So, J.J Abrams' Star Trek came out on DVD yesterday, so I thought it'd be a good time to revisit it, so you get this lazy re-up of a post from only a few months ago but I think it's worth revisiting to see how/why Star Trek is so good and also, how it really isn't a big blockbuster that Best Buy has all kinds of in-store ads for and stuff. Or rather, it's the good, rarefied kind of blockbuster, you know?...
Even before the absurd racism rushing through the movie (A jive-ass robot...with a gold tooth...really?), Transformers 2 was problematic. We can start with the simple snobby point that it's directed by Michael Bay, he of jingoistic characterization and imagery, or that it was based on a childhood cartoon that itself was pretty racist (something people keep forgetting) just now stretched to marketing-synergy extremes.
Still, simply by being so awesomely explosive and transparently, the party-dude of popular cinema, running down a checklist of audience-pleasing turns and self-justifying thematics, Bay is often sorta celebrated. Armond White's review summed up a near healthy contrarian take on Bay--his review begins "Why waste spleen on Michael Bay?".
As cool as it is when a notable part of the media jumps on some actually racist shit, it's as much because Bay's an easy target as it is actual social/cultural indignation. That Transformers 2 was vilified for its racial hard-headedness and Star Trek not celebrated for its pop-racial sophistication on this front, sorta negates any "searing" critiques of Bay's directorial choices. Had Abrams' Star Trek--written by Roberto Corci and Alex Kurtman (the same two guys behind Transformers 2) and the big, dumb, franchise blockbuster before Transformers 2 stomped onto the scene--not arrived just two months ago, White'd be right. But he's not.
The differences between the movies are clear and fun to list: Meghan Fox's bland beauty vs. Zoe Saldana's rarefied allure, Bay's leadfooted action cutting vs. Abrams' embrace of hand-held chaos and roving single takes, the tension of saying "I love you" between Spock and Uhura vs. Mikaela's cunty frustration with Sam for not uttering those words, the dopey slapstick of Transformers vs. the from the original series dead-pan weirdness. All of these show Star Trek to be both more artistically and socially sensitive than Transformers 2.
In part, this begins with the original show's conceit and the decision to comment or not comment on it. In fact, both directors are essentially "faithful" to the original properties. Bay decided to continue the selfish excess of the 80s (it makes sense as little kids, we loved Transformers, we were 5 yr. old selfish pricks) and Abrams kept-in all the goofball sincere multi-culti 60s stuff of the original Star Trek. When it's 2009 though, and you're doing this, recontextualizing an old time-capsule piece of popular culture, it becomes political. It just does.
There's a scene in Star Trek in which Kirk (at this point a stowaway on the ship, and a total jerk) and Sulu, along with a particularly gung-ho crew member, sky-dive (or something) onto the Romulan's ship. Waiting to leap down, this gung-ho third member is bouncing up and down, full of adrenaline and hubris--in short, he's a character from a Michael Bay movie--as Kirk and Sulu look at him strangely, maybe even sadly. Once they leap, he continues shouting extreme-sports platitudes, and eventually, misses the intended target and gets burned up in the Romulan ship's jets. This scene illustrates what would happen if a Michael Bay character got dropped into Abrams' more studied and realistic (for an action movie) world.
Abrams' perspective in this scene is of course, made more complicated by the character of Kirk, ostensibly the movie's main character and one defined by his daring and arrogance. That's to say, a lot of the time Kirk acts like a Michael Bay character himself and so, having a scene in which a complete arrogant goon vs. a kinda arrogant goon is destroyed by his arrogance is brilliant. It's all about the tiny little details.
Early in the film, we see a very Bay-like flashback to young Kirk stealing his step-dad's car and speeding across a golden, Mid-West vista (it's essentially awful, like, right out of a Bay movie) and it's followed up by a later scene in which a drunk Kirk hits-on Uhura and gets in a fight. What would happen in most movies is that this early awkward assholism would be rectified or shifted to something resembling sensitivity and Uhura, despite her initial disgust for Kirk, would grow to love him...or at least sleep with him.
Not so much in Star Trek, as Kirk never gets "the girl". A scene in which he's shown making-out with a girl at Starfleet Academy is presented as fairly loathsome, sad, even robotic. Even more crazy is that it's Spock who "gets the girl". This shift is not only a "clever" re-up of an old series, but a mindful shift in sensibilities. Abrams' Star Trek rejects Kirk the jerk in favor of Spock's hyper-sincerity. When the movie ends with the famous "Space...the final frontier" and it's spoken by the aged voice of Leonard Nimoy--we're not working with clever revisionism but an ethical improvement on the past.
To base the movie around poetry-reading, In Search Of...-hosting Nimoy vs. the chintzy, hair-pieced, ego-tripping Shatner (the movie's Kirk, when he's at his worst, most selfish, acts Shatner-like) is fascinating. Cynics might chalk this up to some kind of "wussification" of American culture or something, but they'd be missing the nuanced evolution of Kirk's character--both a core decency he clearly gleaned from his father (who we meet before we meet Kirk) mixed with a fuck-it-all sense of confusion a very specific kind of American radical individual feels.
Even at his worst, Kirk's never the gung-ho asshole incinerated by a Romulan ship, but it's through experiences on the Enterprise and the interaction with the ethnically diverse crew that he (and all of them) come together. This is where Star Trek's wizened and realistic understanding of patriotism usurps Michael Bay's U.S of A. belligerence.
Where characters and images in Bay's movie act as short-hands to re-instill played-out, long-internalized values, Star Trek seeks to remind Americans of the importance of plurality and understanding--the rejection of black and white for grey. The Enterprise begins as a sort of "Team of Rivals" and they slowly come to realize their similarities. The merger of Spock and Kirk is, when it finally becomes civil, simply pragmatic, but from that pragmatism it spins into something lasting, true, and worthwhile. Differences are more than accepted, more than celebrated, they're seen as vital.
In this sense, Star Trek indeed, functions like a product of filmmaking or television from the progressive 60s or 70s--what Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty called, "platoon movies" (100). Platoon movies, Rorty explained, were a byproduct of the pre-60s (pre-P.C) left and "showed Americans of various ethnic backgrounds fighting and dying side by side" (100). About the only other successful "platoon movies", that's to say, not movies simply playing on this trope of an ethnically diverse crew working it all out, but really internalizing it, that I can think of in recent years would be Wes Anderson's movies--especially The Life Aquatic.
The movie itself is pragmatic, both giving viewers what's necessary (a ton of action, Saldana in her underwear, bad jokes, old-show reference irony, ethnic jokes) and flipping the script in weird ways, as to never topple over from the unfortunate stupidity necessary for a big-budget movie. Notice the way it glosses over the alien races or nearly pushes all characters not Spock or Kirk to the side, all the while maintaining their humanity...not in a quest to maximize whiteness on the screen, but to treat diversity as a foregone conclusion of life. Abrams is not interested in "other"-ness, even the villains though darkened and evil-ized, get a decent enough reason for their actions beyond simple "evil"--precisely the kind of primitive value system that is literally Bay's meal ticket.
Just as Michael Bay's Transformers 2 begins its second week of hyper-visibility, JJ Abrams' Star Trek makes its way to your city's "dollar" theatre. The decision to see Star Trek maybe again, maybe a third time, over Transformers 2, is not only financially savvy and aesthetically wise, it's ethically prudent too.
-Rorty, Richard. "Achieving Our Country". First Harvard University Press, 1999.