Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'Star Trek' Rises Above Mediocrity Thanks To Inspired Source Material

My best friends and roommates love Star Trek.  Hopefully they'll appreciate my thoughts, even though it took me so long to see J.J. Abram's newest installment in the franchise.

I enjoyed the film a great deal.  The first one went completely over my head, as I had never before been introduced to the world of Star Trek, and mostly saw it as Star Wars with much less creative-looking aliens (mostly people with weird makeup) and a lot of dealing with kind of menial problems (let's fix the engine, watch out for the radiation, ya gotta put down your shields before you can beam people out).  Plus some weird-looking, kinda boring outfits.  All of these things are true, but there's some smart stuff behind it.

The film starts with a bang, as a crew of space travelers escape from a really red planet where a bunch of scroll-worshiping aliens are mad at them for taking the Scroll.  In the end, they save these aliens from getting destroyed by a supervolcano, but in the process they get seen, breaking one of the rules of their commanding unit, called Star Fleet.

The Captain of the ship, James Kirk (Chris Pine), is a smart-mouthing, rule-ignoring bro who likes sleeping with hot aliens and doing what he wants.  His sidekick and first officer is the hyperintelligent and unemotional Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is half-human, half-Vulcan.   He reports Kirk's actions, and Kirk gets summarily fired from being a Captain.

That is, until a terrorist blows up an important research lab and kills many leaders of Star Fleet.  We learn later (spoken through a really open mouth) that his name is (seriously, open your mouth wide) KHAN, and he escapes to a far-off world.  The film's plot has Kirk and his ethnically diverse crew of idiosyncratic friends diving into the depths of neutral space trying to find the guy and bring him back to Earth for a fair trial.  In case you're interested, the role is played by the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Shakespearean actor voice and presence make us wish for a little more from his character.

Since its first days as a 60's TV show, Star Trek has operated from a moral center.  The Prime Directive, the idea that runs Star Fleet, posits that "observers could have a negative effect on the sociological development of alien cultures, and necessitated that explorers...avoid discovery." It's an anthropological idea that is bold and defended religiously, and Star Trek has always had things to say.  The writers fought against things they thought were wrong and made no quibbles.  There was a moral to take out of most episodes, some of which involved the setting aside of religion and God.  From a science fiction standpoint, the humans in the Star Trek universe had passed beyond the petty dilemmas of our age, eliminating poverty, much corruption, and violence, and have no need of extraterrestrial help--they are the extraterrestrial help.

This gives Star Trek a maturity that almost every summer blockbuster never bothers with.  At an early point, when Kirk and his crew are ordered to kill the terrorist immediately, Spock says that this action may cause war, which is "inherently morally wrong".  Those ideas of right and wrong, though they encounter pushback, are generally not abandoned.  From my place as a moral person, I cheer at this.

In our age of relativism, however, it is clear that the writers fail to take strong stances.  Terrorism, the taking of life, and government corruption raise their bleary, overused heads, but these are easy things to unite against.  The film is clearly a commentary on the September 11th Attacks, and it is actually one of the more respectful and thoughtful ones I've seen, but it is easy to call out "literary cowardice" without reservation.

One thing that fascinates me about Star Trek is that the characters rarely have families.  Captain Picard (of Next Generation, we don't see him here) is even frightened of children.  Star Fleet mostly consists of individuals, united in the cause of exploration, but unattached to family units.

Star Trek: Into Darkness draws an immediate connection between crew and family.  The terrorist Khan spends most of the film trying to preserve and bring back to life his cryogenically frozen buddies, and he asks Kirk: "Is there anything you would not do for your family?"

The great strength of the film is how deeply we care about this family.  Sulu the cool-headed Acting Captain, Bones the colloquial, antiquated Doctor, Scotty the fiery and hilarious Scotsman, all of them have their personalities that we recognize and care about.  More important are Kirk, Spock, and the beautiful, superbly acted Uhura (Zoe Saldana) who spends most of the film in a fight with Spock about his unemotionality in their romantic relationship.  In one scene, they are descending to the surface of a planet before a dangerous situation, and a conversation that lasts almost three minutes of screen time shows them talking about their problems emotionally and resolving them.  It is easily the best part of the film.

Zachary Quinto's Spock is unfaltering, and his moments of emotion are absolutely mesmerizing, Saldana's Uhura teeters on the edge of the teary girlfriend, but eventually falls into the land of three-dimensional characters (a great place for literary real estate, if you're on the lookout), and Pine's Kirk is...well, he's mostly okay, and sometimes pretty good.

Sadly, the film shows more gunfire (laserfire, I can't tell the difference) than these interactions, but they are frequent enough that it hit home far more deeply than most of the films I've seen this summer.  The destruction wrought on the Enterprise was so connected to the people inside it that I felt pain at its hurt.

Watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, I asked myself who my crew is, and what we are fighting for.  Unlike many of the characters, I have a family, but I also have people my own generation, people who are exploring the world and learning about it.  Sometimes we fight against the generations that came before us (in the film, this comes from the lovely Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) who fights against her father, the corrupt politician, supporting the morals of her friends instead) and sometimes we fight against each other.

The great lesson of Star Trek is that in order to succeed and be happy, we cannot only be insular and family-focused.  We are all connected, and live in a universe that is desperately in need of help.  There are always distress calls and challenges to be faced, and if we wish to succeed we must face them together.  At times we will disagree and we will always encounter trials that we fear worse than anything else.  That is when we need each other.

Bushman out.