Why ‘Star Trek Beyond’ Should Have Won the Makeup Design Oscar

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures via Youtube. / CC BY 2.0

The Oscars have a history of questionable and prejudiced decisions, and the 89th annual awards show was no different. One of the most puzzling winners of the night was the DC anti hero film, “Suicide Squad,” which took home its own little golden man for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Many were quick to say that “Star Trek Beyond,” the latest installment in the now 50 year-old sci-fi franchise, was a clear winner in the category.

They were right: “Beyond” is the rightful winner in terms of skill and creativity. However, in film, one must look at the purpose and intent of every component. How does it add to the theme or message of the story? Does the makeup enrich the world of the film? When considering intent in both films, the win of “Suicide Squad” becomes an issue of diversity and inclusion.

Notorious for its horrible reviews and cult following, “Suicide Squad” boasted an eclectic gang of characters both familiar and unfamiliar to the average movie-goer. Superhero films have exploded since the first “Iron Man” film in 2008, causing releases of 4 or more comic book films every year. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe has plans until 2020, its rivalling companies are struggling to catch up and cement their place in the movie market.

To distinguish themselves as something new and different, many Fox Studios (creators of the X-Men series) and DC films have taken an approach to be darker and grittier. Thus, they are a separate entity from the more lighthearted Marvel Studio films like “The Avengers.” While there is legitimate criticism that superheroes in film aren’t able to be watched by kids anymore, the new direction has worked: Fox’s “Deadpool” was the highest-grossing R-rated picture ever. While “Suicide Squad” was ultimately rated PG-13, it still promoted itself as gleefully dark, with Jared Leto saying his portrayal of The Joker would have him “lock[ed] away in a box.”

While “Suicide Squad” stars one of the most racially diverse casts of a comic book film, its heroes (or rather, villains) of color are almost all stereotypes. From the gangster latino man (named “El Diablo,” or “The Devil”) to the quiet and stoic Japanese warrior (named after her weapon), the characters are far from progressive.

So, in trying to be darker and outside of social norms, the makeup and hairstyling of “Suicide Squad” generally was messy, lazy, and stereotypical. The character El Diablo was covered in tattoos, specifically facial tattoos meant to resemble a skull. The Joker has a grill, mocking Black culture and coding it as immoral or dangerous.

In addition, The Joker is covered in odd tattoos, such as one on his forehead reading “damaged.” These aspects of the Joker’s design are ableist, spinning the character as mentally ill, but in a “fun” way. “‘This guy is completely crazy,’” makeup artist Alessandro Bertolazzi remarked in an interview, further commenting on the Joker’s disturbing practices in a kind of grotesque awe. This contributes to the trend of making mental illness a trend, dehumanizing the mentally ill as a comical act to try on at one’s convenience.

Two of the three female characters in the film, June Moone (played by Cara Delevingne, who was instructed by the director to walk naked through a forest to get in character) and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, were hypersexualized. One Oscar voter admitted this swayed his vote in the category, remarking to The Hollywood Reporter, “‘I can’t say anything bad about Star Trek Beyond. But as a heterosexual male, it’s hard not to vote for Harley Quinn.’”

Admittedly, one of the characters, Killer Croc, had a lengthy and admirable makeup routine. Croc is a human-reptile hybrid, created entirely with practical effects. This choice over computer-generated effects was daring and increasingly rare in today’s movies. Killer Croc’s look was composed of three head prosthetic pieces, with coloration meant to blend with the actor’s (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) skin tone.

While the look of Killer Croc is an impressive and time-consuming feat, “Star Trek Beyond” made similar ventures on a much larger scale. Veteran “Trek” makeup designer Joel Harlow designed 56 unique new alien species for the third installment of the reboot series. Every species was a combination of makeup and prosthetics, and unlike the decades of comic book references for “Suicide Squad,” the new aliens for “Beyond” had no pre-established source material for the new species. Still, Harlow was dedicated to keeping the Star Trek aesthetic alive and specially renewed in the film.

The fantastical designs created a lush world of beings, all living together in harmony on the city-like starbase named Yorktown. Nearly all aliens were makeup and prosthetics-driven rather than computer effects or puppets. Some puppets and animatronics were used, but even so, they were human-based. Harlow remarked that every single background alien was treated like a main character to ensure the best quality. Hundreds of hours went into sculpting, painting, and prosthetic application for the dozens of species. It is estimated that the shortest application time was two hours, while the longest was close to seven hours for a single character. This process would be repeated every day of filming that the character was present in scenes.

This intensive process wasn’t simply done for the background characters, either: main characters Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella) and Idris Elba’s villain Krall required extensive makeup. Jaylah, as an original character and hero, needed a distinct look, showing her as tough and defensive yet trustworthy. Krall, on the other hand, goes through multiple, dramatically varying appearances throughout the film that had to show his visceral connection to humanity as he strayed further from it.

The first two movies of the reboot had many problems, from misogyny to whitewashed casting with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the most famous of Star Trek villains, Khan Noonien Singh. Those elements, along with the faster-paced narratives imbued with flashing action sequences, divorced the reboot from the original series.

“Star Trek” was originally created as a low-budget television show in 1966. It was radical for its time, with some episodes even being banned. In the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek put a Black woman (Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols) as a main character on a spaceship, respected among her crew. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Nichols to remain on the show because of what it did for their movement. In addition, the main crew included an Asian man (George Takei’s Hikaru Sulu), a Russian man (Walter Koenig’s Pavel Chekov), and Jewish men (both Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and William Shatner’s Kirk). In fact, the alien species to which Spock belongs, the Vulcans, were heavily inspired by Jewish philosophy and culture.

Takei has recounted how “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry explained to the cast what the series was to be about. Roddenberry saw the now-famous Starship Enterprise as a metaphor for the entire Earth, and that its true strength was in its diversity coming together. Trek’s vision for the future was “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It was because of this optimistic origin that the rebooted films were such painful revisits. They missed the mark to try to appeal to modern action movie audiences.

However, “Star Trek Beyond” finally felt like the franchise’s homecoming. The first two installments of the reboot franchise were directed by JJ Abrams, who professed to not understanding “Star Trek” in his youth, calling it “too philosophical.” Along with Simon Pegg, the film was co-written and directed by two Asian men: Doug Jung and Justin Lin (this is important because, on average, less than 12% of Hollywood films are directed by men of color). Their narrative returned to more humble storytelling, upholding the idea that unity was crucial and best achieved by celebrating diversity rather than repressing it.

All of the story’s simple, yet optimistic message was told visually through its makeup effects. The 56 new alien species were another step in achieving “infinite diversity through infinite combinations.” The biological differences of each species even proved advantageous, when a crewmember hides a secret object within the tentacle formations of her head. The aliens created with its makeup and hairstyling team made “Star Trek Beyond” an open universe, full of potential and hopefulness for the first time in years.

Without the ingenious variety of life present in the film, its message would have ultimately fallen flat. The very heart of “Star Trek Beyond” hinged on its makeup and hairstyling department. The Academy Awards failed to recognize this, favoring fleeting amusement over revitalization of a beloved franchise.

Where “Suicide Squad,” was cold, “Star Trek Beyond” was warm. Where “Suicide Squad” was uninspired, stereotypical, and lazy, “Star Trek Beyond” showed a makeup team that embraced diversity, returning to what the series has always done best: boldly going where no one has gone before.

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