Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness

First, let me just say that this is a fun, fun movie. If you know nothing of Star Trek TOS (The Original Series) I think you'd still have a great time. (I think some stuff would confuse you, but since the timeline is messed with, I was confused about some stuff, too, and I grew up on TOS.)

Second, I highly recommend A. O. Scott's review in the NYTimes. I really think he continues Ebert's tradition of giving you the info you need (no spoilers) to decide whether or not a particular movie is for you. So in his review he rightly notes that the opening sequence is so reminiscent of TOS that it has people our age (Mr Scott is 46, I just turned 47) reminiscing about the old days and the Prime Directive and hoping for something non-Michael Bayesque. And this film partly delivers, partly falls into "lots of big mechanical things exploding" trap of current action filmdom.

But I think I was more taken by the many throwbacks to TOS than Mr Scott, so I forgave some of the implausible and person-dwarfing fights and explosions. Because ultimately, the film comes down to characters - that those of us who love TOS immediately knew, and newcomers would not, but that's a two-edged sword for the film: us old timers are immediately predisposed to like and be fascinated by these people, but we're also so used to the old actors and we're ready to be disappointed or critical if something isn't how we remember or expect. I was enthralled by how they'd reconceived while simultaneously doing homage to the characters and the actors, esp. Bones and Scotty. They steal every scene.

But there are much deeper issues here than a beloved franchise that may be getting creaky. Take for example a much newer franchise, but with a character that just (to my mind) couldn't even take an updating into the Cold War timeframe - the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was an abomination,  because Indy is a Depression era, up by his bootstraps, fundamentally hopeful and naive character; he can't survive in a Cold War with nuclear weapons and Russians instead of Nazis. And the nods to a post-9/11 world are constant in this Star Trek (including a dedication to all post-9/11 veterans at the very end). But I felt the crew of the Enterprise weathered this better. Scotty's line to a behemoth security guard, "Are you StarFleet or private security? You look like private security," was both humorous and gave us some satisfaction at the Blackwater stand-in's fate. Peter Weller is the perfect Cheney/Rumsfeld analogue - or really, our feelings for him perfectly reflect our own ambivalence about the War on Terror - he's creepy, but maybe he's right; he's deceitful and willing to kill innocents, but he loves his family; and however sinister he is (SPOILER ALERT) he doesn't deserve to be murdered as his daughter looks on (herself having just been savagely beaten and kicked by the space-baddy). There was something here in which TOS's optimism and good humor survived in the new, darker, more cynical world, but without simple triumphalism or jingoism: Kirk and the crew have a tougher world ahead of them, but they have not been crushed or poisoned by it.

And in a way even larger than geo-politics, consider the physical world of the film and TOS. The Golden Gate Bridge is prominent in several shots (it would be over 300 years old by that point). Every time something breaks on my automobile, it's never anything physical - not a belt or a gear or a hose; it's something electronic that performs much better than its older counterpart, until it breaks, at which point it renders my car undriveable ( while the older counterpart, when it broke, would make the car just run less well or less safely). The Enterprise doesn't seem to have any of these gizmos on board: when something breaks it's a "coolant leak" and they can limp on at half power. And in the climactic scene of fixing something, it's kicking one, big, metal thing, until it aligns with another big, metal thing. I'm not just making fun of the implausibility here, but really acknowledging what TOS and the film know - we are physical beings, we enjoy our physicality: much more fisticuffs in TOS or this film than lasers - even ship to ship battle is conducted with much more damage being dealt by physical torpedoes than beam weapons; Kirk has sex with ladies with tails (TOS settled for green ladies, and now I don't feel so bad for all the times I've looked at tailed and hooved ladies on WoW and wondered how exactly that'd work); Scotty of course gets drunk on stuff that's still served in containers that look to be made of glass and contain things that look like cubes of frozen water. The one twist they need at the end is completely physical too - (SPOILER ALERT) not a DNA sequence but just real blood to "cure" Kirk.

That's always been the real joy of TOS and here: wherever we go and whatever we find there, we'll still be us, there will be something about us that's unchanged and noble and fragile and enjoyable. When we find a genocidal megalomaniac, he really won't be that different than the ones we had when we threw rocks at one another. And when we fall in love with someone from another planet (either in friendship or romance), it won't be that different than when we fell in love with someone on this planet.


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