In anticipation of the new Star Trek movie, I reacquainted myself with a handful of the old, of which, I regret to report, only two really hold up, and, I likewise regret, I won't be breaking from the herd in declaring that they are II: The Wrath of Khan, and VI: The Undiscovered Country. Of Khan, I haven't got much to add, except that in addition to working well as a revenge fantasy (and, a few histrionics aside, showing that William Shatner can, on occasion, actually act), it manages to play modestly on the themes of weariness and age. Although we know that Paramount intends to subject the crew to many more adventures, there is the sense that they are already too old for all this dashing around, that the safety of the galaxy and exploration of new worlds is a young man's game. Spock's self-sacrifice has the note of a benediction, even as we also watch with trepidation as he sails into the the halo of the "Genesis Device," knowing how this will set up the next clumsy sequel . . . and the next.
But after Star Trek V: The Vulcan Bar Mitzvah, when it all seemed truly ready to collapse under the weight of its own ridiculousness, if not the weight of its softening and expanding cast, someone, somehow, managed to produce The Undiscovered Country, which takes up that same theme of decrepitude and age and plays it against an almost pitch-perfect end-of-Cold War parable, complete with its own Chernobyl, a Siberian prison camp, Glasnost, and a starship captain who suddenly sounds less like Roddenberry than le Carré, musing to his journal, full of gray knowledge that his own hatreds ("I will never forgive the Klingons . . . for what they did to my boy") make him obsolete. The conspiracy at the center of the movie is its weakest pillar, but, hey, she's gotta have a tailpipe. Kim Catrall makes an inglorious appearance as a Vulcan, opposite Leonard Nimoy, who would've been better served with a foil made of foil, which could just as easily reflect him briefly and then crumple.
Thus followed a series of sequels starring the cast of The Next Generation that each had the feel of padded-out TV episodes. I always liked Stewart following Shatner, the pioneer followed by the explorer, but TNG only worked on the small screen--its best episodes were about science and ethics, and while the Original Series was arch and thinky in its own way, it swashbuckled, too. Anyway, the TNG movies were thoroughly and wholly forgettable.
Now it has all been reinvented. No, reimagined. Who is responsible for these chop-shop phrases, anyway? Works of fiction either work or do not work on their own merits. No one now watching the first season of Star Trek cares that the electronics look like they were already antiquated in the sixties. The reason you can chuckle at the campy sets and go-go uniforms while still enjoying the voyages of the Enterprise is that Star Trek was not, at least not initially, about the future, or in any event not about the future of technology. In the better moments, the future was just a narrative conceit for telling stories about the present, for speculating on where it was all going--which is to say, society, not Radio Shack. The Undiscovered Country, to reflect again on the finest of the film versions, could just as easily have been set in 1989.
But J.J. Abrams and some or other gang of gee-whiz technophiles have rebooted, reset, recreated, reprogrammed the original gang in order to create a future that in ten or twenty years will look as ridiculous as the sets of The Original Series. They look ridiculous and anachronistic now. The effect of a restyling that is both bold and bland is to draw unfortunate attention to the plain fact that the future does not look like the future. The fact is: while guys like Charles Stross and Ken MacCleod and a whole generation of science fiction writers are speculating with wit and verve on a future descended from a present in which, for instance, The Internet, the movies have thoroughly failed to discover the technology of the present, and so their future is so . . . wrong. Where are the computer networks and molecular assemblers, the artificial intelligences? Why is there no biotechology? Why are they building that spaceship on the ground, for chrissake? Every time the new Uhura sputtered that "communications are down," I imagined a Status Code: 41 - Network Connection Time Out zipping across her view screen, except in the future, there is no internet!
Now this would all be forgivable if the setting were a mere set-up for . . . something, but it is instead a set-up for, yes, an Origin Myth. Take it away, Anthony Lane:
Here, in other words, is a long-range backstory—a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish. I lost patience with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” once we learned of Willy Wonka’s primal trauma (his father was a dentist, and forbade him candies, so guess how he reversed that deprivation?), and, likewise, with “Batman Begins,” from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What’s wrong with “Batman Is” ? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?I would go further. The original crew of the Enterprise were types, and god help us, it was up the actors to invest them with character. Now the filmmakers have attempted to craft arcs of character that will catapult each character firmly into his type. It is a cracked and backward strategy. There are some fine young actors in the new Star Trek. Imagine a gang of talented young chefs. Into the kitchen walks J.J. Abrams. To each, he hands a beautiful, golden-brown omelet. Gentlemen and ladies, he says, please make me some unbroken eggs.
This is especially the case for Zachary Quinto, who acquits himself well as Spock, and who is a good enough actor, damnit, to embody that character's conflicted nature, the wellspring of emotion that still bubbles beneath the logical exterior, without throwaway scenes of child-hood bullying, less yet thirty-seven other characters foreboding, "You are a child of two worlds." Yeah, really? Please remind us before we get to the next reel.
Anyway, Abrams is a kinetic filmmaker. He understands action, and he films with what Arlen Spector would call vim, vigor, and vitality, but it all still creaks and groans exactly because the focus is so much on the make-it-new technology, which seems so depressingly 20th-century. It looks both fantastic and dated. There's only one exception: Michael Kaplan's costume design, which is just fantastic. Retro future chic done flawlessly--the hems and cuts of the 1960s rediscovered two centuries hence as fashion's entirely believable cycle of . . . reimagining? Next time, and there will surely be a next time, they should let him design the ship as well.