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movies / May 11, 2009

trek_cast1

So Star Trek ’09 is out, it’s a big hit, and response to it is way over the top. This is highly enjoyable if you like to see people grappling with a popular culture artifact as if their lives depended on it, leaving rational resistance behind. What else are popular culture artifacts for?

Director J.J. Abrams of Lost and Fringe fame has engineered this Star Trek revival in such a way that the vast majority of us are going to take it and like it. Sure, you might sit there in the theater ticking off all its faults—the Romulan villain played by Eric Bana hardly makes a dent in the consciousness—most of the action scenes are rote at best—and overall, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. Easy to carp, but it’s ultimately useless against Abrams’ nostalgia-machine buzzing along in perfect working order.

And perhaps it’s not the bad kind of nostalgia either, when you wallow around in a regressive Neverland of yore that paralyzes your faculties. No, this might be the kind where you root through the idealized past in order to retool parts of it for your own uses so you can roar on ahead. (See “The Modalities of Nostalgia” by Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley in Current Sociology 2006: 54: 919. No? You refuse to see “The Modalities of Nostalgia” by Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley in Current Sociology 2006: 54: 919? Probably just as well. It’s really tedious.)

Star Trek ‘09 looks back in order to look forward. It pillages the Star Trek legacy, comes up with amusing “origin stories” for the characters, and then jiggers an “alternative reality” plotline so that what happens from now on with young Kirk (Chris Pine) and young Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the young Starship Enterprise gang never contradicts what we know already happened to old Spock and old Kirk et.al. And awaaaaay we boldly go, propelled by energizing chunks of the past, whoo-hoo! Sequels galore!

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Of course, everything depends on buying young-Kirk and young-Spock and the rest of the alternates and wanting to continue with them, and this is where J.J. Abrams shines. He’s got a real feel for casting, for actor’s faces, and for certain types of character interaction, especially humorous interaction. The scenes involving Bones (Karl Urban) giving Kirk repeated medical shots in the neck are genuinely funny, partly because it’s a joy to see Kirk jabbed in the neck, but also because both actors are good at comedy and have figured out a way to convey essential Bonesness and Kirkness without being overbearing about it. Casting the great Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz as Scotty is an excellent example of how to get fresh life out of old familiar characters.

But when it comes to staging big action sequences, Abrams is tragically uneven. The sword-fight sequence with John Cho’s Sulu is a travesty, a travesty, I tell you! Did all the fight choreographers in Hollywood boycott this production or something?

Regardless, the franchise by now has accrued affective power that’s hard to shrug off. Even if you were never a Trekkie or anything close to one, somehow over the decades we all got Trekkified. Especially when it comes to Spock, a Tribal Elder of our collective imagination. Good or bad, it’s too late to change our Spockophilia now.

There’s an interesting effect near the end of Star Trek ‘09 when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is advising his younger self, and the close-ups of Nimoy-Spock are blurred, his familiar features all watery, as if seen through sentimental tears. I have no idea if that was the intended effect, or if the idea was just to make Nimoy look younger—if so, it was wasted effort, he looks a hundred years old in the best possible sense—but it seemed perfectly appropriate. It’s not a particularly good scene, as far as moving dialogue or powerful acting or anything else, but the point is, it doesn’t matter. It’s SPOCK. One Vulcan salute from him and we all feel embiggened. (That’s a perfectly promulent word coined on The Simpsons.)

As a result, the claiming of Spock-power for political purposes by the left and right wing has gotten hilariously out of hand. Lefties, of course, feel confident of their long-standing claim on the Gene Roddenberry source material. MIT Comparative Media Studies honcho Henry Jenkins notes that Star Trek started off as a nostalgia machine forty-odd years ago, with Roddenberry mourning the lost “Camelot” of JFK and trying to revive its spirit in TV show form during the darkening LBJ era. That’s old news, but the comparisons of Barack Obama to Spock are fairly new, and rampant:

Spock has been on many minds lately, and not entirely because of the new film. Big thinkers in both print media and the blogosphere — from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to MIT media moguls — have referenced the Enterprise’s science officer in recent months, drawing parallels between the dependably logical half-Vulcan and another mixed-race icon: Barack Obama.

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This Obama-Spock conflation has led to push-back from righties. Warner Todd Huston of Red State, for example, charges Obama with un-Spock-like arrogance in requesting a White House screening of Star Trek ’09 in his article “Noblesse Oblige? The One Wants His OWN Star Trek Showing: I Know Spock, Mr. Obama. You are no Spock.”

See Red State‘s accompanying photo showing Obama as no-Spock:

obamaasspockgrin1

There’s also an interesting righty counter-appropriation of Captain Kirk in Dan Perrin’s Red State tribute, “Finally, A Real Star Trek Captain”:

For those of you who have watched the various television and movie versions of Star Trek, and have been wondering when are we going to see a real Star Trek Captain, finally we have one. James Tiberius Kirk is back.

For those who like to give the middle finger to the world of the politically correct, buy two tickets, and settle in for a great show.

Parents who want to teach their children examples of leadership and courage — and sacrifice, take the whole family.

James Tiberius Kirk has always been a leadership role model, a character of great courage and vision and purpose.

There are far too few examples in today’s world of you-can’t-shake-hands-at-graduation because you might get a mild flu.

To those looking for an antedote to the wimpy, lets live in a risk free world, hang-wringing whiners — this movie is it.

You can see how this might be the perfect political compromise. If the left gets Spock, the right takes Kirk. Deal!

Star Trek ’09 is, arguably, already on the case, embedding the new James T. Kirk firmly in the iconography of the ‘50s rebel white male, showing him joyriding in a vintage hot rod through Iowa cornfields, riding a motorcycle wearing a black leather jacket, hitting on girls relentlessly, always in favor of hotdog bravery, etc. He is, at first, out of place in the cool diverse ‘60s-looking world of the Starship Enterprise, the high-modernist, space-age pad which still spells the utopian future for us, mainly because it was the last one we ever envisioned. After our gleaming collective NASA-induced fantasy of the ‘60s, dystopian futures have ruled our imaginations—thanks, Blade Runner, thanks Terminator, thanks Road Warrior. No doubt they have their own dark glamour, but they’re tough futures to hold up as a collective goal. (You mean we have to kill all the animals to get to Blade Runner? Seriously? Jeez…)

So Star Trek ’09 goes back to retrieve our utopian future, where Uhura (Zoe Saldana) still sports a forever-fashion-forward mini-skirt and modified go-go boots, Spock is both very young and very old and can meet himself in the middle, and everybody’s up for a cultural do-over.

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23 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. aleke  |  May 12th, 2009 at 1:04 am

    I’m not so sure I like JJ Abrams, Orzi, and Kurtzman writing the cultural myth. Sigh, no depressive geniuses in the wake of labrador retriever Spielberg and international capital, I suppose. Maybe they’ll make something of themselves eventually, those awful brats.

  • 2. SweetLeftFoot  |  May 12th, 2009 at 2:20 am

    The word is ‘cromulent’ dearie, cromulent.

  • 3. mike Davis  |  May 12th, 2009 at 2:49 am

    don’t you mean “perfectly cromulent word”

  • 4. Kotek Besar  |  May 12th, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Star Trek: The 90210 Generation.

    Urgh.

  • 5. Tyler Bass  |  May 12th, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I totally agree with your positive appraisal of the casting. I was saying the same thing before I read the review.

  • 6. wengler  |  May 12th, 2009 at 8:17 am

    The rightwing wants Kirk, really? Is it for his stupendous amount of femininity behind his hypersexual bed-every-green-alien facade? Pine tried to do an admirable Kirk, but wisely pulled back from trying to do a parody of Shatner’s drama queen captain.

    In truth even Kirk is too cool for the right, his ideology informed by adventure rather than doctrine. They would be more comfortable with a Captain Pike, not the one from this movie but the one from the original unaired pilot. Cold, uncaring, distant and clearly woman-hating, without a Vulcan’s mind to attribute the first three to logic. And Pike’s fate would most clearly illustrate the conservatives in this world that has passed them by- alone in a box with wheels beeping only once or twice in paralyzed decrepitude.

  • 7. Alex  |  May 12th, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    It also had only two obvious product placements, which is pretty good these days. Just think, only 200 years until we get to try Budweiser Classic!

  • 8. firewalkwithme  |  May 12th, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Well done, wengler.

  • 9. Josh  |  May 12th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    First I have to get a super geek point off my chest.

    The bad guy was pissed because a star explodes and destroys his home-world. Gets knocked back in time, eventually captures Spock and Spock’s ship and the stuff he needs to prevent a star from exploding. He’s got something like a hundred years, the fastest ship ever and the stuff to prevent his tragedy. He goes out for revenge. Doesn’t fix the star, doesn’t save his race. Just revenge preemptively. Stupid.

    That off my chest I was sad Kirk was made into a rebel, a misfit, a repeat offender. How low is that at estimating your audience? Why not call him snake and have be from L.A? Are these repeat offenders ever promoted to officer or captain if their name isn’t McCain or Bush? It just doesn’t happen and if it does they don’t work out well. The original Kirk was plugged-in, was socially acceptable and was ruling class. He made it look good and modeled a system that appeared to work. Something like a Roman system with checks and balances, even including death for severe transgressions. Laurels for triumphs – dishonor for failure, not being congratulated in a soft patriarchal way at your school. The T was for Tiberius. The thing it stood for is just gone.

    So are the rules of engagement. Just gone. Now enemies strike out of the blue and maximal force and cunning is needed to repel them. Give one superficial ode to peace and blast away. Why? Because coked out Lawyers and their sycophantic underlings control Hollywood and that’s the way they behave? I don’t know.

    Oh BTW if you make totally inappropriate comments to your commanding officer about his mother in front of his crew on the bridge, he will step down, they will come together behind you and you can all be friends in 10 minutes. No court marshal.

    Also if you love a show then turn three of it’s minor characters into comic relief.

    In summery. The effects were busy but good. The blue LED look is already old on consumer electronics. Spock was the true lead character. Him and Ohura were sexy deep. Everything else was wrong, wrong, wrong, and shows a societal degeneracy from the earlier age of Star Trek.

  • 10. Tam  |  May 12th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Regarding the left and right debate ‘getting out of hand’, I’d imagine that was pretty much the hope and intention of the film-makers.
    These days most big action films have some meat in it to throw the red and blue states so they can claim it as ‘their own film’. Obvious examples would include Iron Man, War of the Worlds, The Incredibles and so on. It also gives a hook for other media organisations to do features and articles about the films increasing their profile even further. It’s the best way for a film producer to maximise ROI in a divided nation.

  • 11. geo8rge  |  May 13th, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Saw the film, bad Star Trek, Bad SciFi, good action.

    As to Star Trek there was no moral message, and the crew was multi culti in a 1950s sort of way. No Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Blacks are refreshingly American (No Caribbeans, Africans).

    As to SciFi, no pretense at scientific backing is there, and the sets are cheap and crummy. For example: When they drop out of the sky and land on the silly drill thing, no jet packs, they use parachutes I could buy today off the net. The Swiss guy, Fusion Man, has better equipement. Drilling to the center of the earth is a plot twist I remember from Pink Panther movies, and Austin Powers.

    Action: Pirates of Outer space, the action was OK, but could have been a pirate or indiana jones movie. BFD

    Not worth the money, or time. It was released in May because it could not compete with the Transformer movie coming out in the summer IMO.

  • 12. Caltrop  |  May 13th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Obama is obviously Tuvok.

  • 13. Plamen Petkov  |  May 14th, 2009 at 8:41 am

    anyone wasting time/money with this crap is a complete moron. Then again, never overestimate the “intelligence” of the American Stupids.

  • 14. Ahmed, kabulhusbandwifeblog.com  |  May 14th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Thank G-d i’m not American

  • 15. Matt  |  May 14th, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    The Sulu swordfight is a h/t to old school Sulu when he went barechested and crazy with an epee. George Takei took fencing lessons for the episode.

    I know this not because I am a trekkie, but because I fence.

  • 16. Copeland  |  May 16th, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    One person’s homage is another person’s plundering of the vintage Trek. But I found the film satisfying enough for the acting and the relationship of the characters. I am afraid that like Spock, we will all bump into our future selves in this dystopia where we live. I hope to still enjoy a film like this every once in a while, because I remember “the darkening LBJ years” and they left a mark on me; and the morality plays in the old Star Trek series are the stuff that dreams are made of, naturally, in this PTSD world.

    In these days, under the reign of beasts, it takes strength to remember that we still have a chance at coming out of the nightmare. The Trek stories do say somthing about friendship maturing over time, about improvisation and never giving up, the rejection of despair, about some compassion as an improvement of our species. And of course there is lots and lots of over-the-top hormonal action and hand-to-hand combat; but there was from the past to the present some reminder in these voyages about the limitations of our more brutal instincts. And I say good for Star Trek; it has become on balance a good contribution to our shared memory.

  • 17. Homer Erotic  |  May 17th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    The new Kirk is a lot more geuninely fuckable. ;-)

  • 18. twentyeight  |  May 22nd, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    If it doesn’t involve Shatner taking hits from flechette rounds I’m not watching it.

  • 19. NotGodot  |  May 23rd, 2009 at 10:08 am

    There are like four or five times in the original series when Kirk says “Well I’m in the military so I should have NOTHING TO DO with setting policy because that is how we perpetuate warfare and letting a soldier run thes how would turn us into an empire”

    So I don’t really think the rightist attempt to appropriate the mythos has much weight.

  • 20. aleke  |  May 25th, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Star Trek was always a lefty kinda Americanism. That’s what I noticed in the new movie, is the very conservative idea of the future JJ Abrams is selling. Particularly, the sense of the military service as salvation for slight transgressions (“repeat offender”), the [though robotic] presence of police is still extremely similar to our present situation, the very American ride-on-the-great expanse.

    That must be why, too, he’s trying to ‘sell’ it. That’s why I suspect him and his writer buddies are professionals and not an artists. Maybe then the right will be able to take him for their own, if JJ Abrams continuous to sell and change Star Trek.

  • 21. Alquanole  |  June 7th, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    I find discussing the ethics and morals of an ENTRATAINMENT movie to be profoundly depressing.

    I’m a Star Trek fan. I went to the movie. I suspended disbelief and enjojed it.

  • 22. Captain my captain  |  June 11th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    The right can lay claim to Tribbles. They are about as useless, yet cute, and are fun until they multiply and gum up the works.

  • 23. Frank McG  |  June 17th, 2009 at 5:01 am

    Anytime you hear someone proudly crack some joke about “PC nuts”, chances are they’re an idiot and can be ignored. Unless it’s the early 90s in which case they’re trendy idiots.

    All across the board you’re seeing a depressing relapse in movies to awful 80s trends: hard right reactionary themes (300, Star Trek) and shitty teen slashers.


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