Star Trek: I Love You, Man.
May 26, 2009 4 Comments
Once, when I was fifteen and full of good ideas, I ditched my Mock Trial team at the courthouse and betook myself to an outdoor mallish esplanade that featured, among the dingy doughnut and copy shops, a clothes store and a decadent movie theater of the sort that has elaborate curlicues painted in gold. It was a warm, nay, a balmy, afternoon. People of all shapes and sizes were walking or sitting with their bags and boomboxes and I was highly conscious of myself as Woman of The World. Exhilarated, reckless, I bought a pair of brown polyester pants without trying them on.
High from this extravagance, I passed the movie theater. Ticket booth: cobwebby. Film posters: unfamiliar. It hit me then: this movie theater was a repository of something shadowy, fine, oblique and forgotten, a culture that soldiered on while people drank slurpees and shopped at Wet Seal. I looked to my right, to my left, tried the door and crept inside.
No one was taking tickets or serving popcorn. I dove into the first theater. A movie was playing but no one was watching it. All the seats were empty but I felt taking one would be to push too far. (I wasn’t totally shameless. Yet.) I sat down on the floor to watch Gia.
Midway through a boy came in wearing a red vest and black pants. He was seventeen or so with longish-hair and evinced a certain Man-of-the-Worldness I felt totally intimidated by. (He was, in a word, cute.) I pretended not to see him and worked at puffing out my fictional persona, aiming to wordlessly convey a) my legitimate patronage b) my eccentric preference for floor over seat while c) sinking into the loud carpet and shadows (why do all movie theaters have loud carpet?) hoping he’d missed me, until the curtain swished closed behind him and I collapsed against the wall in asthmatic relief.
I gulped for air and tried to refocus on the movie. Suddenly he reappeared, walked over to my spot on the floor and handed me a coke. I drank the soda in a grateful cold sweat and watched the woman I’d later come to know as Angelina Jolie make mistakes.
I’ve told you this before and I’m rather inconsiderately forcing you to sit through it again because I need to purge myself of personal investment as I try to sort out my thoughts on Star Trek. As logically and impersonally as possible. It seems fitting so to do, given that the Star Trek movie features not one but two Spocks, the younger of whom is struggling to keep his logical and emotional selves separate.
It’s no easy thing, finding oneself emotionally compromised.
Especially when one is not—and I am not—a Trekkie, and couldn’t pick Spock out of a lineup until seeing this movie. I’m approaching this little review with an impressive lack of background. And yet, despite my unfamiliarity with the franchise (or perhaps because of it?), I left the theater in a rage that some might call disproportionate.
It’s an entertaining movie. Storywise, I’m impressed with how the plot mirrors the moviemaker’s challenge—namely, recreating a mood and a look that manages to be both retro and futuristic, and adapting an old account of a distant future to our own time. (Abrams does this most virtuosically, I think, in the Young Kirk scenes—that Nokia carphone manages to bridge the gap between hokey futurism and cool gadgetry quite nicely.) It’s fitting that the writers bend time into a pretzel and manage to deliver both the epic (and impeccably linear) narratives of Kirk’s birth, Spock’s childhood trauma and Kirk and McCoy’s meeting AND the weird paradoxes of Old Spock giving Young Scotty his own formula or having Kirk deliver Spock to the red matter he’s already handled.
It’s curious, in the latter case, that technology answers the movie’s question of whether there can be an alternate destiny. (In case you were wondering, the answer—despite the myriad possibilities the writers try to open up by “rebooting” the franchise—is NO). Different characters tantalize us with this conundrum repeatedly. (Incidentally, Quinto’s Young-Adult-Spock notwithstanding, Old Spock definitely understands human pranks). Old Spock admits at film’s end that the dangers he warned Kirk of were useful fictions intended to serve the larger purpose of bringing him and Spock together. (This, maybe, is the problem: the script throws the finer points of time, violence, war and genocide out the window in the service of letting Kirk and Spock bond. It’s a bizarrely skewed perspective. If I were feeling generous I’d call the plot charming nonsense.)
The success or failure of Kirk’s whole project (and of his character) depends on whether or not the events of linear time are (pre)destined or not. If not, his “cheat” fails, but he goes up in our estimation because the uncertainty heightens the acuity of his perceptions and the genius of his instinct. Even if it wasn’t fated, he’s managed to put things right.
The movie tries to have it both ways—it wants both to present Kirk as the mythic hero blessed with unerring instinct, fated to do great things, and to have him operate under the uncertainty Spock tries to design for him in the initial training simulation—a simulation Kirk cheats and continues to cheat throughout the movie.
The film acknowledges this flaw and shrugs it off as a joke, but it really isn’t: in real terms, it deflates the suspense. The writers, like Kirk, have written in a cheat code that makes the movie totally winnable in a surprisingly uninteresting way. The answer really turns out to be NO: no alternate destiny is finally possible. Kirk will win. This is the way of prequels. Still, I give the writers an A for effort, and I get that they’re trying to make space (heh) for future storylines.
(Pat endings not withstanding, Abrams is ironically quite fond of the cliffhanger as a visual gag. There are at least three moments when Kirk is clinging to a smooth frictionless surface.)
As for the movie’s meat: as I was suffering the agonies of choice, deciding between Star Trek and I Love You, Man, I thought I’d opted against the bromance. I look back on my twenty-four hours ago self and think, silly fool.
The movie opens in crisis, with George Kirk forced to take command of the USS Kelvin, back when the handy-dandy beaming technology wasn’t available to catapult people out of their kamikaze missions (see Spock, Red-Matter Mission, Romulan). Ready for a coincidence? In a hilarious confluence of events, his wife happens to be giving birth aboard the ship at the same time. Oh, Murphy’s law.
(Why she’s on board a peace-keeping ship at all is never explained—we never see another civilian on a ship until Kirk drags Scotty back from the interplanetary arctic hinterlands).
Mrs. Kirk screams that she can’t deliver without him. (They forego the more popular movie trope of the pregnant lady delivering whilst screaming profanities at the man who put her in that condition in favor of a gentler, more dependent model. Here, this telegraphs a) the solidity of their marriage b) what a fantastic husband Kirk Sr. has been and what a great father he would be (and is, in another reality!) and c) what it must be costing KIRK to be away from her. The movie isn’t even slightly interested in her pain.)
The subsequent naming scene is quite unexpectedly sweet, with some pretty nice acting by Kirk’s mom. Dramatically unimportant (as we never see her again) but sweet, and despite the calamities surrounding the dialogue, it’s one of the film’s most (only?) contemplative and quiet moments.
It’s a commonplace, I suppose, to state that women in Hollywood films are there as growth charts against which to measure the male protagonist’s character arc. But never—never—have I seen this so obviously and hamhandedly done. Every woman in this movie is there purely as a plot device. She might as well be a deus ex machina—a tumorous maternal lump that gets removed and hurts in the way all amputations do.
Spock’s mother has three dullish lines that do nothing to illuminate the impact her death has on Spock’s psyche. Abrams relies 100% on archetype and does no character-work: Spock, we’re meant to understand, has lost his mother and that is sad, because we are all sad when our mothers die. Despite the emotional awakening this is supposed to spark, the loss has nothing to do with her particularly. If it does, the movie has no interest in exploring that. We are left to project our own mothers, or ideas of mothers, onto Spock’s mom and feel for him.
Why they bothered to cast Ryder in this non-role is beyond me. The point, movie-wise, is that SPOCK FEELS. (Oh and, parenthetically, Spock’s dad LOVED HER.)
Uhura is a foil for Spock. The elevator scene does the easy work of telling us that Spock probably feels something by sacrificing her only mildly interesting moment—when she stands up to Spock and demands her place aboard the Enterprise—to a preexisting romantic entanglement. We had no idea this relationship exists, and it has zero content—at no point does Spock actually talk to her. But hey, she asks him what he needs. She offers, she nurtures. And they kiss. Who cares about the rest?
Which brings me to the women’s wardrobe in this movie.
Sorry. My nostrils are flaring.
Oh, the ire.
Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.
Is it enough to say that if all the women on the flight deck have their knees smashed together to avoid flashing the public, the miniskirts are probably a little too short? Or that it might be unhelpful, uncomfortable, unsafe, not to say COLD to run around in miniskirts and boots at which Pan-Am flight attendants would blush? Or that the only time a woman wears pants in this movie is when Kirk is getting his award at the end and the woman in question is over forty and therefore not worth the easy-grope feature?
And why, if the powers that be insist on spandex-tight uniform tops, are the men’s saggy and baggy? Even the Next Generation had tighter uniforms than these.
Uhura complicates the Spock-Kirk tension, romps around in a bra when she’s not in her skirt, and is the one thing unconquerable Kirk doesn’t conquer. She humanizes Spock by intuitively reading his emotions and humanizes Kirk (who borders on the insufferable) by depriving him of something he wants.
Nero, of course, is doing this entire catastrophic terrorism thing to avenge the death of his wife.
Women are the red matter—which works a bit like a vagina dentata, contracting entire stars into nothing. Every time you expect an eruption you get an implosion into silence. I’ll spare you a description of the red matter consuming Nero’s ship. The point is: fathers are ultimately enabling objects of emulation—Kirk, for instance, wants to best his dad. Women, on the other hand, are the source of debilitating psychological trauma, emotional furniture that matters chiefly when removed.
In the movie’s terms, the only reason Kirk can triumph and lead and trust his (ever unfailing) instinct is because he’s maternally undamaged: unlike Spock, plagued with too many women and emotionally compromised accordingly, there are no women in his life.
As for the women, they and their stories, names, fates, desires, are not, in any universe, or in any time, or in any space, the point.
What really REALLY matters, dear Carla Fran—in this movie that claims to be about Life, The Universe, and Everything—is that Spock and Kirk get to be friends.
I’ll take my own smallish squashlet of an epic at the Crest Theatre any day. Thanks Gia. Boy with the Coke: thanks for spotting me among the chairs.
Live long and prosper,