Spoiler Alert! This post doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but it does explore some new twists seen in “Star Trek Beyond.” Stop reading now if you want it to be completely surprised.
The latest big-screen saga about the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, “Star Trek Beyond,” pays tribute to all the Trek technologies we’ve come to know and love over the past 50 years. In fact, the crew members go old-style when it comes to the communicators they use to stay in touch, the transporters that beam people back and forth, and the tricorder that Bones uses to check Spock’s medical condition.
One slight upgrade is that the tablets they use on the bridge look more like an iPad Air and less like an Etch-a-Sketch.
There are a few new twists to the science and technology on view in “Star Trek Beyond,” blending the totally fictional with the somewhat factual. To find out how the movie universe resonates with the real world, read on. But if you’re super-spoiler-phobic, stop right now and wait until you’ve seen the movie.
Cloaking devices: The technology that can render entire starships invisible goes way back to the Romulans in the original “Star Trek” series. In the real world, engineers are creating types of cloaking devices (a.k.a. invisibility shields) that use metamaterials to route electromagnetic waves and even sound around hidden objects. A Seattle-area company, Kymeta, is using metamaterials for more down-to-earth applications in flat-panel antennas. “Star Trek Beyond” takes the concept in a different direction, however: Captain Kirk describes the cloaking technology as a type of “holographic camouflage” that can also create illusions. That sounds more like the projection-based invisibility cloaks that military researchers are developing.
Swarm weapons: Almost every trailer for “Star Trek Beyond” shows the Enterprise being attacked by a hail of tiny spacecraft, like a swarm of killer bees. CinemaBlend reports that the swarm ships were something that director Justin Lin had been thinking about for a long time. In the real world, military planners are also thinking about creating swarms of low-cost battle robots that could overwhelm an enemy’s defenses. In February, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Pentagon was working on fleets of 3-D-printed micro-drones. “They can fly through heavy winds and be kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9 … or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert,” AFP quoted Carter as saying. One worry: Terrorists may be working on drone swarms as well.
A rocky nebula? The Enterprise has to negotiate an obstacle course of crashing rocks as it passes through what’s called a nebula in “Star Trek Beyond.” In the real world, however, the clouds of gas and dust that make up a nebula are so thin that a starship would have no place to hide – and nothing to dodge except for protostars.
Artificial gravity: Because “Star Trek” is fiction, scriptwriters haven’t had to spend much effort explaining how the crew of the Enterprise experiences Earth-type gravity in outer space. If necessary, they merely refer to the discovery of the synthetic grav field, which is somehow related to the warp field. Gravitational fields go off and on in “Star Trek Beyond,” creating perils that Kirk and his pals have to overcome. In the real world, the likeliest way to create the sensation of gravity in space is to create spaceships that rotate around a central point, like the space station in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” So far, NASA hasn’t followed through.
Space habitats: The big urban center in “Star Trek Beyond” is a place called Starbase Yorktown. It’s somewhat like Deep Space Nine, which was the locale for the “Star Trek” show of the same name. Unlike Deep Space Nine, the thoroughfares of Starbase Yorktown stick out in all directions like an M.C. Escher print, which would not provide a good gravitational environment for a real-world space habitat. (Thank goodness for that synthetic grav field!) Starbase Yorktown is enclosed in a semitransparent sphere to provide a shirtsleeve environment for its residents. That leads Dr. McCoy to sniff that the thing looks like a giant snow globe. For more about the starbase, check out IGN’s report. The look blends design concepts ranging from the Dyson sphere to the biospheres that Amazon is building in downtown Seattle.
Bezos alien watch: And speaking of Amazon … the company’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, makes a credited appearance in “Star Trek Beyond.” I nearly missed seeing him: I think Bezos was the alien Starfleet officer who spent a moment beside a female alien named Kalara (played by Lydia Wilson) while she’s asking for help from the Enterprise, about 15 minutes into the film. If I’m wrong, set me straight.
— Justin Lin (@justinlin) July 20, 2016