Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is the Human Adventure?

Some observers are finding credibility gaps in this film, as in the villain’s ship, etc. but that happens in every movie, especially science fiction. Some have noted the villain’s clichéd motive, and though I agree that avenging your wife’s death has become so frequent and reflexive a motive as to be deadened, there’s also the cliché of an evil crew following the obsessions of the pirate captain. Some fundamentalist religious motive might have been more topical, but that would have brought out the protesters, so I assume Paramount wouldn’t go for that.

Still, the movie wisely didn’t spend a lot of time on the villain. (Khan’s generous screen time worked because his flamboyance nicely matched Shatner’s, but the villain-hero balance didn’t work in Nemesis on a visceral enough level.) Eric Bana is credibly creepy as Nero, although I can’t believe they used such a cheesy name—the most villainous Roman emperor as the Romulan working class villain? I don’t get it.

Keeping the fast forward momentum and the adrenalin attention of this film also has its costs. Action and dramatic scenes are pushed to the edge—in fact, Kirk is literally hanging off some kind of a cliff at least three times. (The Iowa Indiana Jones?) But there are only so many solutions to extreme jeopardy, and fortunate coincidence is one this movie uses more than once, when somebody (usually a bad guy) is distracted by something more important or pressing.

It’s all fun while it’s happening (which of course is the point) but perhaps as a result of maintaining that adrenalin attention along with all the other stuff the movie needed to do, there isn’t a lot of the kind of talk we got used to in Star Trek GR.

In this film, the talking moments are all taken up by character, plot and necessary exposition (as when Spock Prime explains the backstory.) There is some fine dialogue in this movie, and some memorable turns of phrase. (Pike suggesting that young Kirk was headed towards a future of being a “genius-level repeat offender” is my first favorite.) But the kind of talk—of debate over means and ends, over meaning and ethical responsibilities—that characterized Star Trek GR was largely absent.

But it wasn’t just talk about ethics that was absent. Leonard Nimoy was right in saying that this film portrayed a group of people getting together to solve problems—there was certainly that kind of talk on the Enterprise bridge. But personally I didn’t see much to support his assertion that this movie portrays the futility of seeking revenge, or at least that Kirk and Spock see it that way. I heard only a quick exchange on the subject between Kirk and Spock, with Spock seeming to speak in favor of vengeance, and once Nero expressed his preference for dying, Kirk quickly and happily assented, and destroyed an apparently helpless ship.

Otherwise, the new 23rd century of Star Trek JJA has some problems: Captain Pike thought Starfleet was getting stultified, and the Enterprise security officers—if that’s who there were—turn out to be bullies and thugs, who kept beating on the civilian Kirk when he was helpless. The one opportunity of going back in Trek history that’s appealed to me is to begin filling in a little more of how we got “from here to there,” to reference that awful song that introduced Enterprise: how Earth overcame its still-current quick march to self-destruction, and how Starfleet became what it is. It’s never really happened, and I don’t expect it to anymore. But I wonder if the 23rd century can be as much like the 21st as it seems to be in this movie—complete with Budwiser product placement—and we still survive, and form something like Starfleet and its Prime Directive.

It’s pretty clear already that this movie has resurrected Star Trek from the dead once more, at least in terms of commercial viability. Star Trek JJA has a credible young crew adding new dimensions and possibilities to familiar characters. The scriptwriting skills and the moviemaking skills are there, and there’s little doubt now that the money will be there, for another adventure and probably more. But just showing that humanity survives, still asserting some idealism, was a necessary but not sufficient for the Star Trek GR vision. What is the human adventure that continues?

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