Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek (A Movie Review and Discussion)

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg
Rated PG-13

So I went and saw the new Star Trek movie today.

I am a huge fan of Star Trek. I haven't written about it much on this blog, other than to review a couple of books (here and here), discuss Peter David, and share the insanity that is BorgSpace. Although I've enjoyed the Star Wars films on a purely entertainment basis, Star Trek, though occasionally every bit as corny as George Lucas's galactic melodrama, has always had more of point to it. Yes, it can be cheesy, but, as Dana Stevens's review on Slate puts it:
Star Trek's vision of the future, as guided by creator Gene Roddenberry, was also a relic of its time, the age of NASA and the Cold War and Kruschev pounding his shoe on a podium at the United States. The show's faith in diplomacy and technology as tools for not just global but universal peace might seem touchingly dated in our post-9/11 age of stateless jihad, loose nukes, and omnipresent danger. Yet in a weird way, Star Trek's cheerfully square naiveté makes it the perfect film for our first summer of (slimly) renewed hope. It's a blockbuster for the Obama age, when smarts and idealism are cool again. In fact, can't you picture our president—levelheaded, biracial, implacably smart—on the bridge in a blue shirt and pointy ears?
However, much as I love Trek, I've also always found Roddenberry's future to be self-contradictory and even downright disturbing at times. For one thing, he was an ardent atheist who saw religion as something mankind would "grow out of," and yet the effects of humanity's "first contact" with an alien species strongly resemble that of a religious conversion (i.e. being "born again"), as the Truth ("We're not alone!") sets everyone free and leads to war, poverty, and disease being banished from Earth within fifty years. (Edward Bellamy described a similar phenomena in his classic socialist utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Quite frankly, some of the criticisms I had of that book can easily be applied to Star Trek as well.) "Religion in Star Trek," an article on the fan site Ex Astris Scientia, pretty outlines everything wrong with this scenario of a strictly humanistic future. Also a tad creepy is Roddenberry's own unwavering faith in his own vision. The Next Generation episode "Conspiracy" was originally meant to be about a military coup within Starfleet, but Roddenberry refused to accept that the Federation was anything less than a "perfect" government and that mankind had not "evolved" beyond such things.

One of the Federation's biggest enemies - if not the biggest - is the Borg Collective, a hive mind composed of billions of mindless cyborgs who were abducted from other species and forcibly "assimilated." (And their ships are giant cubes. How awesome is that?) Starfleet officers have spoken eloquently about the horror of losing your self-will and being absorbed into a massive juggernaut. "In their collective state," Captain Picard is quoted as saying, "the Borg are utterly without mercy, driven by one will alone: the will to conquer. They are beyond redemption, beyond reason." But really, the Borg are more ironic than anything else. The Borg's goal is "perfection," which they define as a smoothly functioning monolithic whole made up of legions of individuals who have been artificially enhanced to achieve physical and intellectual heights undreamed of by purely organic beings. Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. An alarming vision to be sure; one that calls to mind George Orwell's 1984 ("There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science." "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.") But Star Trek in general is about "perfected" humans who seem to all belong to the same atheistic, pseudo-socialist Americanized culture. The point is repeatedly made that they are more "evolved" than we currently are, which unfortunately does not preclude an arrogant, patronizing attitude. ("We no longer slaughter animals for food," Commander Riker sniffs to an alien ambassador in a first-season Next Generation episode.) Oh well, Starfleet often assure itself after dealings with a particularly troublesome race, they just haven't reached our advanced stage of society yet - give'em another few centuries. As a result of their "perfected" state of being, it frequently seems that all human beings in the Star Trek universe just naturally share the exact same values and have all arrived at the exact same conclusions regarding science, religion, tolerance, and multiculturalism. (On a side note: I remember reading somewhere that the reason Paradise Lost is such a revered literary work is because, quite frankly, its easy to identify with Satan in all his stubborness and egotism. God is just too damn thunderingly perfect - you know, like Roddenberry's humans and the Borg.)

(Now, to be fair, there have been attempts to address this conundrum following Roddenberry's death. The Voyager character Commander Chakotay is a Mayan Indian, whose people had since left Earth in response to the increasing homogenization of humanity. Voyager and Deep Space Nine also featured the Maquis, a terrorist group composed primarily of rogue Starfleet officers who took issue with a Federation-Cardassian treaty.)

So Star Trek is overly idealistic. But is that really such a bad thing? During the Star Trek 30th anniversary celebration, Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, described how she was considering quitting the show, when Martin Luther King reminded her of how radical it truly was that she was a black woman on the bridge of a starship. (In fact, Uhura's pride in her African heritage was frequently demonstrated on the original series.) The episode "Plato's Stepchildren" even featured TV's first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Uhura under the influence of powerful telepaths. In the words of the blogger angry asian man: "What's also really cool about this new Trek movie is its diverse, inclusive vision of humanity in the future. It takes a lot of manpower to traverse the final frontier, and lots of Asian faces are peppered throughout Starfleet in the movie." Yes, it can be heavy-handed, but Star Trek's message of growth and acceptance is an undeniably powerful one. According to a Boston Globe article:
This is an odd, unsettling time in America. Disarray is everywhere, and long-accepted narratives are being questioned. It's a time not unlike the late 1960s, the tumultuous age when the original "Star Trek" first set its sights on the future.

"Stories survive partly because they remind us of what we know and partly because they call us back to what we consider significant," Robert Fulford writes in "The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture."

Viewed through that prism, the return of "Star Trek" to the American canon in the jumbled, dark days of 2009 -- post-"Blade Runner," post-"Terminator," post-"Cloverfield," even -- makes eminent sense. It's a coherent universe that functions as a roadmap back to sane times.

One of its better-known fans might even call it, say, the audacity of hope.

Of course, no franchise is perfect. But one can make a strong case for the timeless and universal relevancy of Star Trek. There's a reason it continued to resonate after the original series was canceled. There's a reason it has survived countless makeovers and interpretations. No matter what external shape it has taken, the message has always remained intact. The fact that the utopian genre has persisted for five hundred years now clearly demonstrates an innate human drive for improvement. We've all dreamed of a better place, and of knowledge and learning. And that is what Star Trek is all about - a future where humanity has been able to move beyond the problems that have plagued it forever (war, disease, crime, poverty) and refocus all its energies on exploring the final frontier.

Now as far as the new film goes - I liked it. It's an enjoyable ride that is definitely a whole lot more fun than traditional Trek has tended to be. It almost doesn't feel like Star Trek - far from the exalted and "evolved" Starfleet officers of the past, Star Trek 2009 is strikingly lighthearted and has a very "real" feel to it. Back to my Paradise Lost aside: you can identify with these people. They feel like people you know. But, on the flip side, I can imagine some of the die-hard folks taking issue with J.J Abrams's buoyant, action-packed interpretation.

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

I also appreciated how Abrams didn't even try to match canon and came up with that "alternative timeline" deal instead. Of course, Star Trek is always contradicting itself, but at least here Abrams has come up with an actual explanation for it. He's also conveniently given himself more freedom to do what he wants with the franchise, now that he no longer has to worry about the in-universe future.

And just to show how a traditional Star Trek film works: here is Star Trek: First Contact, the 1996 movie about the Borg's invasion of Earth.


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