher critique and Mashable's got a nice defense. Nerds of Color also has a breakdown of why Finn is so awesome.