Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Adventures in Cinema #1: Star Trek

It might be some kind of delirium; a guy can only nerd out for so long before he begins to lose touch with reality. Still, with a couple of days between my most recent viewing of the latest Trek film (yeah, I saw it twice) and the present, I feel confident in saying it: I think Star Trek is one of the most important movies of 2009.

Forty-three years ago, Star Trek introduced us to a new vision of the distant future, where freedom, tolerance, and democracy had triumphed over injustice; where all the nations of humanity could unite as one people, and furthermore, unite with all the (admittedly hypothetical) free peoples of the galaxy. The future of Star Trek is of a peaceful, socially enlightened Earth, and a universe alive with possibility and adventure. But we've heard all of that before. Star Trek didn't get as far as it did on rosy optimism, or even social commentary.

What classic Trek had, and what this movie revives so splendidly, was an iconic cast, and the most enduring, iconic space ship in American fiction, the U.S.S. Enterprise. The show always insisted that the vessel and its crew were both exceptional and exemplary, and the vivid characterization of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise's regulars reinforced this point time and again. The best thing about the new film is that it is not merely the saga of Captain Kirk; it is really about the formation of a legendary team. J.J. Abrams and his team have given Star Trek back its dynamism by going back to the very beginning, giving it even more youth and vitality than it started with.

Granted, this movie has its flaws. Despite the infinitely better production values, traces of the thick layer of cheese which coated the original series can still be seen. Chekov's accent has grown from mild to nearly incomprehensible. Scotty is played almost solely for comic relief. Kirk actually seduces a green woman. The imposing web of time travel and techno-babble will surely turn off some viewers who aren't accustomed to the franchise's flashy approach to science fiction (or science fiction in general).

However, at its heart Star Trek is a character drama, revolving around space travel's ultimate odd couple, James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). We see them both as troubled children; Kirk, the fatherless delinquent, and Spock, the victim of bullying as a result of his mixed ancestry. Spock grows up to embrace the Vulcan philosophy of logic and achieves the esteem of his teachers, while Kirk nearly wastes his potential, only to come roaring into Starfleet like a comet of pure talent. In spite of their differences, what drives them is the same; a desire to find their place in the world, and to excel doing it.

That personal dimension goes along way in explaining the film's appeal. But let's not forget the inportance of the visuals, a critical element in the science ficition genre. Star Trek is colorful; the Enterprise bridge is appropriately bright and shiny, while the interior of the enemy Romulans' ship is dark and creepy. The movie is full of lights, shining naturalistically into the camera for a nice touch of realism (and only occasional blindness in the viewer). And of course, the special effects in outer space are a furious barage of phasers, fires, and stars zooming past at warp speed. It's a cavalcade of motion, possibly the fastest Star Trek yet filmed. This movie is a lot of things, and one of them is a genuine blockbuster; it aims to please the crowd. This should not detract, however, from its more serious nature.

So why is it one of the most important films of the year? The new Star Trek is more than an addition to the franchise; it's a new interpretation, one that has broken through the forty years of canon and history and lodged itself squarely in the mainstream. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, it hasn't sheathed itself in an impenetrable cocoon of continuity; it comes with few "nerd" strings attached. It's getting rave reviews, and is on track to make more money than any other film in the series. Not only is Star Trek being exposed to a whole new generation, but its audience has the potential to be even greater than the previous generation's.

In today's political environment, we face fearful challenges; global warming, terrorism, and the collapse of the world economy, just to name a few. Star Trek offers us a vision of hope, that not only will we overcome our present troubles, but that we will be strong enough to persevere no matter what the universe throws at us. Just as the original television series has come to stand for the ideals of the 1960s, so will the new film franchise come to represent our time, the first decade of a brand new century. One day, our own society may come to resemble the world of Star Trek. We will colonize planets, discover miraculous technologies, and find new life scattered throughout the galaxy. Even today, we live in a world that resembles Star Trek far more than it did four decades ago. Suddenly, the 23rd century doesn't seem so far off.

I have to admit, I found the movie's final scene very stirring. When Leonard Nimoy recited the show's famous monologue, culminating with the phrase, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," my spine tingled with excitement. The spirit of Star Trek is extraordinarily powerful, and it is alive and well today. I believe that we now have an opportunity to make that spirit our own.

Grade: A

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