Indepth: Star Trek

Martin Goodhead 23/05/2009

Rating: 4/5

In no sense is this a standard Star Trek, sensitive Trekkiers be aghast at an especially conscupient young brawler of a J. Tiberius Kirk in an alternate reality of CGI wrecks and promo-editing, who doesnt enunciate exposition with the gravity of Corolonius in the Round. Glossy, insouciant and overloaded with barely reverential intertexts from the creators of Alias, J J Abrams's Star Trek has been called-or accused of being- not just a modernist Space Western movie but a 'Star Wars'-shorthand for a polythene flimsy fazar-fight fantasy. On the first count, sure, it's a star-cowboy story--with all the moral insinuations of that a historically deconstructed and reconstructed Western form supplies, from Duel In The Sun to Unforgiven. A reinvention, of the same genus ostensibly as The Dark Knight , Superman, and even the Spiderman series. But like its relationship to Star Wars, even at moments of convergence, such similarities are in every sense cosmetic; at some level the whole movie is a play on surfaces, being epistemic cosmetics and morality-play rags. It's not just anything, let alone a spaceships for wagons substitute. But it is pretty much all about Kirk- just as Star Wars is superficially about farmboy Skywalker even if he's a cipherous drib; both are like the 'hero with a thousand faces,' who encompasses both a 'Bogart' and a Zack Efron. Speaking of difference between it and Bale's Batman, between the 'Star films as galactic-westerns, and finally Star Trek 2.009 and its antecedents, concerns the nature of it's singular space physicality; then it's Chris Pine's Jim K who embodies those plot and tone modulations with Shatnerian degrees of largesse. He's the hero, right.

Star Trek opens with a reinterpretation of JTK's raison d'etre; forged in the steel blast of a dying spaceship resembling emollient flowers on the phoenix pyre of his father's sacrifice, in a deadly earnest piece of technically accomplished scene-setting. In other words, another blonde born from tragedy, destined by symbolism to go back, avenge or transfigure daddy's death. Rather, that is, than the canonical Kirk, scion of the Federation bestriding the universe for knowledge's sake physics, metaphysics and 'lets-get-physical', mapping planets, soliloquising and squiring rainbow pigmented, radioactive looking beauties like some mix of Kant, Columbus and horndog. And Iowa does, even if it has that immutably iconic quality of desolation, dirt-bikes and camp-fires, share a kinship with Tattoine; a joyriding adolescent warrior with the Beasties kicking against the pricks with ground metal like any mid-westerner still comes laden with Import; heavy metal complaints, the uneasily atomised impulsive fury and intellect about to transcombulate like hologram distress-signals or gold maps.

A man at once alien from and predisposed to succeed within this rule-hiden fighter-pilot cum diplomatic service, possessing a lateral mix of self-deprecating assurance and near-somnbulastic artificial levity, with uncharted levels of intensity, a debonair rough-necks. A nascent genius given the lie in early seduction techniques of instinctive knave-tongued bravado, the same callow charisma sparks as he chimes whisky flasks on-board with new kindred soul Leo' Bones' McCoy; At his roots, an old-style 'blade with a couple of bar-room scars like a mock-heroic self ameliorating embodiment of the new complex masculine, tattered valour mixed with cynicism off the evidence of those 'sleep-less' shade narrowed eyes and sharp mouth interrupting Chris Pine's fresher-lined Matt Damon features. Pine emulates Shatner's mixture of glowering gravitas with hubris, but with a leaner, still not fully formed visual persona; feeling his way into the manner and pose symbiotic with that famous captain's chair. So too the new built Enterprise, still almost with the welding work still present upon it, but sparkling compared to the ships in the dock with their space-rock and desert worn under-bays, the aesthetic corresponding to spectator-identification; Kirk's aspirations and apprehensions from Iowa aridness to Starfleet Academy's white hues. Starship Academy has a clean, liberal architectural positivism compared to those garish neon bars in this parallel West where still the human lingers, little fundamental changes. Its world of classicised harmonic neo-Grecian meets futurist campus designs, the energies of human benevolence and agency wrought in Euclidean stone, a world in which nevertheless Kirk still cavorts, connives and still emerges heroic by the end. Like the film, even when dealing with complex emotions, at heart there's also something of the fly-by, cakewalking thrill seeker, all flip-wit and emotional arrestedness destabilising pontificates, slush and emotional hooks in various measures. The ship- although retaining the conventional design at the front- has more of a 'hot-rod/aesthetic, unpredictable even at its showpiece. More than that, a fortuitousness hangs over the rapidly assembling cast positions which doesn't extend do far as to avoid bruises and grazes of skin and image; just as the techno-souped up ships in the yard have differentiated scuffmarks from meteors and old missile wounds, geniuses with attitude problems still make diagnostic errors, miscalculations, missing flames and lasers by serendipitous margins. as a 'horse opera' within a hyper-rational and sceptical yet planet-spanning conception of human agency, faults become viable evidence of both magniloquent personalities and myth-klasting tendencies to the heroic.

In the new Trek Zackery's Spock is more of a distended Vulcan refugee, caught between uneasy alliances planetary and genetic within his blood; he's filled with a bilious discontentment beneath the surface cross-lattice tangled as those sinewy Guadi ship-interiors of the Romulans. At his fingers the cold topography of space's geo-spatial and cometary formations, compared to which Kirk's impulses of chaos theory intuitive questing win out. Which is something of a reflexive allegory for the film; triggering those barely choate 1g tremors of community disquiet amidst the critical enthusiasm is that Star Trek's not really a film about exploring outer worlds but two hours of noisy sensory exposition and crew set-up whose dynamic is driven by a series of faint parallels and philosophical squabbles like Kirk and Spock's mutual projecting. Which is why the Vulcan gets assailed with emotional prongs; a home-world melting like feathers, brushes, lip locks and ethical quandaries with leggy Uhura, the deconstruction of the rule book from a Kirk privileged by fate. He's as fated to conflict as to green-blood and as capable of resisting the contrary logic- being so perfectly attuned to the acuity of logic- of the plot as he is of reversing his own destiny. If Spock is rife with inscrutable traumas like a Greek tragedian's creation, Kirk's full of hamartia, a Sophoclean near-fatal flaw, then Karl Urban's 'Bones' is a more realisable archetype; a caustic flight-sick divorcée just the rumpledly attractive side of forty all whose aftermath fill him with a sardonic levity which occasionally, just occasionally crystallises into something deeper. A wearied figure like the Western's crow-foot brass-beaten confidante sidekicks, an alienated commentator from the crew deck wings, frankly McCoy's the one identifiable earthling left on this space saloon-full of brilliant eccentrics and silhouette depth anxieties real as Chekov's thick-clotted tones.

With its cold-war allegories- and allusions( see aforementioned Nick Chekov's stunt-character presence)- spliced with pop-art couture Star Trek started off self-aware and now, at its apex and its detriment it's self-aware cubed; Uhura, subject of parodies, gets a near-well fully realised character who naturally rails and strains at the eye-candy role ship and script put her within as surely as Kirk is locked into his self-aware irrevocable fate. Smart and contradictory, she might as well be in Pirandello, being locked into character- this might as well masquerade as art for all that it's genre chair-arranging subversion sold as mass entertainment.After all, her room-mate's a voluptuous synecdoche made incarnate of Kirk's infamous 'planet-ploughing tendencies'--a character who's pure mise-en-scene to be casually thrown into the fabric like Sulu's 23rd Century fencing match and Chekov's mangled broadcasts; a visual tease of a silhouette , a lampshade and a half-naked Kirk sprawled in concealment moments later with the camera, inches from Uhura's accidental lingerie tease. All those allusions tap into the unconscious cultural memory existent even in this Trek novice-- Commander Pike, Kirk's predecessor on the SS Enterprise a namesake of fabled pilot -episode 'The Trap' Captain Pike. Reworking the series, this adaptation throws open this early alternate history as metonymic portal to universal black holes meta-textually forming the basis of the film's plot. Traditional bete-noires 'Klingons' merit a passing verbal glance in the midst of early jousts. As Bones reminds us he's “a doctor not a… “- the accumulated effect, in cold ink and typeface seemingly self-satisfied- can prove positively vertiginous; half-blown memories from quiz show question repetitions suddenly alight. And a 'red shirt' crew member is barely established with a name before his chance at glory turns to fiery and spectacular infamy in of the film's most startlingly choreographed pieces of soft-menace. Along with which Scotty appears as Simon Pegg, with a amph-plussed Glasgae mocking accent and a furry green accomplice ( at which point briefly those Star Wars parallels do briefly start hitting discomfortingly home). Pegg's amusing in his spurt and splutter screen-time though and amidst the Romulan's and Spock's emotional journeying and Kirk's trial by disaster apprenticeship, by this point in the movie with the pop drying up, Scotty helps us evade the figurative sugar-crash.

Not everything associated with the past is the iris-candy escapist play of surface 'beam me up's' and 'I'm a doctor' tics. Pastiche fits, by its own lateral logic, into the universe of Trek; lines become worn by cultural usage down to in-jokes suddenly acquire romantic strands, psyche motivations or the awe of diaegetically juggled time-space alteration continuums. The Kobayashi test so dramatically foregrounded as the movie's great situational dilemma about deception and acceptance, is in fact stolen from the film- series's critical apex Wrath of Khan; plunder and neo-plagiarism thus redeemed. The trick of this new star trek universe is to allow itself that combination of space to dream coupled with canonical tropes, subtexts and wonders, which characterise the best fan-imaginings. (Not) including Kirk/Spock slash fiction. An alternative universe with a time-bending plot temporally and existentially apposite for creative re-inventions, much like the necessary myth-telling attached to town names and new forged area histories which characterises the teleology of the filmic Old West. Contrary to certain pre-screening barbed whispers, Leonard Nimoy's extended cameo, whilst clearly indulgent, allows the film-makers to raise conceptually important questions about balances of destiny and determinism within and without the text universe--what is Kirk and co's mission, what is this new Star Trek; a drama for the contemporary world or a fuzzy ghost solution of the mind to be resurrected over and over without l'espirit. Like a shaman --rather than a furless Yoda- Old Spock's face is creviced as the icebanks from which he rises, sure he's a deux en machina yet separated from His Star Trek series Nimoy's suddenly less of an aging indulgence than a signifier of history, of mortality. Like the palpably weathering effects of judgement-like sun and merciless landscape on the features of western heroes, his looks reminds these near air-brushed physiques in their primes, of experience's rewards and costs, without showboat lines. The price of a full existence.

Which weight-and frown-grooves he has in common with-- in one of those great unseating liberal ironies here--his Romulan oppressors whose actions create the possibility of this parallel universe willed and impelled on by the real culprits, Trek's writers. Which the film implicitly recognises by its Syphia/ Pandora of extended meditation on causality, albeit in less dreary terms than those Matrix sequels, Equilibrium and other po-faced pseudo-entz ad nauseam. Headed by a tattoo scarred Eric Bana as Nero, the rogue Romulan's are less malevolent than wrecks possessed whose only comparison with Trek villains of classic lore exist in, as they might say, accidental phrases which cross their fevered Romulan tongues; ordinary 'miners'/prospectors thrown into paroxysms of extremism with a ship to match. For all the disparity between the Mid-West drinking holes and the Enterprise, Star Trek's most agreeably discordant pieces of set design occur in the Giger-functionalism of the adversary ship, meaning that for all the surfeit of entrancing lines from these black-biled sanguine's, the 'dark side' still has the finest line in bio-mechanical dark dreams of modernity. Grief magnified onto a twisted space craft and a perverted space mission alike fuelled by liquid negative energies, the décor is all symbolically inside-out organic mecha-death and black shadows fighting against the forces of government, like any pioneer. To achieve peace for themselves their tear history asunder, burn other worlds, -and in doing so on both counts guarantee a rubble trail of destruction like random gunslingers, over themselves whilst leaving everything else unaccomplished, blankly contingent. They should have seen in the stars that some conclusions are inevitable, radical Trek re-write or no. Nero too, like Kirk, comes from the sticks and is also trying to forge his imprint on history, transforming him into a figure against the screen with operatic qualities celestial as the scale of spaceships like canyons, conflicts blown up to inter-planetary warfare. Though on one level the movie makes hay on the Enterprise's peculiar team dynamic which replicates itself like fate even in alternative histories, the movie's near unwavering narratalogical focus on Kirk is a kind of montage homage to rugged individualism which defines the American hero; so too the quintessentially blue-collar villainy of Nero, particularly ( as the series is so fond of allegory) against that quasi-totalitarian, albeit benevolent, group of federations like the UN-- or the Sheriff .

No wonder then that nu- Spock, with his scientific rationality, succumbs against the gut instinct of Kirk's hyper-senses, even as they're drowned in gut-feeling and lysergic substances masquerading as vaccines. That Kirk and Bones are prepared to scheme anything, including enforced suffering, to let the future captain fulfil that aching drive towards the captain's chair, nor that Spock and Kirk's friendship is sealed over violence, women and a native-Indian style intervention, all part of the American masculine subconscious myth. Principals are different, so too the story-telling principles rely on techniques of punnery rather than the philosophical dialogues which supported the TV show, and weighed down en masse the films. But still there's that concept of the temporal, human development accrued by short equations of genius and errors coalesces into, like that Hegel crossed with Jefferson and Paine, this quest--the vision of what can be--learned from history with wise optimism rather that the Romulan's determinist misery.

But not without a few light explosions, unsettling parallels, retro-fururism, warped villainy and ret-conning Vulcan love, all for Kirk to bestride into the future of the series--boldly into the boulders, galactic billets and boudoirs of the galaxies.