May 10, 2009

Star Trek

Like all other good Americans this weekend, I went to see the new J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie.  I didn’t actually expect the movie to be good – I hoped it would be entertaining, and the action-filled sequences did satisfy.  As art, this certainly can’t compare with Tarkovsky’s Solaris (or even Steven Soderbergh’s).  But people don’t go to movies like Star Trek to address big philosophical problems – they go because they enjoy seeing certain character types interact (and, of course, save the universe.)  However, I must confess I got more entertainment from Anthony Lane’s review than the actual film.

I did enjoy the Spock character – in the original Star Trek series, Spock was a super-stoic character that thrived on cold rational (or, as he puts it, “logical”) thought.  In the new movie, Zachary Quinto plays Spock more like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character:  a man with a constant seething sneer and absolute sureness in himself.  Indeed, no fewer than five of the characters in the movie are uber-reasoners:  Spock, who can instantly calculate the probability of success of any particular sequence of actions; Chekov, a late pubescent math-whiz who; Scotty, who can out-invent Edison; Uhura, who knows every language in the universe; and Bones, the physician who can both induce and cure all illnesses.  Naturally, the least competent of the bunch, Chris Pine’s Kirk (a over-the-top pastiche of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun character) is ultimately put in charge.

(In the original series, the name “Uhura” was reportedly based on a Swahili word, but in this film, blacks are apparently so strange that Kirk assumes she must be of non-Earthly origin.)

In the television series, none of the characters ever changes – each week they start out the same.  In the movies, the one time this rule was broken was in Ricardo Montalban’s Wrath of Khan movie – a movie in which Spock dies (regrettably, even something seemingly as permanent as Spock’s death is reversed for subsequent issues from the franchise; not unlike Sherlock Holmes’ miraculous resurrection after his death at Reichenbach Falls.)   In this film too, there is no change except the one transition that happens in each Star Trek episode – Spock learns to appreciate Kirk’s virtues.  The great strength of the Star Trek movies – the outrageous performances and speeches by the villains – is unfortunately subdued here by Eric Bana’s California-style “Nero” who greets his adversaries as if he were meeting them in a twelve-step meeting.

But to judge the film on aesthetic terms is a bit misleading.  I saw the film in IMAX (something of a waste of money, as I subsequently learned that the flick was only photographed on standard Kodak 35mm film) and the special effects were suitably wowing, and the acting was different, but just as hammy, as I remember from the original series.  I didn’t expect to be challenged and I was not – and I cannot even say that the plot was compelling, but I found it a fun diversion for a few hours.

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