04 July 2016

Celebrating American Hope

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond, and in celebration of America's birthday, I'm going to start another stroll between now and July 22nd (or so) through the dozen films of the Star Trek universe.  Star Trek: TOS will be 50 years old this September, and in that half a century, the world has changed.  Has moved on, one might go so far as to say.  The American outlook has shifted to one of cynicism.  The Reagan-era brought with it a seemingly ingrained mistrust of government - and the Great Recession, Anonymous, Edward Snowden & WikiLeaks & Occupy & Bernie movements have engendered a new parallel mistrust of institutions of all kinds, governments & multi-national corporations and massive NGOs.  These two mistrusts appear on the surface as countervailing forces - one liberal and the other conservative; the one side clearly hails from well outside the establishment, while the other feels ensconced in the corporate, media and government elite establishments.  In fact, these 'sides' are the same force, but they've been harnessed and messaged toward separate ends.  But that is a story for another day...

Source: Twitter (@starTrek)
In these 50 years, Star Trek's enduring hopeful vision of a future, where individuals are free to explore and enact their own chosen lives and livelihoods, partnered with institutions that work to improve and expand on those individuals' interests, has changed and grown up, but remained steadfast.  It's easy to sit in our cynical seats to the world's history and read Star Trek as a naïve vision of the future, particularly in the wake of dystopian science fiction and horror.  How can a world that can imagine The Walking Dead also see Star Trek as an equally viable (which is to say fantastical, but usefully so) future vision?

So, our walk begins in 1979, with:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) - dir. by Robert Wise (7/4/16)

The first movie is, admittedly, a bit of clunker.  It's not to say that there's nothing redeeming about it, it is, in the end, a good story and a product of its time.  Much of the film stands as a late-70s, hi-tech art piece: reveling in the special effects technology of the time, an exposition of time and narrative in film (long 2001-style sweeping scenes which amounts to five minutes of parking a goddamn shuttle craft).  At one point, during the closing confrontation scene on the bridge, Bones walks in, a few lines of dialogue are said (none to him or by him) and plot points furthered and he walks back out.  Overall, it's a classic part of the franchise, with a few themes and questions, in particular V'Ger's ultimate (and eternal) question about the nature of existence.  After completing a centuries-long voyage to complete her prime directive (learn and report back), V'ger has amassed vast power and intellect and become sentient.  That sentience has the burden that (sometimes at least) goes with it of questioning of its own purpose.  Are we here, knowing that we're here, only in order to complete our directives (be they biological, tribalistic, or capitalist, etc.).

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) - dir. by Nicholas Meyer (7/6/16)

The best of the movies with the original cast, and may be the best of the bunch.  A classic villain returned, Shakespearean-worthy revenge plot.  Wrath of Kahn sets up the Trilogy, which stands at the heart of the first six movies.  Each of the second, third, and fourth movies are distinct stories, but serve the dual purpose of returning Kirk, in a round about way, from admiralty back to captaining the Enterprise and also to begin the tradition of destroying Enterprises, and starting a line of Enterprise A, B, C, etc. 

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) - dir. by Leonard Nimoy (7/10/16)

This film explores the quiet space that religion and mysticism hold in the Star Trek universe.  In the later series, there were episodes focused on Bajoran and Klingon (and occasionally Vulcan) rituals, but other than as a plot device (e.g. so Kirk has to fight Spock!), the original cast didn't have much time or interest for old-time Federation religions.  The plot brings Spock back from death, reborn thanks to the technological marvel of the Genesis device.  After Kahn, though, the battle against some Klingons - even led by one so charismatic as Christopher Lloyd - is something of a letdown. 

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) - dir. by Leonard Nimoy (7/11/16)

This was hands down the most popular of the Star Trek movies to date.  I say this with no statistical or research backing whatsoever, but a firm confidence that comes from it just making sense.  It was an attempt to make the Star Trek characters and universe relatable by bringing them into our own time.  An ecological fairy tale (or folk tale or fable), we get to see our beloved characters stumble around naïvely, clearly not understanding the complexities of modern times.  Really, it's an indictment of capitalism - the silliness of our everyday lives in comparison of work of real importance.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) - dir. by William Shatner (7/15/16)

Such a strange mess of a movie... It pleases me to know that at 50, I'm not the only one whose working on this project and as I've come to expect, EW has written the apt re-review of the fifth installment.  I started the re-watch of number five assuming that I hated it... Because I remember being told that it was awful, and disliking it on the first go round.  Now, when I watch it, I can't quite tell if I love it or hate it or both...  It's a classic adventure - and the religiosity that may once have offended me, has more of a new age feel (epallan pronounces it newage to rhyme with sewage)... The concluding scene with a conversation with god is at first presumptuous (writing dialogue for god, that is), but at second glance, it's just about exactly right and how that conversation will eventually go.  A throw-back to the TV series episodes where the crew encountered other human gods (e.g. Apollo) and demystified them.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) - dir. by Nicholas Meyer (7/16/16)

This is a great conclusion for the original cast (with a coda in the first next generation film).  It's a story about the place of old people in politics.  Set against the end of the Cold War in our century, the big picture story is almost a direct historical mirror - the dismantling of the Klingon Empire while the Iron Curtain was coming down.  What's more interesting, I think, is looking at the inner Federation political conversations throughout the film.  It's really more a film that reflects our current political moment (not so much Trump/Clinton or Sanders/Clinton, more the aging Republican Party and finding its place in the new world).  Again, Star Trek is an overly-optimistic rendering, but there is an acknowledgement that old folks and an old political way of thinking is on its way out.  Michael Moore posted a recent letter about why Trump will win, and a key piece is what he calls "The Last Stand of the Endangered White Male" - overcoming 240 years of American history... I think the future - both Star Trek's and America's - is an undiscovered country, but the frontier is shrinking and we're starting to traverse it.

Star Trek: Generations (Star Trek VII) (1994) - dir. by David Carson (7/18/16)

It's a bit of a fun romp.  It's not a great movie.  It's good, sorta.  If I'm not much mistook, it's our only trip aboard the Enterprise B, with Kirk's apparent death saving the ship on its pre-maiden voyage.  The plot centers on access to a wish-granting natural phenomenon called the Nexus.  However, the plot of this one isn't terribly captivating.  It's more of a pageant opportunity for our Next Gen friends to traipse in to a new adventure.  Really a glorified episode (maybe a two-parter).

Star Trek: First Contact (Star Trek VIII) (1996) - dir. by Jonathan Frakes (around 7/20/16 & again on 9/20/16)

This is sorta the best Star Trek movie ever.  Fundamentally, the most amazing bit is the last moments of the film when the Vulcans, having landed on earth to meet a newly warp-capable species, are frakking mortified to find themselves hanging out with the dregs of the earth... of all earths really.  I feel like there's more to say in my chronology post of Star Trek

Star Trek: Insurrection (Star Trek IX) (1998) - dir. by Jonathan Frakes (on or around 7/23/16)

As a follow-up to First Contact, this movie is a bit of a let-down.  That said, it's an odd-numbered movie, so expectations were muted.  At the core of the story, though, is a pretty profound point about Star Trek - and too often ignored - namely that despite the fact that Star Trek takes place in a post-awful era, when humans have come to realize that the acquisition of wealth is a pretty silly system by which to define one's (an individual's or a society's) existence, there are still going to be smaller people.  There will always be people of any number of species and races and belief systems who work toward the detriment of all.  Those people, says this movie (and Star Trek in general), ought to be outed and stopped.  Truth will out, and so will good, again, says the central argument of Star Trek - and Insurrection, for all its failings and scope (a mid-sized episode story, not much more).

Star Trek: Nemesis (Star Trek X) (2002) - dir. by Stuart Baird (on or around 7/24/16)

The first movie to buck the trend of even-numbered films being the quality ones.  The premise of the film is actually promising, but it's all a bit disappointing.  Not terrible, but falls short of its potential.  Den of Geek actually seems to have diagnosed pretty specifically what went wrong with regard to the lead-up and decision making about the film.  Tom Hardy's villain feels to me a bit interchangeable with Eric Bana's in the 2009 reboot - I think they both may actually be Remans, which strikes me as an oddity that doesn't get noticed much (I suppose because Nemesis itself rarely gets noticed).

DoG gets right that the film feels off, the characters behave uncharacteristically, and the director didn't like (and even refused to watch) the series.  There are also obnoxious plot points and painful scenes (the cloning thing, Data singing at the wedding, Picard gleefully driving his fancy-new golf cart {which is underwhelming}).

That said, there are some redeeming qualities, mostly to do with the overall premise (and probably the original writing).

Star Trek (Star Trek XI) (2009) - dir. by J. J. Abrams (7/29/16)

Such a fun return for the franchise that had started to lose its way.  The new movie offered a clean break by creating a new timeline, allowing the franchise to go its own way while occupying the same space and time of the original series and films. 

What's missing is the humanist optimism that is central to the Star Trek Universe.  Throughout the series and films, Star Trek fearlessly posits scynical optimism as a central premise.  The Americanist tropes of TOS remains (humans can do everything that Vulcans can better...!) as the same central joke, but that cynical joke lacks the tenacious hope that always accompanied it in all of the shows and movies.  The cynicism sharpened in the later movies and especially in the Enterprise series, but optimism remained a central tenet. 

The movie is fun, fast-paced, smart and nostalgic. 

Star Trek Into Darkness (Star Trek XII) (2013) - dir. by J. J. Abrams (7/30/16)

A reintroduction of Khan, and an intro worthy of making Kirk Kirk.  The "cowboy diplomacy" of earlier generations of the Federation is on display in the opening escape sequence of the film.  Kirk subsequently gets momentarily demoted, until a terrorist attack carried out by Khan.

The plot is a bit blah - enemies and then frenemies Kirk and Khan work with and against each other in an effort to unveil darker tendencies within the Federation.  Another fast-paced film version of the franchise that loses a lot of the original value of the series.  While these new films are fun, they definitely show why we need another Star Trek series on TV.

Star Trek Beyond (Star Trek XIII) (2016) - dir. by Justin Lin (8/2/16)

This third step through the alternate timeline starts out with Kirk casting about a bit for the what it all means and what he's supposed to do with his life (so say we all).  The film is action-packed (I don't mean that as a good quality), but the villain, Krall, is interesting in the fact that he is deranged lost Star Fleet captain whose crew are intent on revenging themselves upon pretty much everybody.  Of note is the reconnecting of the two timelines - as Krall's ship is from the era of the Enterprise TV series (which also appears to be the era of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series.  I'm still a little ways away from catching up to this series on my chronological run-thru (tho this project has helped!), but I think now (as it turns out!), my plan is to be able to watch Discovery in "real time".  Overall, the latest movie was fun, but not too important.

Sometime recently, with all the 50th Anniversary look-backs and the new movie look-backs for Star Trek, I read someone comment that Star Trek is first and foremost about the series.  The movies were fun events, and reaching a (slightly) wider audience, but the shows did the real work of Star Trek.


No comments: