Hey, it’s Blockbluster (formerly Filmscene), our semi-fegular feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart climb out from under their film-snob rock, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week, they go beyond the rim of star-light, on a star… trek.
Hey, Ben, I think we may have gotten our first Obama-era blockbuster! Sort of, anyway. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek prequel tracks the lives and initial adventures of the series' iconic characters, specifically Captain-to-be James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Lieutenant-to-be Spock (Zachary Quinto). Abrams, with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, sketches them as foils. A central conflict on Abrams' TV series Lost, embodied by two of its main characters, has been between faith and reason; a similar conflict emerges here, between emotion and reason, embodied by Kirk and Spock, respectively. Kirk is a hard-drinking, womanizing party boy who likes to crash fast cars and act from his gut; Spock is a cold intellectual type, devoted to study and academic experiments. In short, Kirk and Spock look a lot like the pop culture caricatures of Bush and Obama; coincidentally, their names even share the same number of letters! Is Vulcan the new black? Anyway, in the film, it's only by teaming up that they are able to defeat their common enemy, Nero (a hammy Eric Bana): "together," future Spock (Leonard Nimony) says — more on the time travel stuff later — they are able to do "great things." Obama's election was initially heralded as the dawn of a new era of bipartisanship; if that hasn't quite worked out, it looks like at least some Hollywood producers paid attention. And thus, an Obama-minded blockbuster! But the problem with such (arguably naive) political "centrism" and "moderation" is that it's still based upon a belief in violence as a panacea. What did you make of the film's militarism?
You know, I was pretty divided by Star Trek's blockbuster military fetishism (the preceding trailer for Tranformers 2 had me a little queasy from the get-go). On the one hand, as you noted, this does seem to be a film informed by a shift in leadership from unilateralism (Bush) to coalition-building (Obama) — unless this whole franchise is really about an intergalactic United Nations, which I suspect is the case. On the other hand, how diplomatic can a movie that takes such obvious narrative and visual pleasure from death and destruction really be? Beyond the spectacular scenes of planet destruction, I found the frequent moments where the camera lingered on some anonymous extra's death strangely jarring — as happens whenever a missile hits a ship, when Vulcan is collapsing, and on a few other occasions. Even more unnerving, I thought, was the moment when the crew of the Enterprise sits watching the Romulan ship explode, then laughs (maniacally) at the extermination of the last of that species. The film acknowledges this scene's undiplomatic bent, but does that really make it okay?
Maybe Abrams gets away with this because the Enterprise (and the Federation it answers to) is cloaked in an aesthetic of iPhone slickness and comfortable retro sci-fi kitsch. As blatant as the Spock-Kirk, rationalism-feeling analogy became (like, more blatant than with Rocky and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV), the sinewy, drippy, vaginal and squid-like Romulan ship and its tattooed occupants made Kirk look like the corn-fed, Midwestern, golden farm boy he really was. And speaking of golden farm boys, what's with all the Star Wars rip-offs (Kirk's landspeeding teenage rebellion, his crash-landing on a snow planet with carnivorous yeti creatures, his encounter with an old soul who guides him through peril)? One thing I did like about this Kirk origin myth, though, was how it posited him as a working-class hero contending with entitled rich snobs. Having grown up in the plains of Iowa (now become Federation spaceship yards), Kirk is the rough-hewn and messy townie to the Academy's condescending prep-school gentrifiers. And with so many planets being destroyed and populations being displaced, isn't this movie really about real estate?
I liked how Kirk's joining the Army, er, Starfleet, reflected the reality of a lot of rural Americans — that they have no other options but to join the military, lest they wind up miserable, alcoholic farmhands. It was a little off-putting, though, that the Army was the only thing that could turn Kirk into "a man". That said, the enemies here are working-class, too; Nero says at one point that his was a mining ship before his planet was destroyed and he refigured the vehicle for battle, setting out on his monomaniacal quest for vengeance — in the past. (That the Romulans have traveled through time and altered history was a pretty clever way for Abrams et al. to free themselves from the confines of the already established Star Trek mythos.) In my recent review of Revanche, I wrote about how a bunch of post-9/11, post-Afghanistan/Iraq invasion films have dealt with revenge's harmful reverberations. This movie is up to something else, though.
Yes, Nero is so subsumed with vengeance it turns him evil; and the foundation of his feelings turns out to be false: he blames Spock for the destruction of his planet, when really it wasn't Spock's fault — in fact, he was trying to help. This seems like some straight-up American propaganda: Nero, of course, is the Terrorist, hiding out in his cave-like spaceship, totally misinformed about his enemy's role in his own misery. (Although it's the good guys who twice fly their ships, Atta-style, into the Romulans. That may be more of a Freudian thing, though: as you mention, it's an awfully vaginal-looking ship.) Still, the movie doesn't encourage Americans to curb their vengelust; Spock's father actively encourages his son not to control his anger, but to give in to it. Kirk tells him the same. Revenge is only moral when you have right on your side, the movie seems to say, and you have right on your side, of course, when you're a "Federation" (U.N.)-backed American vessel, captained by an Iowan. At least, unlike Wolverine, Star Trek doesn't pretend, at the script-level, to advocate for pacifism. But it does seem to think that its militarism is responsible, based in peacekeeping and other nobly violent pursuits. Maybe it's less Obamian than it is Clintonian.
Your suggestion that Star Trek's gunpoint diplomacy is something of a throwback rather than an Obama-era convention makes a lot of sense. In fact, I thought a few scenes even had a Cold War vibe, especially the Soviet-style bunker where Kirk finds Scottie (of "Beam me up, Scottie!" fame, delivered with glee by Simon Pegg). This backward-looking political compass feels especially appropriate given Abrams, cinematographer Daniel Mindel and their six (six!) art directors' adherence to a totally retro vision of America in the future. Their sci-fi fifties continually evoked Classical Hollywood, like Kirk's barroom brawl that seemed lifted from Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind. Star Trek's glossy period plundering also reminded me of our discussion of Monsters vs. Aliens, especially when — like that film's similarly squid-like bad guy — San Francisco becomes the Romulans' primary target. It's as if to cloak some latent conservatism Abrams makes America's token liberal city its strategic capital — after all, the Federation headquarters are located there.
Finally, to get back to our discussion of the Romulans' giant vaginal spacesquid, we should remember that Captain Kirk is literally born from its gooey flaps in the opening scene. As Kirk Sr. (Chris Hemsworth) kamikazes into the Romulans, super-pregnant Mrs. Kirk (Jennifer Morrison) leaves via escape pod, evading the enemy clutches just as she gives birth to our hero. The birth canal-escape tunnel analogy is way over-determined, but it sets up an interesting triangle of Romulan-Human-Vulcan (remember, in Star Trek mythology, Romulans and Vulcans are ancestrally related). Humans, then, vacillate between the extremes of rationality (Vulcan) and unbridled id (Romulan). How Aristotelian! I should say "human men," though, because there are shockingly few female characters in this ensemble cast — which is all the more surprising given Abrams' expertise with female protags as seen in Felicity, Alias and Fringe. Admittedly, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets more of a part than she ever had on the show, but she's the minor exception that confirms the rule. Kirk's mother never re-appears, and Spock's human mother (Winona Ryder, who would totally appeal to a Vulcan) is more present in her absence. This is a film about father figures (within the plot and in the larger Star Trek franchise narrative), after all, so it seems almost like a Freudian slip that Abrams opens his latest series in a giant vagina.