Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Star Trek -- friendships and choices

Director: J.J. Abrams, 2009.

"Space: the final frontier.These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before." These words that opened the long-ago TV series that first brought Star Trek to the pop culture close out the newest movie while connecting it with its predecessor.

After creating Alias and Lost for TV, and then directing Mission Impossible III, Abrams took on the challenge of directing the latest Star Trek movie. This is the 11th feature film in the series but it is a brand new start. In the era of reboots, this is about as good as it gets. Where Batman Begins fired up the caped crusader once again, this Star Trek puts new life in the USS Enterprise and its crew. But unlike Batman Begins, which was dark and realistic, this film is bright and optimistic and full of fun.

The film opens with the USS Kelvin in dire straits. A Romulan mining, under the command of Captain Nero (Eric Bana), has damaged the federation vessel and is about to deliver the coup de grace. But Captain George Kirk orders the crew to abandon ship, while he stays on to ensure their safe escape. On one of the escape pods is his wife, delivering their only child: James Tiberius Kirk. Birth juxtaposes with death in this prologue.

To trekkies who have followed the various series over the decades, this timeline will seem wrong. James Kirk had a father who did captain a federation starship. But in a plot that plays with time and time-travel, Captain Nero changes the timeline and provide an alternate universe. In this one Kirk's father dies while his mother is in childbirth. By doing this, Abrams can bring the main characters back but in his own way, sticking to much of the lore while changing parts to his story's end.

We start with Kirk (Chris Pine) as a rebellious teenager in Iowa. One by one the rest of the crew of the Enterprise are brought center-stage. There are Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Of course Doctor "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) is an early and close buddy of Kirk's, who helps him get onto the USS Enterprise when he is supposed to be grounded. And there's Scotty (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz), the engineer who can always squeeze just a little more oomph out of the dilithium crystals, even when "I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!"

And then there's Spock (Zachary Quinto). There is as much time spent on Spock's early life as Kirk's. And rightfully so. He is as central to the Star Trek stories, and this story in particular, as Kirk. In one scene, he asks a character why Kirk was not told the truth, and he is told prophetically in response, "Because you needed each other. I could not deprive you of the revelation of all that you could accomplish together, of a friendship that will define you both in ways you cannot yet realize." The friendship between Spock and Kirk is legendary. Although they start out as opponents, not quite enemies, they go beyond animosity (an emotion Spock should not feel) to a life-long friendship that plays out in the TV series.

Although Star Trek is mostly flash and fun, without much depth, there are one or two nuggets. This is the first -- friendship. Initially Kirk despises Spock, who has accused him of cheating on a key test. But Kirk moves beyond this. He does not allow this incident to define the relationship. Likewise, we too may find our best friendships emerging in the strangest circumstances. Friendship is one of life's greatest joys. To have a true friend is to have a treasure from heaven. The Bible tells us "a friend loves at all times" (Prov. 17:17). Even a person who seems to be a thorn in our side may be destined to become an intimate pal. We just need to be willing to be open to any possibilities that God has for us.

As a young boy Spock grows up facing discrimination for being half-human. With a human mother (Winona Ryder) and a Vulcan father, Sarek (Ben Cross, Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire), he is at a disadvantage compared to the other Vulcan children. But Sarek gives him excellent advice early on: "You will always be a child of two worlds, and fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose."

This is a question we, too, must face. We are children of this planet, mere mortals, humans. But we are also children created by God to be like him (Gen. 1:26), children of heaven. Sin has had an impact and separated us from our creator (Eph. 4:18). Now we must choose: will we follow him and accepted our citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20), or will we remain earth-bound, alienated from God (Col. 1:21)? It is a choice that will seal our destiny, as Spock's choice sealed his. We must choose wisely, so we can live long and prosper.

When Vulcan faces the evil plans of Nero, the federation is called into action, manning the Enterprise with all the cadets at hand. The main plot line, then, is the race to thwart Nero, who determines to destroy planet after planet in his vengeance-fueled fury, while secondarily bringing all these characters into their position for subsequent adventures. Abrams pulls it off well.

Spock's early accusation against Kirk for breach of ethics highlights the difference between the two. Spock sees the test as a no-win opportunity to teach mastery of fear in the face of death. This is logical to him. But Kirk cannot face a no-win scenario. He is too confident and too cocky for that. He does not like to lose. He creates his own no-lose scenario, and that is so characteristic of Kirk. He can turn a no-win into a no-lose. He brings emotion and instinct to complement Spock's logic and rationality.

In the DVD extras, the producers contrast the old TV series with Star Wars, seeing the former as classical music and the latter as rock and roll. They have sought to bring more rock to this classic, and surprisingly have accomplished their mission. This is a new Star Trek for a new generation. You don't need to have any knowledge of the earlier characters; they have been explained anew.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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