Star Trek ’09- A New Film for a New Frontier

by Lynn Parramore on May 11, 2009 in Culture

vulcan greeting 150Star Trek mania is sweeping the nation and giving a rocket-boost to the economy.

Theaters are selling out, with some viewers buying tickets for multiple screenings. Collectibles and books are moving briskly. A comic series introducing the film’s villain has flown off the shelves. Executives at Paramount are smiling, having seen their second biggest opening in the company’s history. On Rottentomatoes.com, the film has gotten an astonishing 96 % approval rating. The franchise, which had been in decline, is back, and hotter than a summer night on Vulcan.

What’s all the fuss about? When there’s a big bang in the pop culture universe, it tells us a lot about where we are as a society – our hopes, our fears, our aspirations. Dave Itzkoff, writing for the New York Times, put it this way: “As Star Trek is returning to its past so is America: the country is once again gripped by anxieties about entanglements abroad, compounded by the fear that the economy could collapse at warp speed.” As we remember the past, we also think about what we want the future to look like – and if the world of the Enterprise is any indication, that’s a place where sacrifice, tolerance, compassion, and teamwork are valued.

Saturday night in New York City’s Chelsea Cinemas, the excitement in the packed theater was palpable. The audience skewed male, strewn with buddy groups of six to eight who bonded over trivia as they waited for the lights to dim. I sat checking out favorite episodes of the original series on my BlackBerry (“Amok Time” a big one) and reminiscing about my powerful childhood crush on Mr. Spock – a fetish I apparently share with Angelina Jolie.

As the opening scene unfolds, the air is hushed: Captain Kirk’s father sacrifices his life to a demented Romulan in order to save his crew and pregnant wife, who gives birth moments before his starship is destroyed. The montage, swift and poignant, left this cynical film-goer on the verge of tears. The film’s values are clearly established in the opening sally – this is a universe in which sacrifice for the common good is a matter of instinct; where courage is infused with compassion and the realistic acknowlegement of no-win scenarios.

The audience is mesmerized. We’re back in our parents’ living rooms, enjoying one of the greatest entertainment vehicles of the last 50 years.

It’s not easy to reboot a series like Star Trek. The fans are among the most hard-core in the solar system. Younger viewers may not understand the inside jokes and internal logic of the Final Frontier. But J.J. Abrams threads the needle. Two strokes of genius help him do it – inspired casting (no big-name stars in the crew; only a weird appearance by Winona Ryder as Spock’s mum) and a refreshingly smart script with just the right comedic touch. Alas, intelligent action scripts during the boom years were as rare as dilithium crystals, but if Star Trek is any sign, we can expect more brains in our blockbusters. The film isn’t perfect; I missed the allegorical resonance of the original storytelling. But it’s very, very good.

What happened in Chelsea has been happening in theaters across the country. Every time a familiar character was introduced, the audience erupted into cheers. Ditto when a treasured line was spoken, like the Vulcan greeting, “Live long and prosper.” From the opening scene, the film had our hearts, and we let ourselves be whisked away on a warp-speed, action-packed journey that ended all to soon.

Two and a half hours with our old friends was not enough.

Chris Pine is compelling as the brash Kirk, depicted as a young screw-up who joins Starfleet with his nose bloodied from a barroom brawl. Pine has the charisma; he nails the swagger. Karl Urban as Bones is warm and delectable, as is the hilarious Simon Pegg as Scotty. The sprightly Sulu kicks major Romulun ass, and as for Zoe Saldan’s Uhura, now we know why the first inter-racial kiss on television happened – boy, is she gorgeous.

But the biggest high-five goes to Zachary Quinto (Sylar in TV’s “Heroes”) as the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock. Quinto plays Spock with touching gravitas lightened by flashes of infectious humor. Quinto had a hell of an act to follow: Leonard Nimoy’s impassive mask and unemotional delivery are deceptively simple, but the small touches of emotion he let slip were the key to Spock’s enormous appeal – the wry wit of a raised eyebrow; the slight pause in a question. Thanks to Nimoy’s genius, Spock was, and is, one of the most beloved characters in television history.

Quinto’s is a different Spock, but it works. His emotions are closer to the surface, but that seems appropriate, given Spock’s youth. One of the revelations is what goes on with his other-worldly libido. Spock always had a fascinating sexuality – witness “Amok Time,” when he goes into heat over a Vulcan damsel – literally. But Quinto’s Spock is a being whose hunger to let his emotions go makes for a tightly-coiled sexuality that more immediate.

The rivalry and budding friendship between Spock and Kirk is a hoot to watch. In the development of this relationship we see the character trait in Spock that makes him such a spot-on example for the new, post-boom values-landscape. Spock exists in a fluid leader-follower contiuum. He is willing to put his personal advancement aside for the good of the team; he leads when necessary, and follows when that course of action has a better chance for a successful outcome. Spock understands that “me-first” thinking gets it the way a successful mission. Such behavior, clearly, is not logical.

Unlike the take-no-prisoners action heroes of recent years, the young Kirk is willing to extend compassion to an enemy – even one who has committed genocide. It’s a telling moment in the film, and what it says is that we are moving beyond the brutishness of the Bush years. Obama, in fact, has been compared to Kirk’s friend Mr. Spock because of his composure and intelligence. 

Whatever the future holds, I sure hope that Star Trek will be in it.

May the series live long and prosper.

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