Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek for Social Networkers

So Star Trek is the Star Trek film for people who don't like Star Trek. Fair enough. And all things being equal, it's a surprisingly warmhearted and entertaining action film. The Enterprise and her crew are lovingly recreated with fresher and shinier faces: Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, and Mr. Scott all show up to announce themselves and take their places on this new Apple store version of the bridge. It's all expertly done and realized.

The real pleasure of the movie is in watching all the expected pieces fall into place in unexpected ways. Kirk was a farm boy and a townie who can take a beating. Uhura and Spock have a budding romance, and her affection and empathy become an outward expression of Spock's inner emotions. Kirk and Spock are rivals who spend most of the movie working through their issues (reason versus emotion, self-control versus impulsiveness), and while no one really wins, they grow toward mutual understanding, or something like it. Kirk learns to channel his recklessness into the productive pursuits of leadership and command. Spock learns that he can experience emotion without losing his cool.

As for the story in Star Trek, there really isn't one. Yes there's some nonsense about time travel and rogue Romulans and red matter, but it's all an extended McGuffin designed to erase the memory of the old crew, who had the misfortune of aging and bloating and becoming more risible with every outing (culminating in the disaster that was Star Trek V). Ultimately the message of the movie seems to be that youth and beauty are everything. What we take to be the optimism of science fiction is not its high-mindedness but it's self-perpetuating myth of eternal renewal. It's not the big ideas or advanced technologies that matter but the fact that in fiction and in the movies one can always press the reset button and return to that moment when your whole life was ahead of you, and anything was possible.

And in that light, what Star Trek does is undermine the very notion of "science fiction" as a genre. It calls into question the purpose of speculative story-telling. In the old Gene Roddenberry version of the world, you took a stock set of characters and placed them in a different situation each week in order to explore the social, political, or scientific repercussions. In the J.J. Abrams version on the other hand, you create a generic scenario in order to explore the characters and their relationships and as in Alias and Lost, all these little character moments are told with great economy and enormous punch. In just a few quick scenes you learn a lot about Kirk and Spock's parents and throughout the film there are big emotional pay-offs.

If I have any complaint, it's that J.J. and his team seem to think that a generic Star Trek story is just a mash-up of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Galaxy Quest: Kirk is the the farm boy Luke Skywalker. Captain Pike plays Ben Kenobi who tells Kirk grand stories about his heroic father (who thankfully doesn't turn out to be Darth Vader). Vulcan is Leia's home planet of Alderaan, the sacrificial lamb as plot point. Nero's ship is the Death Star looking for it's next planet to destroy. Kirk, Future!Spock, and Scotty all find each other on a Hoth-like ice world. Scotty has a little pal reminiscent of the weird pig-engineers on Cloud City. And finally, Scotty is accidentally beamed into a water tank in a scene reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's incredulity at the smashers and flamethrowers that inexplicably make up the inner workings of the star ship in Galaxy Quest. All in all it's just cliche and convention. Overly-familiar tropes designed for the general audience.

So while much of the new Star Trek universe is fun and exciting, it also relies on the goodwill and self-congratulatory mood of the audience (old fans that pick-up on all of the references to the original show, and new fans that are pleased to be at a Star Trek movie that doesn't bore them to tears). Moreover, it makes it abundantly clear that the central ethos of the final frontier isn't very interesting. There are no new civilizations to discover, no where to boldly go. The future is just more of the same. What's interesting is the private and the personal, our inner lives and motivations, our friends and relationships, our histories and memories. It's a new Star Trek for a new generation and it's not Starfleet they want to join, it's Facebook.