Star Trek: A Pop Theology Conversation

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week or so, you’ve heard about the wild popularity of the new Star Trek film.  I’m not going to go in any great detail here about the film:  it’s a reboot that provides the origins of Spock, Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew, and it’s GREAT.  After the jump, check out a bit of back-and-forth between frequent Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay and I.

Ryan: So Richard, it seems like I see really good films with you:  Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, and now Star Trek.  You know, when I first saw the teaser for J.J. Abrams’ reboot, I couldn’t have cared less; however, with each new trailer I was more intrigued.  I am no Trekkie by any stretch of the imagination, but having seen the film and listened to various interviews with Abrams, I think I’m actually his prime target.  Abrams appeared on a host of talk shows this past week, including Attack of the Show on G4 where he confessed to not being a Star Trek fan and being unable to connect with it in his youth.  I find it interesting (especially given Peter Jackson’s love for Lord of the Rings, for example) that a director who doesn’t really care about a franchise can invest so much time an energy into a reboot and provide such a phenomenal product.  I can’t see how anyone would object to this film, but I think The Onion might have capture the nature of those objectors quite succinctly.

I think this is one of the best action adventure/sci-fi films I have seen in quite some time.  As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that this would be the film that future generations watch the way we watch the Indiana Jones series, for example.  I don’t think it’s revolutionary in the way that Star Wars was, even though Abrams borrows frequently from that predecessor, but it does combine the mythic with the humorous in the way that Indy did so well.  Not only does this film not take itself too seriously, I think Abrams also poked fun at the series itself (Spock telling Spock that his usual sign off would sound particularly self-serving…brilliant).

Richard: The humor also struck me. It was witty and slapstick and actually funny. As opposed to the usual, “Well, here we go again, can’t believe I still fit in this old uniform” kind of jokes in the previous films.

Abrams seems to understand something that is totally lost on most of Hollywood these days — you can have all the special effects in the cyber-universe, but it doesn’t mean squat if you don’t have a good story and good characters. George Lucas could take lessons from this guy on how to put together a prequel.

There are effects and images that stick with you from the film, but mainly because they tell you something about the characters involved. Seeing a young James T. Kirk racing through the fields of Iowa on his motorbike with a spaceport looming eerily in the background tells you something about his character. He’s a free spirit in a rational age, torn between the competing American mythologies of the dignity of individuality and oneness with the Land, and unyielding faith in ingenuity and progress. Spock is also the roundest I’ve ever seen him as a character; suggesting real conflict in integrating his human and Vulcan identities.  And yet, even with the fact that the film takes time for character development this was the most well-paced and action-packed Star Trek film.

One complaint: can we stop using pregnant women to create instant sympathy for a character? If your planet is turned into a black hole you already have reason for revenge — you don’t have to have a wife who was with child who died to make your grief believable. Are we supposed to think if Nero the Romulan was single or gay with no kids he would have just let the planetary genocide slide? Same for Kirk’s parents. His father dies saving 800 people, there is no need to portray him as a loving husband (who would surely make a doting father, given the chance) in order for us to like him.

Ryan: I really appreciate your comments about character development.  In her review of Wolverine, Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly said something to the effect of “who cares about Wolverine’s origins…?”  Well there are a lot of comic book fans that do, but I get her point.  We could also pose the question about the origins of Spock and James T. Kirk:  there are loads of Trekkies who care deeply, but who besides them loses sleep at night?  The beauty of Abrams’ prequel is that he makes us care about these characters in a very real way.  Like you mentioned, all the action is in service to the characters and the story, not just showing off technical brilliance, which the filmmakers have in spades

It’s interesting that you bring up the concept of revenge because I have been detecting it in quite a few films that I watch lately (it was a central theme in Wolverine.  All of these films have shown the destructive nature of revenge (nothing new), but I wonder if our culture at large needs to hear that again or is coming to terms with it this many years after 9/11 and the growing realization that the war in Iraq was a misguided (to put it lightly) idea.  I mean, even Spock (logic par excellence) was overcome by it, and it almost cost the life of the entire Enterprise.  It’s easy to decry revenge, but it’s difficult to think up a creative alternative, especially on a national level

Richard: Revenge is, of course, part of American superhero myth, and its gotten this country into heaps of trouble. I’m not sure Trek exactly condemns revenge, as the Enterprise crew essentially gets revenge — albeit through Nero’s stubbornness. Kirk continues the tradition of the American monomyth, in that he’s the rebellious individual set aside by superior talent at birth who is given powers outside the law when the normal systems fail to meet an overwhelming threat. As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence point out, this mythology is more fascist than democratic.

At least in the case of Star Trek, the series and this film, there seems to be a continuing sense of the need for diversity, the contribution of the talents of different kinds of people, in order to achieve a greater goal. In this sense, it retains some sense of democracy — along with lots of “The odds are against us but it just may work!” kind of hokum. And this film shovels that variety of good old-fashioned American corn with the best of them.

Getting back to the ability to tell a story, not just demonstrate technical brilliance, Abrams writes in an excellent article in Wired that what’s missing in the age of instant information and special effects flash is a sense of mystery. We have all the world’s information at our fingertips, and the result is not always a sense of satisfaction, but a feeling that all the magic been drained out of the world. There are lots of questions in this film that go unanswered: whose car did the young Kirk steal? How did Spock and Uhuru meet? What happens to the canonical history of Star Trek now that space and time have altered by Nero? (I’m trying to do this without revealing too many plot points and thereby spoiling the mystery.) What this says about Abrams is that he understands a good story is made in part by how much you can leave up to the imagination.

Ryan: Or the next sequel!