Movie Takes

Star Trek

The plotlessness thickens.

By 6.1.09

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At least he thought it was worth a mention. When Christopher Orr reviewed J. J. Abrams's new Star Trek movie in the New Republic online, he must have thought it incumbent on him to acknowledge in passing that, as he put it, "the script (by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) may be the most preposterous since Lex Luthor decided to take over the world by way of kryptonic real estate: This is a film with, literally, a black hole where its plot should be." Not that there's anything wrong with that, apparently, since he mostly liked the film. Oh, and don't worry about literally disappearing into that black hole either, by the way. He's only alluding to the film's way cool representation of a black hole -- which, as it painstakingly explains, causes a mixup in space-time that sets what plot there is in motion.

Most critics these days appear to be of the opinion of Kevin Maher in the Times of London, who explained to that paper's readers the economics of Hollywood franchises like "Star Trek" by sniffily insisting that "plot is highly overrated." But it seems to me that plot isn't rated at all -- otherwise the critics who raved about the new Star Trek would not have thought of the plot as even more of a dispensable item than did Christopher Orr. What he and most contemporary critics seem to like best about a movie is not that it offers a ripping yarn but what they would call its intertextuality. "Abrams keeps things moving at a lively clip," Mr. Orr writes approvingly, "tossing in elements borrowed from The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Ah, yes, that's the stuff. Who in the black holes of today's movie palaces needs plot or plausibility when you've got the opportunity to pass the time ticking off the allusions to other movies that the film-makers have been thoughtful and clever enough to insert for your benefit?

That plus the spectacular computer-generated imagery ought to be enough for anyone, I guess. Anyway, it will have to be, as the film has virtually nothing else to offer, unless you count talented impersonations by young actors of the now-old actors who originated their roles back in the 1960s and the occasional bit of snappy dialogue or in-joke. When Spock (Zachary Quinto) sees his home planet annihilated, for example, he meditatively observes: "I am now a member of an endangered species." Or when, on his departure for a dangerous mission, he tells the comely Uhura (Zoë Saldana), "I will be back," and she replies coquettishly, "You had better be; I will be monitoring your frequency." I'd like to think that it's also an in-joke when George, the first Captain Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), asks some Romulan aggressors: "What gives you the right to attack a federal ship?" or when the terrifyingly vengeful Romulan leader (Eric Bana) later pops up on the communications screen of the Enterprise and says to Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood): "Hi, Christopher, I'm Nero." But I'm not sure it is.

I don't know. Perhaps I am too hard on Star Trek's plotlessness. As with so many other movies I have seen lately, I occasionally found myself thinking that I ought to give the thing the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the plot does make sense to those with a thorough grounding in Einsteinian relativity and the physics of time travel, such as they are. To me it is all just a lot of mumbo-jumbo, dragged in by the ears to allow the movie to cut out those always-awkward corners of sequence and causation and provide an excuse instantly to make happen anything it needs to happen that has a promising visual element -- say, the pursuit of the young Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), son of George, across the frozen wastes of an ice planet by a giant, crab-like monster until he meets the older self of Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy, of all people), the man who marooned him there, from whom he learns his Destiny. How's that for intertextuality?

Old Spock is there to rescue him (with a torch!) because he comes from an alternative reality. Or something. And the narrative freedom conferred by this fantastical physics also helps, of course, to make the random events of this movie dovetail with the by-now well-established Star Trek mythology as developed out of the 1960s TV show through the ten previous movies and I don't know what further incarnations of the same characters. This is the one bit of storytelling that Trekkies are supposed to care about, so a liberal provision of alternate universes must obviously come in handy. Thus we are given to understand that the opening sequence in which Kirk's father is vaporized in a kamikaze attack on the Romulan mothership just as he, Kirk junior, is being born in an escape pod only happened in one version of reality and that, somewhere out there, there is -- waiting to be found in a subsequent episode, perhaps -- another reality in which the elder Kirk proudly survives to watch his son graduate from the Starfleet Academy.

I have not so far seen anyone object that it is not only the plot but the emotional mainspring of the action which is affected by this multiplicity of worlds, available seemingly at will to the characters as well as to the film-makers. Thus Captain Nero -- "a particularly troubled Romulan," as Old Spock sagely observes to young Kirk -- is supposed throughout to be mad for revenge against Young Spock because Old Spock didn't do enough to save the Romulan home planet from destruction some years before -- though he did all he could -- even though we are also given to understand that, in another reality, the planet was not destroyed at all. Nero is apparently at liberty to pick and choose between these two versions of events, and the fact that he chooses the one which requires -- albeit only in his own twisted mind -- taking his revenge on Spock by destroying the Vulcan home planet thus seems merely arbitrary -- as, of course, does that destruction itself. No wonder those Vulcans are supposed to have no emotions!

It's another manifestation of the way in which, in the era of the cartoon movie, both film-makers and audience both suppose that nothing needs to accounted for as if it were an event in the real world. Fantasy means never having to worry about motivation or consequence. Yet motivation and consequence are so much a part of what audiences throughout history have worried about, and in particular have gone to the movies to have presented to them in carefully worked-out fashion, that you've got to wonder what has changed in our culture to make these things matters of such unimportance as they are today. Partly it must be simply because we have grown so accustomed to fantasy that we have forgotten there can be any other kind of movie. But also, it's a mere matter of the kind of self-indulgence that fantasy was invented to appeal to.

Only consider. The young Kirk is a hell-raising bad boy who first appears as a young teenager (played by Jimmy Bennett) in a vintage car stolen from his step-father, which he proceeds to drive off a cliff. Neither then nor subsequently does he appear to have any good habits of diligence or application nor does he ever crack a book. Yet he becomes in record time at the Starfleet Academy Spock's intellectual equal and, without effort but with his natural insubordination and impertinence intact, is transformed in a twinkling into a Starfleet captain and a hero to young and old alike. You've got to suspect that not worrying too much about how their hero got to this position of honor and eminence is obviously a necessity to the kind of people who are being invited to identify themselves with him.

In the same way, Kirk is identified for us as a hero by his refusal to "believe," as he puts it, in "no-win scenarios" -- and, lo, in this movie's scenarios he always wins! Spock, a careful calculator of the "logic" of things, may reckon that there is only 4.3 per cent chance of success when the two of them go on their own to take over and destroy the Romulan mother ship, but his doubts are airily dismissed by the ever-confident James T. Kirk. "Trust me!" he says. And we, too, have no choice but to trust him in his comic-book perfection. Here, as in its provision of alternate realities, the fantasy must banish failure, suffering (or more than the momentary kind) and hardship as its first order of business. But only those who don't think plot, that essential tether to the real world, is over-rated are likely to care.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.