Sunday, June 7, 2009

Star Trek

Last night, weeks behind every else, I finally saw STAR TREK. I enjoyed seeing the old gang together again -- even if the old gang was played by a new gang -- and thought the visual effects were stunning. The movie was a lot of fun. I was not bored. But the film did raise in my mind some questions about science fiction as perceived by the larger public, who mostly knows it through movies.

The basic question is this: How plausible does SF have to be? Not in terms of "ideas," but in terms of human behavior. Because in that sense, this is a ridiculous movie. Young James Kirk, who has been caught cheating at Starfleet Academy, is being weighed by his superiors. let's see -- do we expel this kid or -- I know! -- we'll make him first officer of a starship instead! The lame excuse for this is that all other officers -- ALL! -- are off in another sector of space. This despite the fact that several older officers are sitting right there in the room, on the Board judging young Kirk. Perhaps they have no battle experience -- but does this hotheaded kid?

This is only one of the movie's plausibility issues in terms of how human beings behave and how human institutions are structured. However, nobody seems to mind: not the enthusiastic audience in the theater, not the critics, not anybody. Print SF, I'm told, is "of course" held to a higher standard. Writers are supposed to make minimal sense. But the number of people who know SF through print is minuscule compared to those who know it through movies, and for the latter, the idea seems to be that science fiction sacrifices even the most basic plausibility that thrillers and mysteries are held to. It's too bad, really. SF has so much more to offer.


Tim of Angle said...

You don't understand the dialectic.

This isn't a STAR TREK movie. This is a STAR WARS movie in a Clever Plastic Disguise.

Judged by that standard, it's a fine movie.

Pebble Texture said...

I agree with your perception, Nancy. The believability gap for technobabble I can overlook in the spirit of good fun. Planet-busting laser/black hole combos, lava-lamp "red matter" -- whatever. But the frequent nonsensicality of the characters' motivations was a real drag on the quality of the story. What's more, the movie often failed on its own terms as an action blockbuster. How many times can characters (and spaceships) be dangling off cliff edges by their fingertips before you say, "Yawn, I've seen that five times already"?

Laurie said...

My husband and I were having this very conversation on our walk this morning. It's a fun movie as long as you don't look at the character and plot *too* closely. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with many movies and TV shows. Trying to find well-written, well-adapted stories in visual media is extremely difficult.

TheOFloinn said...

2. I know, let's staff an entire starship with kids freshly graduated from the academy. Midshipmen? Ensigns? Never heard of them. Putting in a stint as second officer and first officer before taking full command? That's a bourgeois grown-up idea. Kids save the world.

3. Old Spock tells young Kirk he cannot even tell Young Spock about his existence, let alone permit Young Spock to meet Old Spock. Then, at the end -- a casual hello meeting. Was he lying the first time, or risking the universe at the end?

An audience raised on video games will not notice.

Ann said...

Mike, Spock lied and admitted as much. Kirk jumping line on the command chain? Sorta fits with old canon but the alternate timeline (bad science) is supposedly "healing" itself with the supercharged growth of the characters. Notice that it's not just Spock and Kirk who are geniuses but Sulu, Uhura , Scotty and Chekov. They're achievement levels are all accelerated by a timeline (personifying it here) trying to set itself right. Nonsense, but certainly not boring or the kind of dreary, fatalistic stuff that is so vogue anymore.

Star Trek is not about science anyway. It was always a social studies project set in space. It's about people and so it is character driven and feeds on the strength of the characters to induce a willingness to believe in the audience. And, it works for the most part.

It's a tired serial cleverly revived and it stayed true to the main characters as they were created long ago. I can only hope to write something that 40 some years from now will still engage.

Daniel said...

My own two cents here...

Seems to me that people are more tolerating of poorly done movies because they're only wasting a few hours of life. It takes more commitment to read a book, so people tend to be a little more picky... I guess.

Case in point: me. I can't remember the last time I read a book before the one I'm working on right now. But I've watched more movies (good quality and bad) than I could possibly attempt to count.

Ken Schneyer said...

Um, well, I don't think we see a lot of character consistency in most adventure films, which is what this essentially is. Nor in most space operas, which this sorta is too.

SF has more to offer (since 1965 or so, anyway) but SF films, for the most part, don't.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

`Hasn't sf always found its audience among those who ask The Big Questions, Nancy? Like, how does science change us? What will happen when we meet another intelligent race? Not being elitist here, but most people just don't.

A film like STAR TREK fire's up a wondering little guy or gal to ask, "WOW! Is there =more= like this?" And they'll find the books.

A.R.Yngve said...

Star Trek is, in good and bad ways, part of America's culture now. Like politicians and whores, it is respectable simply because it's been around long enough.

Fred said...

Not to nitpick -- because I agree with you that the film, while entertaining, is exceedingly dumb and not very good science fiction (or even good Star Trek -- but Kirk isn't made first officer by the superiors judging him, only later by Pike, after Kirk sneaks aboard the Enterprise (with some help from Bones). Like I say, it's nitpicking, since the promotion doesn't make a whole lot more sense when coming from Pike in the heat of battle and Kirk's never much more than a jerk even then, but the officers at Starfleet Academy do suspend Kirk -- or at the very least ground him until after whatever's attacking Vulcan is thoroughly defeated.

Still, you're absolutely right. The idea that science fiction doesn't have to be plausible because it's science fiction is all too prevalent, and all too wrong.

Unknown said...

I had the same problems, Nancy, as well as with a lot of the "science."

And I still enjoyed it.

We're being trained to swallow the dumb and like it. What's wrong with us?!

Orion said...

Loved the casting. Hated most other aspects of the film. Fortunately, there were enough explosions to keep my inner ten-year-old amused for the duration.

I would definitely not recommend this movie, on the grounds that the budget all went for the special effects and apparently they didn't have enough left over to afford a plot.

I would also not characterize this movie as science fiction; like most movies which are billed as SF these days, it is really a fantasy with starships. But I don't think the general public appreciates the difference. Not since Star Wars.

Anna said...

Well, this might not be a good movation for Captain Pike leaving Kirk as second in command but Captian Pike had great respect for Kirk's father. He did his dissertation his father's command.

Supposedly he saw within Kirk what he had respected within Kirk's father and that is why he made the extremely unusual decision. He saw what was going on as something that was out of the ordinary (being attacked the same way Kirk's Father was) so he acted "outside the box".

Anna said...

Mike Flynn, Old Spock admitted to Young Spock that he lied (or as he put it 'implyed' as he never actually said what would happen if young Spock was told of his existance.)

Quite honestly I found that the most accurate (if not profound) motivation of them all and actually in line with the old Spock character that had been developing throughout the movies.

He knew that while in his timeline "he was and always will be" Kirk's friend (Saying started on Wraith of Khan) given this time line and how Kirk this time met Spock with Kirk being the subordinate, this might not be the case, and indeed as the timeline was unfolding it wasn't the case when Old Spock and Young Kirk met.

He so valued his friendship with Kirk that he put his faith in that friendship beyond even logic. In "the Undiscovered County" Spock said logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end."

So, he believed that it was critical for the future for Kirk and Spock to be friends in this timeline as well and therefore he "implied" that castrotrophic things would happen if Kirk told Young Spock about him. In fact to Old Spock something catrotrophic would happen - young Spock and young Kirk wouldn't have the bonding experiences they needed to have to become friends.

So, yeah, he might have been risking everything by not having young Kirk tell of his existence but to him, this friendship was just as important if not more important than even saving earth. In fact he firmly believed if this friendship wasn't first established earth would be doomed. Not logical perhaps in a strictly scientific sense but we have seen Spock throughout the movies move beyond plain scientific logic to something beyond that.

José Iriarte said...

You're way ahead of me. I just watched the movie with my kids last week. I completely agree with your review. I had fun, but there was so much about this movie that just plain didn't work. Hours later when I thought back on it, seeing this movie felt a little surreal. You know . . . have you ever dreamt that you watched an episode of a TV series you routinely watch, or maybe a sequel to a movie you like? That this could really be a Star Trek movie was so implausible, it felt a little like I dreamed it. Once I convinced myself that I had, in fact, seen this movie in a theater, it started to feel like a work of fan fiction to me. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but not genuine.

Yes, it's fun, but frankly, I'm a bit perplexed at the extremely effusive praise it has received.