Monday, August 15, 2016


A funny thing happened on my way to Star Trek: Beyond. Every other movie for the past few years.

There's long been a hallowed tradition in American filmmaking, where (especially with Ye Summer Blockbuster) shit-blowin'-up-real-good is perhaps the core of the attraction. We like watching buildings explode, continents going kablooey - we even had fun with CGI destruction of major cities for a while there. Gosh darn it, good clean American fun, where nobody gets hurt (they're all just digital ants, right) and loud noises suffice for entertainment.

Rebooting has also been a big money maker, so we've rebooted the CRUD out of, say, Spider-Man (we're on #3 in under ten years, folks), every television show known to the Baby Boomers and now even some Gen-X'ers, and ... oh yeah, Star Trek.

Three years ago, DC Comics debuted their 'verse challenge to the box office, television, and beyond domination of Marvel's stunningly successful multiverse, giving the world the grey, grimy, gloomy, and petulantly self-indulgant Man of Steel. Antithetical to almost any possible character trait of Superman as he's existed for GENERATIONS now, this movie failed to score in one very major way: its sickening collateral destruction. The hue and cry against Supes' heedless and violent smackdown of his enemies, and the resultant, ya know, complete razing of some significant areas of human habitation, were loud and lamenting.

For those who are not fans: Superman is essentially a Christ figure. He never quite dies for our sins, but the only son sent from, well space, who gives up a normal life to serve mankind: yeah, it's a bit of a parallel.

So to make him an emo jerk with zero personality and a whinging little ax to grind, and to indulge an entire grubby looking feature film to the insane amounts of damage he and Zod leave around them without the slightest nod to those people and properties they destroy? Unpopular. And the movie sucked.

The result has been Batman Versus Superman. Not greatly more loved, as far as I have heard: but wow did it backpedal on the whole collateral damage thing.

Add to this Marvel's own multiverse spending now literally *years* addressing exactly the same issues - in the Netflix series Jessica Jones, on an existential level; in ABC's Agents of Shield, almost for the run of the series; in Captain America: Civil War, one of the biggest movies of this year. And it's no accident Civil War bears Cap's name, not The Avengers. He is all but alone, of his compatriots, in all the sacrifice and service we once saw and loved in Supes. And he's not a gun-toting ass, he is a human, the most human perhaps of all the Avengers, striving for principles and fiercely moral. Cap has become one of the most fascinating characters cinema has had to offer in a long time; his portrayal at Chris Evans' hands has been pretty remarkable on multiple levels.

So. Violence, and the fact that even in America its emptiness has begun to cause backlash.

I've been on record most of my adult life as being an open-minded fan - I will take what I'm given and generally try to enjoy it. Expansions of the Trekverse have rarely struck me as a bad idea.

Now we are "Beyond" the universe.

The latest Trek is a good movie. It's got some humor, it's got characters I quite like. I was surprised when I saw Simon Pegg was a writer (I might have expected *more* humor, if I'd known; but I was fairly successful in going in - even as late as I did - with little knowledge beforehand).

Pegg's Montgomery Scott has been a wonderfully winsome, moral presence himself, through the reboots. In Darkness, he was the voice of reason asking "hey, do we really want to go hauling possibly illegal weaponry into territory we're not allowed to be wandering around in in the first place?" and lost his job for it. For a while. He had to kill at one point, which was horrible to see and made me sad, but at LEAST it was theoretically justified by the script.

Beyond ... well, goes beyond. And over the top. And so forth.

The level of CRUELTY in Beyond is something worse than merely distasteful, it is both disrespectful of the entire Trekverse (and fandom) and a betrayal of the ideals on which every franchise used to be built. It is also incredibly tone-deaf.

In a world where DC Comics has to answer for wanton destructiveness, TREK of all things has produced a story in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths just mean nothing. We've all joked about red-shirts, I can't pretend not to have myself. But the level of viciousness, the level of truly morally bankrupt violence in Beyond is heartbreaking.

TOS killed off the occasional redshirt, but generally to make a point about the awfulness of death - or, at the very least, the awfulness of whatever enemy/obstacle the crew were up against. TNG didn't do much killing, but they honored the redshirt tradition here and there, and stuffed up their crew's shirts with a fair amount of moral superiority along the way (I will say: not always justifiably).

DS9, long my favorite of the series, took death and allowed war itself into the Trekverse. But even the war was not a wanton reaction; it was an attrition, a defense, and tapped very much into the ideals of Roddenberry's universe. It explored with more depth, at times, the twisted moralities and allegiances born out of humanoid conflict. It was, for the most part, honest - and earnest.

There is no earnestness in Beyond. Much urgency, but little morality.

Our villain, in Beyond, is a confusing morass of magical properties. We're not supposed to recognize what he is, so he is capable of changing appearance for no particular reason. He's supposed to be scary and evil, so occasionally he's some sort of energy-draining vampire. How this works, why it is so, is not much explained; he's just BAD GUY (and a cruel short-changing of the talents of Idris Elba - and also, was nobody at all a bit squirmy about making a large black man the villain, after the racial issues attached to whitewashing Khan?). His entire motivation is, um. That he is semi-immortal and went nuts because of it? That he was abandoned (shades of Bond Reboot #2)? That he is personally offended (shades of Trek Reboot #1 or CA;Civil War)?

Trek villains are usually greedy or (sigh) culturally inferior (see also, my many issues with TNG's unrelenting smugness), not torturing madmen giving mental illness a bad name.

The villain - as we've seen so often in recent years - is merely the mechanism by which we get the story, such as it is, and the 'splosions, such as they are, into motion. I don't even mind that; many's the Bond film predicated on such red herrings.

But you have to tell a good story once you get the mechanism ticking.

Beyond ... is not a bad story. But it could have been so much better.

One friend of mine commented on the old "tech that's been lying around for centuries magically working just like that" but I stand by that as a Trek trope of long standing. Fine. And, if it bugs you, well consider that Jaylah has been caretaker of "her house" (and all its tech) for some years, apparently. So she kept things in trim.

More than anything else, I wish I could have seen even ACKNOWLEDGEMENT by the crew that people were dying left, right, and down the middle, and that was A Bad Thing. Nope. They're driven, yes, and death is bad, but there's no feeling towards the masses of people destroyed along the way.

And the Enterprise herself is killed off early in the film.

It all feels like a character is missing. And the killing-off here is done along the way to action scenes we've seen before.

The character sliding down the hull of a dying ship. Check: Khan did this in Reboot #2. The characters flying through space/midair without any craft. Check: Reboots #1 and #2 both. Exciting once, amusing twice, retreading now, and taking up time and space that could have had some sort of story going on. Spaceship rising out of the water. Check: Avengers did this a few years ago, and Enterprise did it in Reboot #2, opening sequence no less.

Trek depends upon tropes; I've made this clear right here - redshirts, and gee-whiz tech, and setpieces, oh my. But retreads are just a drag. And laziness is a killer.

I came in wanting to love Star Trek: Beyond, and knowing as little about it as I could. Reviews were sounding good, but I'd seen some doubt.

And I liked it. I liked it in parts. I liked Jaylah, a good character for a woman, something all to hard to come by. Cis-checked and Hollywood pretty of course, but still a strong opportunity in an industry not plagued with good women's roles.

I enjoyed what humor there was, and appreciated the memorial to Leonard Nimoy. Some of the nostalgia felt earned, even as strategic - and manipulative - as necessarily it was. It was respectful, and I loved the shot of Nichelle Nichols and the TOS cast.

The delving into Bones' and Spock's relationship was not merely Pure Comedy Gold My Friends, but lots of genuine fun. THAT was a great movie, braided into a couple other movies with hit-and-miss quality.

I thought Kirk was great, here. His reactions, his actions. I believed him wholly. Same with Zoe Saldana's Uhura, which has been among my favorite aspects of the reboots. This magnificent woman, played first by the marvelous Nichelle Nichols and now by the sensitive, powerful Saldana, has been wonderfully developed through the new films. Her beauty is impossible to miss, but the fact that that is only the smallest part of her has been too. Uhura has been a glorious part, character, image, story, since Abrams took the helm. She is not short-shrifted here.

And yet. And yet.

I liked it in parts. I will get it on disc, when it comes, for those parts. I'll listen for the places this film harmonizes not only with its fellow reboots, but with the Trekverse itself. The music of the spheres, Trek-style.

But oh dear me. The ways it failed are truly bleak.


Lennon Faris said...

Haha, a fellow geek! :) I haven't watched the StarTrek movie(s) but I'm a huge fan of the Marvel ones. DC... not so much, although I'm excited about the Suicide Squad, mostly to see Harley Quinn. I love me a good crazy character! I might have to peek at this Star Trek one tho just to see what you're mentioning.

DLM said...

Hi, Lennon! I've been a pretty big fan of the whole Marvel-verse, it's well done and I do love Clarg Gregg. :) Even Jessica Jones, so different and placed so far down the economic ladder, still follows the rules. And is intriguing and well-written. Man of Steel - I dunno, was that even written? I can't recall witnessing anything like a "character" on the screen, mopey muscleboy notwithstanding. It was an ugly film and seemed to contain nothing. Poorly staged setpieces just don't do it.

Being "of a certain age", Trek is pretty much part of my DNA. When we were kids, if we switched on the TV, options being limited, you were going to watch TOS at some point, right? When they came back with TNG by 1987, I was ready to become a fan - and I did, though looking back, TNG's smugness and the constant tendency to rape Deanna Troi just do not work for me anymore. (I seriously want a t-shirt or a bumper sticker that says, "Can we please stop raping Deanna?") But even TNG drew the line at actual cruelty, at completely pointless violence.

DC's mindless destruction and violence not only left a bad taste in my mouth, it was DULL. Ugh, such an achingly boring movie, Man of Steel. I never even bothered with BvS, and probably will not. Life's too short.

Jeff said...

I haven't seen the new Star Trek movie (I'm not a fan of the reboots; maybe I'll catch this on cable next summer), but I appreciate this post. After September 11, after seeing city blocks crumble, after so many of my friends and family narrowly escaped but lost countless relatives, co-workers, and friends, I realized I was irreversibly done with cartoon carnage. As people crawl ever deeper into their fandoms and increasingly don't seek alternate moral instruction elsewhere in the culture, I have to wonder how this stuff affects the way younger people view the news, their neighbors, and the world at large.

DLM said...

Thank you, Jeff. I actually hesitated to cite 9/11, because it feels like there has been no shortage of blowey-up entertainment in the years since, but: yes. Collateral damage is just *inappropriate* anymore. Heedless CGI death doesn't look neato.

Jeff said...

I have a theory about this stuff, and since you and I are roughly the same age, I'd be curious for your thoughts.

As recently as when we were growing up, and certainly for our parents' generation, popular culture was downstream from the rest of the culture. By the time we, as adolescents, got truly immersed in popular culture, we'd already been heavily influenced by other institutions—churches, synagogues, schools, community groups, grandparents who lived through the Depression and fought in wars, a more limited but smarter, stodgier media—so popular culture just became one of many competing influences in our lives, and it waxed and waned over time.

Now, popular culture is so omnipresent, especially early in kids' lives, that the rest of our institutions and influences are now downstream from it. Their earliest and primary worldview is formed by movies, television, phone apps, and games, and there's so much of it that sometimes they can even ride right over the rapids of older and sometimes deeper culture. (The result is a more egalitarian culture where entertainment and art are concerned, but one that may end up to have serious losers, because a mind filled with nothing but Pokemon and Kardashians doesn't lead to a decent job.)

This is the sense I get from living with a high school teacher, who spends every day fighting the larger, stupider culture, and from watching my nieces and nephews and friends' children. Does it ring true, or am I being a wistful, fist-shakey old man?

DLM said...

Hee - well, you're clearly aware I have a thing about trying not to become the wistful, fist-shakey old person. It's a generational rite and right, to look at "kids today" and bewail their foolishness, but there IS, too, plenty to be said for the saturation of technology and the way that muscles proportions around.

But I think it ends up coming down to definitions. In addition to having a thing about my old-lady-ness, I also have a thing about imagining I know much of anything - and yet, I try to know as much as I can. So I partake of the world in its many forms - in RuPaul's Drag Race, and in reading excellent books. In Trek and in PBS.

The thing is, there are plenty of people who find anything RuPaul does to be a joke, or offensive, or silly, or simply bewildering. Yet I find the art there; am fascinated not merely by the present and future of female impersonation, but also its past, which is rich. Likewise, there are plenty of people who think there is nothing more to Trek fandom than a pack of living-at-home-with-their-parents fatties who don't have the first clue how to behave in a social setting.

Hmm, and that last one is an example of the despairing "young people today" kind of thing that has worried folks since the beginning of the television age - or the computer age. And *that* fear has gone on for a couple generations now, but humanity remains what humanity is and always has been.

You have a wide set of reference points, but I have a narrow one: my nieces. They *have* iDevices, and use them - but they also spend a great deal of time outside, or doing things with their brains, or unexpectedly coming up with The Best Fart Joke Ever, or just loving those they keep in their lives, and doting on a tiny, tiny, tiny little dog. They grew up without a TV in the house, sure, but even now that they carry YouTube in the palms of their hands (and, indeed, both parents have televisions, and even *cable*), there's no quashing a curious mind.

Amongst those kids surrounding you and your teacher, there will always be curious minds.

A third of my 'things' is the whole notion about The Dirty, Stupid Past. There's a reason that's a tag on my blog. An awful lot of people BELIEVE in "the dark ages" or think that a different educational system or the unenlightened repression of women/races/slaves means humanity itself was actually stupider in the past than it is now: which I would argue with the greatest vehemence. We live, after all, in an age where plenty of educated people might well hand us a President Trump, hairdo and all. And anyone who thinks "slavery" is (a) over, or (b) was an institution seen only in the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, involving only African people, is wildly ignorant.

So, I don't think you're being a wistful, fist-shakey old man, but I do think that humanity has ALWAYS been absolutely idiotic - and innovative - and horrible - and loving - and hilarious. Even the looming specter of Trump is damned funny, even as it's terrifying.

We have tools to destroy ourselves greater than we have in the past, but the reason I can sleep at night is that WE, what we are and what we want and what we see and what we refuse to see, are constant.

We are a wretched lot.

DLM said...

But we're also the rather wonderful, horribly stressed-out people I met last week in the Atlanta airport; up against the inexplicable, frustrated, tired, confounded at every point, and still being lovely to each other.

We're all in this together. That may be the main reason to recall, for all the wide swath of kids who seem consumed by a morass of stupid, stupid pop culture, there's one finding something in it that inspires them to create. There's another one finding something in it to question. There are ten thinking they know better fashion, or food, or music, who are stifled by current trends and will create new ones.

There are a crapton of nits who'll vote for Trump, too. Just as there have been a crapton of kings and peasants and merchants, through history, who didn't really *try* with life, or thought they couldn't, or shouldn't, or it never even occurred to them that life was or could be anything but what it was.

But life has changed. And life has stayed the same. Just like we have.

Jeff said...

Oh, I totally agree that there's art everywhere. I recently discovered Zuni animal carving and Cherokee oral storytelling, and I keep a box in the basement for junk I plan to make sculpture out of. I sculpt things out of felt, I have a page of original comic-book art hanging on my office wall...I like lots of things that few people would consider high art or high culture, and I regularly make the case for their significance to the skeptical. Don't even get me started about my favorite ELO album...

But I guess I worry that increasingly, kids don't even know that this old, difficult, wonderful stuff exists—that going to museums and slowing the heck down and just contemplating something complex (a poem, a painting, a piece of classical music) is a Thing. Now that gaming and SF and fantasy have gone mainstream, I'm concerned that the truly weird kids who would have sought refuge in them in the past now have no special place to go. I don't need high culture to dominate the world; I just want people to know it's there if and when they're ready for it.

Thanks for such a sensible and generous response! I'm going to chew on it over the weekend...

DLM said...

Thank YOU, Jeff!

I could get off the whole humanity-philosophy thing and say there's consolation in this: the things we used to find interesting are not actually becoming any less interesting. So maybe we've got that going for us?