Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness of Its Soul

My concern here is the soul of Star Trek, and that’s the focus of my comments after a first viewing of Star Trek Into Darkness. I saw it at a local theater on Memorial Day weekend. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than I expected. But this isn’t a review—not even a review of reactions—so don’t expect anything on Alice Eve’s underwear or the Starship Budweiser scenes, or even the many fine performances, effects, etc. And this is just a first take, after one viewing.  Also be advised if you haven't seen it: this is full of spoilers.

 The first JJA movie set up an alternate Star Trek universe. With the second film, it’s clear that this remains a different universe. It is different not only because that’s how the writers made it. It’s different because this is a big budget movie in 2013.

Movies have changed. The reining cultural mythology of heroes includes Star Wars and Star Trek, but it is dominated by the superheroes with origins in comic books. Thanks also to digital visual effects, the action in most of these action movies is cartoon action, the violence is cartoon violence.

This isn't entirely new, of course, just more exaggerated. There was always an unreality in movie heroics, going back to the serials and their episodic cliffhangers. J.J. Abrams loves to literally position his characters hanging from various kinds of cliffs, several times during the same movie. They hang and are hoisted up in ways that are unlikely if not virtually impossible.

 Like Speilberg and Lucas action films, the cartoon superhero films show heroes fleeing explosions and never getting hit by debris or flying glass, and they fire weapons in small spaces that would actually be suicidal. This is the movie environment for a 21st century Star Trek JJA film.

 There are a few other elements to that environment that are a little more reminiscent of the Roddenberry Star Trek era. The first is the prominence of violence in movies and TV, at the same time as relentless violent images from the real world.  The actual imagery then couldn't compare to the sheer amount and ferocity of violence in movies and on TV today, and in movies it is so much faster, more intense and unrelenting.  But the effect is similar--a pummeling of the senses that glorifies violence while minimizing its consequences.

 The second is the apocalyptic fervor. Doom was in the air in the Vietnam 60s of TOS and the nuclear buildup 80s of TNG. Now doom has become the default future. It’s the premise for new television. It’s there in the previews for World War Z that show before Star Trek Into Darkness. Apocalypse is popular partly because it’s the easy choice—it’s high-adrenalin action and violent struggle to survive. But beneath the visual effects attraction, there is a real unease about what the future holds.

 That’s what made Star Trek so important and so emotionally powerful in the 20th century. And that’s why, even if this Star Trek doesn’t confront the issues with the same focus as Trek prime, it’s important that Star Trek remains an alternative—of moral seriousness, of a model for a hopeful future.

 Star Trek Into Darkness is Star Trek in a different universe. It’s a different Kirk and a different Spock. They’re younger—probably in Trek prime, they hadn’t even met at this age. Spock in particular is different—more aggressive and angry, behind the apparent innocence of his logic. Spock prime had the dignity of controlled pain, an emotional aloofness and gravitas that this Spock doesn’t have. He's Spock, but different.

 This film shows Kirk and Spock bonding. When TOS began, with the Enterprise already on its five year mission, that bond was not evident. Shatner’s Kirk was curious about Mr. Spock, he had good will towards him, but he was evidently still figuring him out. Spock was the alien among humans, and it was awhile before his commitment to Starfleet and the Enterprise added a clearly personal commitment to Kirk.

 Spock’s famous death scene in the second feature film (The Wrath of Khan) had years of history preceding it, which made it so moving that the film crew was weeping during the shoot. Here the reboot and reversal comes at a much earlier stage. Yet it didn’t feel phony or contrived. Within this Star Trek universe, it worked, but differently. (It helps that it was well shot and edited.)

 There are differences in the other characters, too, all revealed in action that is faster and more unrelenting than in any Trek prime TV or movie adventure. Still, they are appealing characters, and there’s enough of the feeling of the Enterprise to make this feel like Star Trek, only different.

 But apart from the mutual respect and emotional commitment of the crew, what really makes it Star Trek is an underlying moral seriousness that wasn’t really present in the first JJA film.  It's perhaps not as prominent or as articulated as it could have been, but it's there.

 The premise of this film is that Starfleet has ventured into darkness, into the dark side, in anticipation of a Klingon threat. That’s only suggested at first, perhaps with those nasty Nazi style Starfleet hats and uniforms. There’s a line about Starfleet becoming more military than explorers.

 Then Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) mentions Section 31, the Starfleet equivalent of a covert branch, a military CIA, which in prime Trek didn’t enter storytelling until Deep Space 9 and the Dominion War, although it acquired its own mythology in Trek novels.

 The movie begins with acts of terror manipulated and committed by a Starfleet Section 31 renegade named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch.)  The often confused, contradictory and deliberately disingenuous pre-release information nevertheless suggested that terrorism would be this film’s real world anchor, its “current issue,” which greatly lowered my expectations and desire to see it.

 The despicable act of terrorism known as 9/11 succeeded in terrorizing this country for more than a decade, beyond reason, and to make a film exploiting it now seemed depressingly grotesque, however easy. But if there is an underlying issue in this film, it is not 9/11 and terrorism but precisely the response to 9/11, particularly in the years immediately following it, when the U.S. aggressively violated its own essential values far beyond the need, and did so with frightening alacrity.

 This was really the subject of the second (prequel) trilogy of the Star Wars saga, the last Star Wars stories apparently to be told by George Lucas. It was about (quoting Lucas)" how a democratic society turns into a dictatorship, and how a good person turns into a bad person."

 Star Trek Into Darkness avoids many direct parallels to post-9/11 America—there’s no torture, indefinite detentions without trial, no general abrogation of civil liberties, no sudden invasion based on false pretexts. Some see a parallel between Admiral Marcus ordering Kirk to fire torpedoes at Harrison in hiding on the Klingon home world and the U.S. drone program, and that’s a justifiable analogy. Certainly the first moral note—absent from other blockbuster adventures—is that Harrison should be captured and returned for trial.

 Eventually it is revealed that Harrison is a genetically engineered human who had been in unconscious stasis for 300 years. His real name is Khan. It is further revealed that this Khan, like the one in Star Trek prime, was “frozen” after committing unspecified but presumably big crimes, together with 72 of his genetically engineered compatriots. This time, however, they have survived in their sleep state.

 Looking for an edge to prepare for what he saw as the Klingon threat, Admiral Marcus woke Khan, promising that he would revive the others if Khan cooperated. Khan’s motive this time is not personal vengeance for the death of his wife (a motive already used for the villain in the first Star Trek JJA) but for Marcus’ betrayal, and the Admiral’s attempt to destroy his compatriots.

Marcus is creating superweapons apparently even secret from Starfleet, and has all the zeal of a military dictator.  He is even willing to destroy the Enterprise and everyone aboard to further his warmongering.

Of course, the fight of Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise against Khan and the warmongering zealot (as well as a small battle with Klingons) involves a lot of violence.  This looks like cinematic having your cake and eating it too, and some observers saw it as dominant.  "But all the same, it’s hard to emerge from 'Into Darkness' without a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal," wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times. "Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of “Star Trek,” but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Mr. Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it."  Perhaps he missed the point I am making here, or perhaps he saw the bulk of the film as undermining it.

 This movie concludes with Khan’s capture and “re-freezing,” along with his companions (with the depressing possibility of a sequel I suppose.) Captain Kirk makes the overall point explicit at the rededication of the repaired Enterprise when he says that Starfleet was becoming the evil it opposes, that it was sacrificing its own values.

 The movie ends with Starfleet’s return to exploration, and the beginning of the fabled five year mission “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” To emphasize this full circle, there’s extensive use of the original Star Trek music at the end, and imagery suggesting the original openings to the various series.

 This is perhaps a more striking affirmation than it might seem at first. For after Gene Roddenberry’s death, Star Trek storytelling turned more and more towards duplicating decades of war stories, especially in DS9. Then when the Enterprise series seemed to return to the theme of exploration, the impact of 9/11 changed its trajectory, and so there were more war and fighting terrorism stories. This became even more prominent in the Star Trek novels of the next decade.

 2016 is Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, and the word is that Paramount wants a new Trek movie to celebrate it. Will the JJA group, in whatever configuration, honor its origin by returning to stories of exploration, and relevance to issues other than terrorism and war? A number of comments and reviews in response to this movie suggest a hunger for that kind of Star Trek. In this movie business environment, that would be boldly going indeed.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Nice review. Abrams is a guy who knows how to make a scene still interesting when it's a quiet, dialogue-driven scene.