Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009, dir. J.J. Abrams)

Published at InReviewOnline

If the classic science fiction films of the 1950's largely mirrored the paranoia and fear of an America in the grips of a cold war, Star Trek's debut in 1966 signaled a new era of hope for the future, a vision of racial equality and multiculturalism that avoided the cultural relativism that so often goes hand in hand. Gene Roddenberry, the shows original creator, saw a future in which Americans, Russians, Asians, blacks, and whites work together without prejudice, a future in which humankind has conquered the scourges of hunger, poverty, war, and religion. His utopia unleashed humanity's collective curiosity on the universe, creating an endless chain of adventures that we enjoy as much for their thoughtful dilemmas as for their suspenseful action. Star Trek embodied progressive notions of justice, civility, and liberty, while embracing the best of its sci-fi predecessors: the contrast between man's limitless potential and his utter insignificance.

Director J.J. Abrams' second feature film, Star Trek, almost universally hailed as the "Star Trek reboot", is better thought of as Star Trek's assimilation. It's not the end of a franchise, and it's certainly not the end of Star-Trek-as-commercial-endeavor. It's the end of Roddenberry's narrative ideal, an attempt to challenge our accepted mores as much as to satisfy our entertainment needs. Star Trek had reached a dead end; it was an anachronism in an entertainment world ruled by form, not content. It's no secret that Hollywood's ability to create intellectually stimulating entertainment has fallen in inverse proportion to it's ability to create stunningly realized worlds with CGI.

You'd be wrong to assume in reading all of this that I'm a die-hard "trekkie," or that I'm a cinematic snob, or even that I didn't enjoy Abrams' Star Trek. I did enjoy it. After twenty or thirty minutes of dangerously clumsy exposition (including a car chase scene whose only apparent purpose was to find a way to plug "Nokia" phones in a story set 380 years from the present), we're treated to one of Hollywood's better action blockbusters. Writers (and admitted "trekkies") Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have developed an alternate Star Trek universe. A black-hole enables a 130 year old Spock and some very angry Romulans to travel back in time to a point in space conveniently inhabited by James T. Kirk's father and mother (the latter of which is in the process of giving birth to James). The Romulans lay waste to the relatively tiny and ill equipped star ship, killing James' father and narrowly missing his mother.

The black-hole is essentially Hollywood's deus ex machina, freeing Abrams from the philosophical baggage that simultaneously bolstered Star Trek's narrative strength and sealed its commercial weakness. On top of this new canvas they've grafted a number of perfectly respectable formulas, including:
  1. Rebel without a cause (James T. Kirk, played by newest celebrity heartthrob Chris Pine)
  2. Freudian mother surrogate (Uhura, played by Guess Who co-star Zoe Saldana, who throws some surprising pity-sex at the young Spock)
  3. Man of two three worlds (Spock, played by Heroes star Zachary Quinto)
  4. Unrecognized genius (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, hilariously played by British actor/comedian Simon Pegg)
If Abrams' Star Trek is anything, it's the deft combination of several tried and true narrative arcs. And if Star Trek is the death of Star Trek, it's also the birth of Hollywood's newest cash cow. $75 million dollars in the opening weekend... Roddenberry who?

Final Thought: Resistance is futile. Just enjoy the damn thing.

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