Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Just saw it. Perfectly enjoyable. The techniques of action really have been honed into a science that   can, when executed properly, play your brain the way Eric Clapton plays his guitar. And Star Trek Into Darkness is executed properly.

Some people have complained. Now, of course, this is the internet. It is not physically possible for something to be know to the internet and have no one complain about it. There is probably a fan club somewhere for people who drink orange juice after brushing their teeth. But there are people complaining that this is not a "Star Trek" movie, complaining that JJ Abrams is a huge tool, and that it is "just another generic blockbuster".

Let me start with the obvious. JJ Abrams is obviously a huge tool. The first Star Trek was exciting, but directionless. Abrams clearly didn't respect the legacy of Star Trek, thinking that references would substitute for spirit. And I am still mad about the ending of Lost. He is a craftsman (a prodigiously skilled one), not an artist.

Next up, "Just another generic blockbuster". Look, I get that there are some people who don't want to watch terrifically choreographed action sequences, for whom the plates flying off the Enterprise as she fell into the atmosphere did nothing, for whom quips fail to substitute for wit, who get bored during the final countdown. I don't understand those sorts of preferences, but I understand that they exist. If you don't like action, you won't like Into Darkness. But that isn't the complaint, is it? The complaint is that it is yet another generic action blockbuster. Well, I am sorry that you have seen so many tightly scripted combat scenarios in varied environments shifting seamlessly from ranged to melee in a tactically varied engagement set in multi-million dollar environments to orchestral scores that you have become jaded and all you can see is the god damned lens flare. Yes, there is stupid lens flare, and yes, there are other shows that involve punching and running and shooting but if you come down off your high fucking horse (which would never, ever gallop, or even trot in times of trouble) for a minute you will find that it keeps showing up, not because it is easy (it isn't) but because it is really exciting. No one made you pay $10 to interrupt you free-verse poetry night to slum it with those of us who ooh and aah at the fireworks. There exist movies which feel like they are ticking boxes off a list, for whom the action scenes feel slow and forced, but Star Trek Into Darkness is not one of those films.

The final and most legitimate complaint is that this is not a Star Trek movie. Obviously it has all the characters, and the plot is a clever reworking of Wrath of Khan, but it cannot be denied that despite  the characteristic chirps and TOS pattern dialogue, it feels different from Wrath of Khan. It feels different from Encounter at Farpoint. It feels different from Balance of Terror. And that is because it is different. This is a different cast, a different team, and forty some years after the original series. It would be a different and greater sort of distressing if the aliens were still rubber masks and the dialogue still "radio ready". The real question is whether, hidden behind the lens flare, the spirit of Star Trek still beats.

And it does. Some claim the spirit of Star Trek is exploration, and thus it makes sense why the holodeck episodes suck. These people are only sort of right. Star Trek is not, however, fundamentally about exploration, and I would contend that Deep Space 9 was the best series in part because it sat down and let itself develop. Because the point of Star Trek is not the aliens, the point of Star Trek is humanity. Star Trek is a celebration of humanity and humanity's potential. Every one sees what we are and can look where we have come from, but every Trekkie is seized by a single powerful vision of what humanity can become, of what our ultimate form can be. I don't think anyone contends that the future will look like Star Trek, but we know for certain that it is the future when people act like Star Trek. As the great song says, Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain, why is he climbing a mountain? The aliens are foils against which the true nature and goodness of humanity can emerge. A Vulcan would study the mountain, a Klingon would destroy the mountain, a Romulan would conquer the mountain and while a human might do any of these things, Captain Kirk climbs the mountain for the thrill and romance of exploration, of proving himself, of bettering himself.

In this sense, Star Trek Into Darkness holds the spirit of Star Trek alive and well. In it, we are presented with Khan, a man from the past, with the ideals of our past, genetically designed to be a perfect man. He is a vision of perfection, a vision of the future from a darker era, and it is the task of our crew, not perfect men but men who hold in their eyes a clear vision of how a better man would truly appear, to deal with this criminal. Intermixed in the hokey topical attempts to be relevant (which, need I remind you, were a staple of all five TV runs) is the internal cancer, the madness of General Marcus, showing just how high we have climbed already and how easy it is to slip and fall to a lesser standard of humanity.

We learn that we should always embrace our lives, that death is a thing to be avoided and despised, but that we must be ready to die like men when the most dire circumstances arise. We learn that you should go always exert maximal effort for your comrades, but going so far as to hurt the comrades of others is cruel. We learn that vengeance is a darkness which resides in our souls and must be excised should we ever hope to transcend our baser nature. We learn that heroes do not kill their enemies, because every person has worth, every person has rights, and every person deserves their life. Because the good life is one in which you live long and prosper, and in the future, everyone will live the good life.

You have heard all these lessons before, and just because Patrick Steward doesn't sit Wil Wheaton down at the end of the episode and explain these morals doesn't mean this wasn't Star Trek Sunday School. Because it was, and has always been Sunday School, the weekly sermon for the futurist-humanist faith. A faith which believes in a prophesied end-time when all will live in harmony and plenty brought about by the limitless power of human ingenuity. And Star Trek Into Darkness is a glass cathedral to that faith. Abrams and his design team have taken what was once a plastic prop of a ship and turned it into a glass and steel work of art in motion. Every room of the Enterprise, from the functional bridge to the massive warp core is a beautiful vision of Clarkean magic. When the primitive aliens at the opener take up Enterprise worship, this is only natural, as what else but a god could arise from the ocean to silence a volcano. Star Trek is about the gods we could become, the men we will become, if only we hold true to the moral precepts laid out for us by the Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer.

While we can see what mankind can become, our heroes are not perfect men. There is a scene in the warp core where Kirk is hanging from a bar kicking desperately at a misaligned fusion reactor, swinging and kicking like a goddamned monkey surrounded by technology inconceivable to us today. It is that tension that forms the core of this tale, the tension between men who are still not what they could be, and yet greater than what they once were. It would be all too easy to be seduced by our darker souls as Admiral Marcus did, or to fall victim to desperation as did Khan, but we can and we must be better than that, and when once we fail we learn, grow, and improve. Because just as we explore the farthest edges of space, we must also explore the deepest recesses of ourselves to become truly great.

James Tiberius Kirk, Explorer, Diplomat, and Extrovert, stands up to a man with ultimate physical power and a man with ultimate political authority and wins the day through the intellect and teamwork of his crew. The new Kirk may lack the authority of Picard or the wisdom of Sisko, but he is no less an Enterprise Captain, and Into Darkness is no less a Star Trek story. And a damn good one at that.

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