Thursday, October 27, 2011

Star Trek, J.J. Abram
Reviewed by Patrick McEvoy-Halston
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Come into My Space Dungeon and Let Me Poke You with a Pogo-Stick

Review of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, Part One
May 2009

            It’s not exactly what Star Trek offers, but the film is perhaps most easily, if not most fairly, assessed as belonging to the bread-and-circuses school of societal extension.  It offers a plot, a delineation of the way ahead, people can readily imagine themselves participating in, readily imagine themselves wanting to participate in, which if followed by a similar national narrative could at least help pave the way for a neat and orderly—if totalitarian—way of finishing all things off.   The pro-offered life of adventure appeals; the sense of purpose, also very much so.   But the best “drug” it provides comes from it allowing you room to imagine yourself playing a part in something like this, and thereby partaking in the dopamine-high of specialness counting yourself amongst the few select geniuses good enough for the Enterprise allows you.
 To be a member of the Enterprise means you are the best at your position; it means that though for the most part you will sit alertly but still placidly in place, every once in a while, when visited upon by, ostensibly, some miracle of realization/inspiration, all eyes will be drawn to you as you act up and save the day, and perhaps your species, and maybe the universe, as the prize rises so the the high needn’t ever flag.  To be a genius is never suggested to be anything other than a rare and special thing in Star Trek—it is always noteworthy—but is made to seem something most anyone with sufficient desire could imagine themselves in possession of:  you need to 1) be able to be brash, and in a way in which your brashness ultimately and for the most part immediately garners praise without any really ill-consequence and sometimes with further good fortune (e.g., Kirk gets banished from the Enterprise for his acting out, something that leads very rapidly in succession to a quick high-speed chase, the surprising discovery/recovery of great “treasure” within the recesses of a cave, and an enterprising way of taking charge of the Enterprise—i.e., the requisite kind of stuff he needs to seem the One and Only), and to 2) know things, like lots of languages or whatever, or the select “impressive” fact, like, for example, some incident surrounding some aspect of your bio you’re unlikely not to have well attended to, not primarily because it’s associated with one of your parent’s death but because you’ve long seen how useful details in your tragic but unique bio are in garnering both sympathy and ready assessments of yourself as selected by fate for some special role.   So if you’ve ever bullied your way, Uhura-like, to the head of the line, justifying your presumption as only appropriate considering your importance or the urgent relevance of your concerns, and as evidence that you don’t count amongst the pathetic sheepeople who stand about—you’ve managed to convince yourself—owing to their dependence on group norms, if you’ve ever spent hours staring ahead at the TV, but also found it in you to do things like turn away from just watching TV toward using it as a site for violent wii/xbox control twitching (“Time to fret, Death Star—I’m going off auto-pilot and switching to manual”), if you know things, like, for example, the plotlines of the whole current panopticom of SF shows, or ever brought up some universe-in-a-nutshell fact garnered from your bachelor-arts education or handy philosophy “tract” that awed friends suspiciously and frighteningly willing to cooperate with your need to be special smart, you’ve probably got it in you to see yourself readily, ably, maybe ingeniously, serving as one of the Enterprise’s new crew.
            But if you would like to be part of something similar to the Star Trek trek, at least your purpose would be not just to wander about or boldly go, whereever, but to save civilization against rogue villains—that is, to work on behalf of humankind in a really obvious and immediate way.  Well, your conscious mind would never think otherwise, but in truth your core “you” would throw one hell of a tantrum if they didn’t end up serving you, your self-assessments needs (again), something they could in fact best do by being dispatched or humiliated rather than saved.  For demonstrating your own prowess would have to go into exhausting, stressful overdrive if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone beyond your immediate crew is made to seem deficient, even dispatch-worthy retarded.  For Kirk to seem the potent fighting cock, chock full of potential, five trained soldiers have to end up seeming, in sum, just a bit much for him in a fight; for Uhura to seem more the wizard at translation, some other has to be efficiently but ruthlessly dispatched as not up to snuff; for Captain Pike and his prodigy Kirk to seem especially able captains, another captain has to be shown as “thank you sir, may I have another?” eager-ready to accent to the sadistic commands of terrorists; for the crew of the enterprise to seem Luke Skywalker able, and the ship itself, oh so fleet of feet, they have to survive when a whole slew of other ships are scattered about—a calamity and a pity, but also their just deserts, for so easily finding themselves prey to the enemy’s trap.
            So if this is the sort of narrative that grabs the public’s imagination, that suggests some sense of how the future could provide purpose!, surely would-be totalitarians out there will intuit that the public will soon be in the mood to respond ever more enthusiastically to their typical offerings.  Totalitarians would deliver:  they would suit up and militarize the nation, offer everyone some role to play against whatever pressing villain, organize them into community groups where every resident, ordinary Jo/Jane could imagine themselves as being part of—really—the most able contingent of freedom-fighters around, ensure they get a lot of praise, and—lest they forget!—give them room to every now and then show some show of non-quiescence, air out some loud rebel yell:  after all, people whose self-esteem is so dependent on external sources likely sense the extent of their dependence, and need some loud demonstration of what is still not in fact their existing independence every once in awhile so that the charge they get from the resulting muscular arousal assures them they could scatter everything before them as so much space debris, go their own way, and be that much more the happier.

Spock’s Humanization Project

Review of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, Part 2

            But no film can fairly be critiqued as simply playing to people's insecurities and damned for doing nothing other than help playing a part, however small, toward a societal shift toward militarism, would ever risk showing an audience up, draw attention to their own lack of authenticity by showing them what a human being with real substance is like, draw attention to their evasiveness by showing what real engagement with something difficult is like, but Star Trek in fact does, and in a way where a comparison between the two—pretense and real substance—can hardly escape notice.  
            When Kirk is expelled from the Enterprise, sent to the ice planet as punishment, we might wonder for a moment if Kirk might be made to experience—if even only for a short while—what being alone, abandoned, can really be like.  That is, not so much about an opportunity to showcase your “badness,” your ingenuity, your uniqueness, or to bond with an ally and conspire something enterprising “between you two,” but about being left alone and left behind, unequipped to deal with whatever variant thought, feeling, you experience outside of the context of experiencing it amidst a containing and cocooning group.  Though we might even have laughed—out of shock, possibly—when along with Kirk we discovered that Starfleet could intentionally dispatch an unruly crew member to an ice Guitanimo, we may also have experienced a moment of disquiet as well, resulting from encountering something—isolation—until then the movie had set up merely as pretext for more action.  Action follows, and we’re back to genius-versus-ordinary, giant-devours-the-suddenly-pathetically-small, sadistic-relish normalism, but when it leads to him encountering (“Leonard Nimoy's” Spock [hereafter “old Spock”]) Spock, someone who’s known this isolation for a period longer than Kirk’s two and a half minutes, someone who cannot take comfort and company from his foe still having his mind focussed on him, someone who, doubly, is dealing with losing his heritage, helpless to do anything about it, the earlier hint of the kind of brutal test abandonment and powerlessness can present to the origins and solidity of your self-assessment, your self-esteem, becomes trenchant.  
            Spock knows what it is to be likely permanently away from all his friends, all subsequent space adventures, and, owing to Leonard Nimoy's acting—owing to Leonard Nimoy!—we feel all this when we “meet” him.  He has been forced to witness the destruction of his home planet and all his kin, and we sense his distress.  All this would be only logical, as it were, but how differently we are encouraged to understand isolation here from how it was presented when Scotty, for example, spoke of his own isolation, where it wasn’t allowed to amount to a debilitating wound that would play against the crew’s ascendance to form, and in fact largely served to establish Scotty as quirky, estranged, somewhat removed—appropriate to someone whose home will soon be the Enterprise’s underbelly.  And how different is the feel of old Spock’s experience of his kin’s extermination from how we are encouraged to imagine it as playing in the life of new Spock, where it seems energy that can be directed to showcase how this Spock handles his “predecessor’s” logic versus emotion conflict, and worse, to assess and enjoy the frisson in the naughty fracture that is his relationship with Uhura.  Pain has beaten old Spock down, but all is far from lost:  he is still someone who, though he had come to prefer being amongst friends, could still weather long stretches of being alone, titanic experiences of loss and pain, if he must, primarily owing to the love, friendship, and nurturance he gained from so many years of knowing and loving supportive friends like Kirk—his gimmicky, immature-seeming Vulcan vs. human nature thing, seemingly long left behind him as so much an easy identify and comfort-zone-providing childish prop.  In a film which had hitherto suggested the ultimate prize to be being part of an elite crew; and the sheen you get from playing part of something so relevant and fashionable, the greatest thrill; it’s very beautiful, if also a bit overwhelming, to witness the satisfaction and soulfood a lifetime spent being amongst supporting friends can offer one.   And wholly out of place:  Here in our encounter with what should be the most familiar (i.e., Leonard’s Nimoy’s Spock) is our one and only taste in the film of something rare enough in its frenetic universe to seem truly alien.  
            This is not to say that the new Kirk would ever want the sort of layered, deep relationship old Spock created with old Kirk:  he might indeed feel it amounts to too much “weight” inside the heart and head, with his preferred sort of friendship being maybe more narcissistic, light-and-trivial, a tactile-skin-rather-than-a-bloated-body, an ain't-it-wonderful-that-genius-me-is-reflected-in-genius-you sort of affair, with his preferred sort of genius not seeming to exempt him from his being vacuously carried aloft in whatever adventure next titillates his way.  But for any one amongst the viewing audience who wants friendship, not out of their being so luminously great, but out of appreciation for the quieter, slowly accumulating, good-and-the-bad, the-resonant-and-the-ordinary, day-to-day things you offer the world through your presence and company, it is not nothing to finally encounter someone in the film universe shown to prize friends entirely for this more worthy but humbler sort of thing.  
            But if the current film-going generation is one which has been abandoned to the degree that they cannot risk or even imagine really going their own way, giving weight to and following their own intuition, lest they feel despairingly alone and panicky, if they are those who cannot imagine giving of themselves, developing an involved report with friends, lest it leave them feeling exposed, over-extended, and scarily vulnerable, then, ultimately, if a filmmaker wanted to at least begin to prepare a generation to base their self-esteem on something more solid, establish friendships a bit more real, take chances in a way which could lead to the fruition of genius, or at least true personality, s/he would likely have to do what Abrams does in this film, even if its appeal is such that it means we’re no doubt heading toward a totalitarian future.  “Kids” want their preferred way of living, existing, validated (and you know, they deserve to have their time:  whatever they enjoy should be validated, made to seem right ground for extrapolation, which can lead to self-growth, life adventure, societal betterment—not just because its right but because it probably can, if respectfully and properly tended to), and Star Trek tells them that there are no traits more apt and fit right now than always being in a state of hyper-arousal, hyper-alertness, to be perennially set to encounter/interact the world implacably, as a hard shell, and violently, with every stirring a potentially debilitating strike or a detonating refusal.  They want to be in charge, not intimidated away from expressing themselves by a previous generations’ accomplishments and authority, but also (unlike the original Star Trek, we note) to have adults somewhere not too far off in the background, like so much a corporate head office keeping an eye out on—and thereby in a way offering the sense of security which enables—the playful goings-on in the office.  And so it is captained by a new, less intimidating and more awkward Kirk, who seems as manageable and non-constraining as he does commanding (yes, his famous cheat dramatizes his self-command, but how many times in the film is he shown following, sometimes rather dumbly, the lead of others?), is overseen by elders like Pike with little depth, with no capacity to well read your soul, with ready complicity to make what is actually juvenile seem wise, and with the rest of the Federation never too far distant in the mind's eye.  
            But as long as he is not presented in a way where it intimidates or too readily brings to the fore their awareness of their own vulnerability, once introduced to someone someone who fears s/he is not worthy of love, who suspects s/he is, perhaps, in truth, totally inadequate, could imagine seeing them deeply and yet still—however impossibly!—actually enjoying their getting to know them, they would want this person kept around, even if not always so close, and Star Trek, while making him seem a bit slow-paced to well function on what the Enterprise has become—primarily, that is, a weapon (i.e., he’s not a “wartime consigliere”)—allows old Spock a distant but still accessible place in the new universe.  Perhaps, just as the film makes it seem right that new “latch-key” Kirk, who seems fated to become akin to trigger-happy, action-figure Captain Pike, and more naturally suited to eventually deem frat-boyish McCoy rather than Spock his best bud, captains the ship over a Spock fueled on by well-attendance, by maternal love, who can second-guess himself, disengage from friends, step back, alone, in contemplation, reflection, consideration, but at the same time suggest that his being in the shadows will help him in becoming more nurturing and less brutal (notice how careful he is to not humiliate Sulu, to ease the bridge, when he functions as first officer, but how blunt and even brutal he is to Uhura's replacement and to Kirk when he functions as captain), facilitate the kind of slow growth soul growth requires, develop into the kind of leader we will eventually turn to, and that this will be how it could go for us as well.  That is, maybe our need to play it rigid, routine, safe, but still very violent and brutally sacrificial is such that it’s going to take awhile for the well-rounded, well-attended, easeful Spocks of the world to introduce us to something more variant and human, and we should be well enough pleased to learn that people are attracted to films like Star Trek which suggest, at least, we seek a more desirable future than anxiety assuagement and narcissistic inflation—along of course with the steady introduction of compelling new toys!—but need plenty of time to steady ourselves to once again go about our affairs so bravely. 

Work Cited
Star Trek. Dir. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto. Paramount. 2009. Film.

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