Why Star Trek 4 Still Hasn’t Happened

It’s been six years since the last Star Trek movie. Why hasn’t it gotten out of space dock yet?

Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek
Photo: Paramount

Paramount Pictures has officially pulled Star Trek 4 (working title) from its release schedule, to the shock of probably not a single person in Hollywood or Trek fandom.

No official reason has been given for the film’s removal from its December 22, 2023 berth (per The Hollywood Reporter), but the writing was almost certainly on the wall when director Matt Shakman – who joined the project in July 2021 – departed last month to take the reins of Marvel Studios’ highly-anticipated Fantastic Four reboot.

The news leaves the fate of the big screen version of Trek, along with its cast, in limbo – not surprising, considering that the current theatrical cast didn’t even seem to know as late as this past summer that the movie was moving forward. Chris Pine was promoting his upcoming movie Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves at San Diego Comic-Con 2022 when Deadline asked him what was happening with a fourth Star Trek movie starring him as Captain Kirk.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I haven’t heard anything about it other than the news.” Pressed about whether he’d even be interested in a fourth voyage aboard the Enterprise, Pine added, “Yeah, of course, I am. If it happens, I think all of us would come back.”

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The “news” that Pine was referring to, of course, was the surprise announcement by Paramount back in February 2022 that Star Trek 4, set in the Kelvin timeline with that cast, was indeed on the launchpad for a December 2023 liftoff.

The revelation was a surprise especially to the cast of the previous three films, including Pine, Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), and John Cho (Sulu), who apparently had not been informed of this development nor made offers to appear at the time. All that is moot now, at least for the immediate future.

Fortunately, there is perhaps more Star Trek available now for fans than at any time previously in the franchise’s 56-year history. There are no less than five TV series currently streaming via Paramount+, with more potentially in development. Not all have met with the same degree of acclaim or success, but no one can argue that the Trek universe isn’t thriving on whatever smaller screen you watch it on.

However, another bite of the theatrical apple – the first since 2016’s largely misconceived, mismarketed (but not that bad) Star Trek Beyond pretty much flopped at the box office – remains elusive for the property and the parent studio. It’s not like they haven’t tried, though: a fourth picture starring the Kelvin cast was literally announced at the press junket for Beyond. But now that Star Trek 4 doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, here’s a, pardon the expression, timeline of the movie’s long, frustrating, and now unresolved journey.

The Return of Chris Hemsworth

This writer was at the press junket for Star Trek Beyond in 2016 when publicists for Paramount literally handed out a press release stating that a fourth film, featuring the return of Chris Hemsworth as Captain Kirk’s father (who, played by a then-unknown Hemsworth, died in the prologue of 2009’s Star Trek), was already in development with J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay penning the script.

Producer J.J. Abrams said at the time that all of the original cast would return with the tragic exception of Anton Yelchin (Chekov), who had passed away earlier that year. No director was announced and it wasn’t clear if Star Trek Beyond helmer Justin Lin would be offered the chair.

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Little more was heard about this initial iteration of the project, until a report akin to the detonation of the Genesis device arrived in late 2017.

The Quentin Tarantino Factor

It was in December 2017 that the news broke about Quentin Tarantino pitching his own idea for a Star Trek film to the bigwigs at Paramount – an association that, of course, proved impossible for the studio heads to resist, especially with Tarantino hinting that he would direct it.

Tarantino and Abrams assembled a writers’ room and recruited various scribes to pitch ways to flesh out Tarantino’s concept – which, as it later turned out, sounded like a loose remake of the original series episode “A Piece of the Action,” in which the crew of the Enterprise encounters a civilization based on the Chicago crime mobs of the 1920s.

Mark L. Smith was chosen to write the script, but confusion about the project reigned from the start. Would it be R-rated, like all of Tarantino’s films? Would it feature the Kelvin cast or a whole new slate of actors?  To make things even more chaotic, a different Star Trek film – this one more a direct sequel to Beyond – was also still in the works (more on that in a minute).

In the end, all the excitement about one of the most iconic modern directors in the world getting behind the camera for Star Trek eventually dribbled away, with Tarantino stating in late 2019 (via Deadline) that he was “steering away” from the project. Meanwhile…

S.J. Clarkson Makes Trek History for a Minute

While the Tarantino Star Trek was still in development, Paramount was indeed apparently moving forward with a different Trek film that would be a more direct follow-up to Star Trek Beyond, with the screenwriters announced back in 2016 – Payne and McKay – still in the mix.

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Most exciting, however, was the news in April 2018 that the studio had chosen S.J. Clarkson to helm the feature, making her the first woman to direct a Star Trek theatrical film. Clarkson’s resume mostly included high-profile TV shows like Jessica Jones, The Defenders, Dexter, and Orange Is the New Black. The story was still supposedly centered around a time travel scenario in which James Kirk meets his dad face to face, and there were rumors of other script ideas being floated as well.

All this activity came crashing to a halt in August of that year, when it was revealed that the Chrises Pine and Hemsworth were both dropping out of the film over salary disputes. Paramount allegedly asked them to take a pay cut due to the underperformance of Star Trek Beyond. Pine wasn’t having it, while Thor reportedly just laughed, picked up Stormbreaker, and Bifrosted his way out of the negotiations.

Thus the idea of a Trek movie directed by a woman still remains just an idea, as the project more or less collapsed after that and Clarkson quietly departed. Reports in January 2019 even indicated that Trek as a theatrical entity may have been shelved permanently.

Enter and Exit Noah Hawley

Things stayed quiet on the Star Trek theatrical front for most of 2019, until it was revealed that November that Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley had been tapped by Paramount to write and direct a new Trek feature.

Although it was initially reported that Hawley’s take would retain the Kelvin cast (though not the Kirk-meets-dad time travel premise), the showrunner, director, and novelist later suggested that his pitch might take the franchise in a new direction with an entirely new set of characters.

While that idea may have raised red flags among diehard fans, Hawley did seem to indicate that he wanted to turn away from the heavily action-oriented tone of the three Kelvin cast films and get back to some core Trek principles.

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“It’s a story about exploration. It’s a story about creative problem solving,” Hawley said in an interview with The Observer. “[The Chris Pine movies are] much more action movies and what I wanted to get back to was this idea of humanity justifying its existence in the universe by showing its best qualities.”

By the time Hawley had made these comments, however – in September 2020 – his Trek had already been put on hold, reportedly because new Paramount Pictures chief Emma Watts had just started in the job and wanted to personally reassess all the studio’s projects. The other alleged reason, however, was that Hawley’s story dealt with a virus that wipes out half the population of the universe, something that the studio felt COVID-freaked audiences would not want to be subjected to.

Matt Shakman Brings New Vision to Star Trek

While a couple of other random Trek ideas floated to the top of the news cycle – including pitches for new films from The Wrath of Khan producer Robert Sallin, Khan director Nicholas Meyer, and Star Trek: Discovery writer Kalinda Vasquez – the next big phase of Star Trek 4’s torturous development process was launched in July 2021, as Deadline broke the news that Matt Shakman, fresh off the success of Marvel’s WandaVision series, was the new director.

A fresh script by Lindsey Beer (the upcoming Pet Sematary prequel) and Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Captain Marvel) was also commissioned, making it the first Trek film to at least be written by women, if not directed as envisioned just a few years earlier.

A June 2023 release date was set, although that was moved to December of that year, while it remained unclear at the time whether Pine, Quinto, and the rest of the Kelvin cast was going to come back. In November 2021, a new set of screenwriters came aboard, with Josh Friedman and Cameron Squires handling a rewrite of the Beer/Robertson-Dworet screenplay.

That was where things stood until Paramount’s announcement last February, with the studio’s current regime apparently willing to open up its checkbook and meet not just Pine’s price but that of the rest of the cast as well (Quinto, Urban, Cho, and especially Saldana – with two other franchises on her resume, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avatar – are all much bigger stars now).

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Will Star Trek 4 ever become a reality? It seems less and less likely every day. But if it does eventually happen, we would like to see it move away from the revenge-driven, action-oriented stories of the previous three movies, and get back to the ideas, philosophies, and wonder of “boldly going where no one has gone before” that has inexplicably eluded this franchise for years.

Chris Pine said it best in a recent interview with Deadline, when he suggested that Star Trek should stop trying to reach for global domination and Marvel-like box office and focus on what makes the franchise work and made it an enduring part of pop culture.

“I’ve always thought that Star Trek should operate in the zone that is smaller,” he explained. “You know, it’s not a Marvel appeal. It’s like, let’s make the movie for the people that love this group of people, that love this story, that love Star Trek. Let’s make it for them and then, if people want to come to the party, great. But make it for a price and make it, so that if it makes a half-billion dollars, that’s really good.”