Star Trek (2009) captures the democratic impulse but misses the bigger picture.

While tremendous fun for both fans and the wider audience, the new Star Trek movie fails to satisfy on a deeper level, unlike the best of the franchise. The idea behind the movie was a clever one, taking us back in time to the period leading up to Classic Trek and giving many Star Trek fans something we probably would’ve longed for if we’d thought about it, the background story of the characters we came to know and love, not the least of which was Spock, well-played by the excellent actor, Zachary Quinto, also the creepy bad guy in the hit show, Heroes. Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho)… some of the coolest moments in the film come when we hear their voices–we instantly recognize our old friends, but are left waiting for Kirk (Chris Pine) to say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Like a roller coaster ride, there is never a dull moment. Two hours pass like minutes. Abrams, the director, grabs us with state-of-the-art effects AND character development, unlike most summer blockbuster science fiction. I enjoyed the witty repartee as Kirk, Spock and crew face almost certain disaster. In the rush of the moment I didn’t dwell upon the unlikely twists and turns in the plot that jumped out at me as I left the theater (for a plot summary see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0796366/synopsis). Ultimately, though, I felt something was more was missing than believability.

Warning, spoilers coming: if you haven’t seen the film yet, do it quickly while it’s still at the big screen… and then return here.
Captured well is the impulsive, reckless, Kirk who challenges his superiors, gets in trouble but then of course, saves the day. In past episodes we cheered him on as he stood up to those stuffed shirts back at Starfleet Academy. In this parallel universe he’s even more of a “bad boy,” having lost his father, George Kirk, on the day young James was born — a clever twist. At times Jim’s attitude works, yet it is completely unbelievable when, after refusing to follow orders, Kirk assaults an entire security detail on the Bridge of the Enterprise. It gets worse. Spock the younger throws the insubordinate junior officer off the freaking ship. At least Spock doesn’t jettison Kirk into outer space! Placed unconscious (thanks to the Vulcan “death grip”) in an escape module, Kirk is dumped on the nearby ice-covered planet Delta Vega, another planet in Vulcan’s system, presumably to be picked up later (although that’s never made clear). Too impatient to ask the onboard computer for info about his location, he just has to jump out and explore, risking almost certain death. At least the monstrous creatures were well done. And then just as he’s about to bite it, Kirk just happens to be saved by the elder Spock! Left there as punishment to watch the destruction of Vulcan, Spock “prime” gets a close-up view as if from a nearby moon—another inconsistency. But of course, we forgive the director because we’ve been longing to see Leonard Nimoy. As the film closed it focused on him and I was close to tears, it was like saying goodbye. I kept thinking, my God he looks old. Will I ever see him again?

But my problem with the film went deeper than unbelievable plot twists. I was bugged throughout the film by the bad guy but it wasn’t until leaving the theater that I figured out why. I could deal with the fact that he looked nothing like a Romulan, instead a leather-clad, tattooed stereotype from a bad motorcycle movie. Rather it was that the plot hinged on a single individual, Nero (Eric Bana), getting revenge. Sure, he had good reason, if confused about the details. Having one’s planet destroyed is a major bummer. But still… what made the original Star Trek much more than a western in space was its willingness to explore bigger issues. Apparently Abrams decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t appeal to the thinking person, something that’s expected of good science fiction.

For example, in the TV show I loved when Kirk and Spock debated the prime directive, something that seemed to disappear later in the series, although its spirit often remained. According to Memory Alpha, “The Directive states that members of Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species, especially the natural development of pre-warp civilizations, either by direct intervention, or technological revelation.” http://memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Prime_Directive. When you think about it, this is a pretty radical notion in a world where the United States is arguably the major imperialist nation. While most TV shows celebrate and often glorify war, Star Trek at its best searched for alternatives, seeing it truly as a last resort. And it was never acceptable against less technologically advanced societies/species (Kirk would never have gone into Iraq). This put our intrepid crew into a much larger and more interesting context. But here it’s reduced to one person and his vendetta. Sure, it’s gripping adventure, but ultimately much less satisfying. With the US fighting two wars and Republicans saber rattling against Iran and North Korea, the narrative of an alternative to war is needed more than ever.

Still, I really like the way the crew comes together as a team, it works on the individual level, reminding me of something that always impressed me about past episodes. If Scotty told Capt. Kirk he had a hunch, there was something in his gut that didn’t feel right, Kirk took it seriously. He trusted his crew even if it contradicted his sense of what was going on. The same for Captains Picard and Janeway. The relationship was almost a family one, but not like a father and his children, rather close-knit team of equals–despite differences in rank. Call this the democratic impulse. David Brin, the science-fiction author of the incredible work Star Tide Rising http://billwardwriter.com/startide-rising-review/, claims that the big difference between Star Trek “populists” and Star Wars “despots,” democracy versus elitism as a underlying theme http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/1999/06/15/brin_main/index.html. In Star Wars the hero, within whom “the force runs strong” saves the day. In Star Trek the crew working together led by the captain achieves the same effect. The back-and-forth shifting power relationship in the film between Kirk and Spock captured this nicely, with Spock initially the superior, gracefully accepting the number two spot when necessary. With the encouragement of elder Spock, he embraces a partnership with Kirk which may last a lifetime.

My other complaint has to do with Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Star Trek has been legendary for pioneering new social terrain, such as the first interracial kiss between Kirk and the original, older Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). Then years later, a black man captained Deep Space 9, Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko, perhaps setting the stage for Obama. A woman captained the Voyager, Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway. Noting the order, I find it curious–did Star Trek predict we’d have a black president before a woman president? Perhaps it was no surprise, they had more difficulty depicting a strong woman than a strong black man. Janeway was unnecessarily sharp-edged, sometimes the stereotypical schoolmarm and at other times going “Rambo.” But still, they tried. In Star Trek (2009), we only get one major female character. While this may be the fault of the original, what Abrams does to her character is not. At first they seem to get it right, she’s a smart and determined officer… then she turns to mush, serving primarily as Spock’s unbelievable love interest (I don’t care that he just lost his entire planet, Spock would not kiss a woman in public, a Vulcan who has spent his life repressing his human half!).

Yet for all the film’s problems, thanks to Abrams, the crew is back together! I can’t wait for the next episode.
Charles Ogg

Now for a little Star Trek humor. As you may recall, the opening for Classic Trek proclaimed their mission: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Next came Next Generation: “To baldly go where no man has gone before.” (Picard was hair-deprived).
Then Deep Space Nine: “To boldly sit where no one has sat before.” (On a space station near a planet the equivalent of the Middle East).
Then Voyager: “To boldly go back home from where no one has been before.” The ship was swept up by a powerful alien and deposited in a distant galaxy.
And last, Enterprise, “To boldly go where everyone’s been already.” Prequel to the Classic Trek.

I thought it was clever, the whole parallel universe thing in Star Trek (2009). The lack of unexplored space weakened Enterprise. By creating a parallel universe, destroying Vulcan and changing Kirk’s personal history, the new series avoids this problem to some extent. Enterprise was so weak for the first several seasons it lost most of its audience, achieving excellence by the fourth season–just in time to be canceled. So if you really want to start close to the beginning chronologically, you might want to start there.


The Medium is The Matrix

The Medium is The Matrix
by Charles W. Ogg

A short essay written about the first in this three-part series shortly after it was released. Unfortunately the follow up films were not as engaging, failing to live up to its promise in my opinion…

The Matrix (1999) the action adventure starring Keannu Reeves, is a film that sticks with you. As adventure with state-of-the-art special effects, it’s a romp through a dark vision of the future—and great entertainment. Yet the Matrix attempts more; within it lies a critique of both society and its embrace of new technologies. Like most Hollywood films, it lacks subtlety. I agree with film critics Roger Ebert and his guest host Joel Siegel, who in their show commended the filmmakers for trying to deliver a message even while failing to make the message “work.” In this essay, I will comment on the film, focusing on its message. For those of you who have not yet seen The Matrix and to do not wish to know the plot — stop here. Otherwise, plug into my take on The Matrix:

Welcome to a world where all your physical needs are met–as long as you play an elaborate but fundamentally vacuous social game. Sound familiar? For those of us who have escaped it, it to sounds suspiciously like a metaphor for life in “middle-class” suburban America. Instead of living in isolated boxes where we substitute television for real community, people are contained within coffin-like containers, plugged into a computer-simulated version of 1999–the last year before the decline. Our heroes escape from, then venture back into, this artificial reality in order to “wake people up.” The film was refreshing because so many Hollywood films bash the social activist and the notion that one could (or should) attempt to change society. Many films present devastating critiques of society–yet leave us with a sense that there really isn’t much we can do about it. Not the The Matrix. Like social activists of the 1990s who rode out the Reagan’s cold war of the 1980’s (against progressives)—the stars of this film believe radical change is possible. And like today’s social activists, these heroes want to inform everyone that their seemingly nice, safe reality is a sham. Sentient (self-aware) programs (looking like rogue FBI agents) rule the Matrix, literally feeding off the psychic energy humanity. The full potential of humanity is reduced to that of a barely living battery. Progressives might substitute the old-fashioned, although still relevant term, “the military-industrial complex” for the Matrix. Right-wing activists might substitute “big government” or “the United Nations” for the same effect. Indeed, the ambiguous nature of the film’s message opens it to alternative explanations — an effect which may well have been intentional. Star Wars achieved the same: Righties saw Darth Vader and the Death Star as representing The Soviet Empire, while Lefties considered Darth the epitome of fascism. Granted, part of the problem faced by today’s filmmaker lies in the increasingly kaleidoscopic politics of the end of the century. The distinction between Left And Right increasingly lacks meaning. Still, what we’re presented with is a simple (and simple-minded) point that the Matrix is a trap that must be destroyed.

However you view this prison, if you think there’s something wrong with most people’s picture of reality, then you have Keannu’s problem. You wake up one day and realize you’ve been living in a dream. The only problem is that life outside the dream is not easy. Inside the dream, the game and its rewards are clear: Do what you are told and you get to eat steak (byte-size, although tasty steak in the Matrix). Dropout and you get to eat real food (tofu and organic brown rice for us/amino mush again for Keannu). The parallels are obvious for today’s social activist: if you choose to drop out of “the system,” you pay the penalty of losing the cushy job and great career. Like the character in the film who betrays our heroes, you too may long to forget the fact that the job you might-have-had would have contributed to war machine and the devastation of the environment. You may long for the “good life,” but you must choose: Will it be a life of meaningful struggle or meaningless but secure pursuits? Perhaps, in “reality,” some people can do both, but it’s not easy.

In the film, this choice is graphically illustrated; Keannu gets to choose between two pills. One will literally wake him up, while the other will return him to his former life. Of course, he chooses without understanding his options. He goes “further down the rabbit hole” He wakes up to join The Resistance.

Here is where I begin to suspect the filmmakers subconscious right-wing tendencies. Or maybe, it’s just a plot device? We learn that Keannu/Neo may be “The One.” The Oracle who serves the resistance (a grandmotherly, African-American woman) has predicted that one individual will appear who has the strength to overcome the Matrix. So it would seem that we must wait for the Nietzean Ubermensch to come to the rescue. It’s not a matter of better organization or dedication. (Or maybe we need the Matrix to push evolution? An idea better explored by various science-fiction writers). The film’s plot hinges on whether or not he is “The One.” An interesting interpretation suggested by a friend was a parallel with the coming Jesus Christ. This did not occur to me at the time—perhaps because of the film’s obvious embrace of violence as a solution. Maybe Jesus does “kick butt” in modern America, but as a plot device I thought it was a weakness. Once more Hollywood spends gazillions on special effects and seemingly peanuts on plot development — complete with the usual cast of cardboard characters. To the film’s credit, I rooted for Neo to discover which rules he could “bend” and which rules he could “break” as he learned to dodge simulated, yet still deadly, bullets.

Leaving aside Hollywood clichés of the Wild West and Clint Eastwood clones, let’s focus on the central question raised by the film: What is the Matrix? Beginning with the obvious, its logical outgrowth of today’s computer technology. The privileged strata progressively immerse themselves in the Web. Isn’t it only a matter of time before these silicon substitutes displace the physical world in importance? Can’t those who spend more time looking “into the machine” more easily ignore “meat-space?” (the opposite of cyberspace) with the continued destruction of the environment? (The Matrix at least can be congratulated for doing a good job of depicting this chilling potential.) Considering all the corporate money that goes into this film, it’s one of those weird contradictions that the same people who promote the spread of technology will also fund a movie so damning of that same technology. But, considering the lack of any real analysis of the problem (and any real guide to changing things) perhaps it’s not surprising. What we don’t see in The Matrix may be more important than what we do see. We’re still left wondering, How do you wake people up? And, once they wake-up, how can they organize to resist? I guess these questions just don’t fit into the action-adventure formula.

The real questions concerning the nature of the Web/Matrix remain. Is the Web inherently evil? Or is the inevitable wave of technological change neither good nor evil, but rather a new arena of struggle? The Web, as opposed to other forms of media (at least for now), seems to lack centralization (thanks to the military, this is one of the Web’s design features). This possibly makes the Internet useful as a tool for waking people up. Perhaps the Web is just another layer of “reality,” like layers of an onion. At least, in Star Wars, the spiritual layer (called the Force) had a light side. If those who are conscious of the dangers of technology avoid the Web, it will be left to the forces possibly moving us all towards destruction. No doubt, like all tools, it will shape its users in unexpected ways. The medium is the Matrix. These are important considerations for those who are conscious (pun intended). Now…if I could only write them up as part of an action-adventure screenplay 🙂