In 2009, the owners of Star Trek resurrected its franchise with a recalibrated young Captain Kirk and friends. It was an audacious and—I thought—brilliant effort. But New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, who had perhaps been passed over for a prestigious William Shatner biographer post, railed against the new Star Trek with scathing wit and predetermined unwillingness to consider what he had witnessed. Enter pre-SethBlogs to the rescue (SethBlogs was not yet born).
I wrote a review of Lane’s review, attempting to retaliate against the expert moviegoer by utilizing the same red herrings of empty cleverness that he had levied against his prey. I was pleased with the results: Star Trek was clearly vindicated by my Lane-style review of Lane. So I sent the double-edged piece onto The New Yorker, thinking they would surely be amused to print my whimsical retort against their top reviewer. Surprisingly, they did not reply to my cheerful submission.
Therefore, since SethBlogs was then just a glint in its founders’ (my sisters’) eyes, I was forced to dock the essay until a time when it could find a place to be free.
Well, in honour of the just-released sequel to the revamped Star Trek (now they’re going Into Darkeness), I believe it is time to finally unleash my review of Anthony Lane’s review of Star Trek. For best results, I recommend first reading his prequel to mine. (Note, it’s a two-page review, so hit the “Next” button when you finish the first page.)
Read long and prosper.
HIGHLY (BRILLIANT, BUT) ILLOGICAL
There is a tendency in the blockbuster-movie universe to let the special effects do the talking: Star Trek: The Motion Picture did it in 1979 as it proudly forced us to look through far too many pictures of its baby, the shiny new Enterprise, as though too adorable for plot. Thirty years later, New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane relies on a similar technique in his review of Star Trek the 11th.
With his quill set to stun, Mr. Lane reacts to the previously well-reviewed and well-attended new “prequel” Star Trek film by accusing its director, JJ Abrams, of exactly what I will charge him:
“He gorges on cinema as if it were one of those all-you-can-eat buffets, piling his plate with succulent effects, whether they go together or not.”
Replace “cinema” with “review” and you have Lane’s tragic flaw.
Mr. Lane brings to our table a special demonstration of his ample authorial talents as he describes Star Trek with tasty metaphors (sketching the enemy Romulan ship as “a dozen Philippe Starck lemon squeezers”), along with humorous allusions to both ancient history (noting that the rivalry between Federation Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Romulan Captain Nero “suggests a delightful rerun of first-century imperial Rome… in zero gravity”), and, of course, nineteenth-century English literature (pointing out that Commander Chekov’s confusion between his “v”s and “w”s is “a tongue-slip that Dickens pretty much exhausted for comic value in The Pickwick Papers, but,” he says, “I guess the old jokes are the best”).
Lane also teases our literary palettes by deftly accusing the film of anachronisms-to-be (“nice work, Jim,” he says, smirking at Kirk’s earthbound-Corvette, “getting hold of fossil fuel in the twenty-third century”), before filling us up with his main course, the rage-against-the-back-story (flogging it as a “a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish”).
What a smorgasbord for the literary taste buds! Nevertheless, once one begins to chew through it, an inevitable question comes forward, “Where’s the beef?”
Mr. Lane’s ability to turn a Star Trek phrase against its purveyors is impeccable (“shields up,” he says in anticipation of a sequel prequel), and yet, after a full scan, I have not detected any substance (or, for the Trekkies among us, grey matter) in his argument.
Lane begins his essay by questioning the movie’s need to exist:
“What happened,” he laments, “to Star Trek? There it was, a nice little TV series, quick and wry, injecting the frontier spirit into the galactic void… It ran for three seasons, and then, in 1969, it did the decent, graceful thing and expired… Except that the story was slapped back to life and forced to undergo one warping after another… based on the debatable assumption that you can take a format designed to last fifty minutes and stretch it out to twice that length, then pray that the thinness doesn’t show. Believe me, it showed. One of the movies was about humpback whales.”
Whamo! That’s quite the impressive shot: eleven movies and four television series dismissed by one out-of-context reference. Lane refers, of course, to the 1989 Star Trek (The Voyage Home), my childhood favourite in the series because of its comedic placement of the characters in then present-day San Francisco where, upon leaving his cloaked spaceship in the park, Kirk remarked—for the trailers—“Everybody remember where we parked.” The whales were required because an earth-destroying whale collector was looking for them—and was unwilling to leave until they surfaced—but, unfortunately, unlike muscle cars, humpbacks had become extinct by the twenty-third century, and so Kirk and crew had to travel backwards in time to retrieve a pair of sample creatures as antidotes to the earth’s demise. I suppose this premise could be considered a smidge awkward, but in contrast with the Lane-approved original where go-go-boot-she-aliens and mini-dress-wearing female officers reside, it seems rather tasteful (not to mention environmentally compassionate before its time).
Lane’s assault, though, is bigger than a squabble over points of plot: he seems to wonder, with a shake of his pen, at Star Trek’s imposition on cinema as though it’s a weed that nobody wants. But surely the critic is aware that people love this star-soaked universe: they watch it; they wear it; they marry to it.
I’m ready to stipulate that most literature would be best left to its original conclusion because a sequel will undermine its artistry, but the voyages of the starship Enterprise, while perhaps “quick and wry,” are no literary masterpiece whose profound conclusion would be forever tainted by a continuation. Gene Roddenberry’s first vision, as Lane aptly notes, “[manages] to touch on weighty themes without getting sucked into them and squashed”—Aye, aye, Captain! It was an optimistic playground of the mind wherein one was free to bounce around some thought-worthy scenarios. So shouldn’t the question of whether it continues be answered by an analysis of its ability to continue entertaining us?
Of course, the questions of whether a movie entertains versus whether it is intelligently rendered can have two significantly different answers (as The Matrix series helpfully demonstrates) so I could forgive Mr. Lane if he had merely pronounced the film to be a bad Trek, but, by scoffing at the very notion of the “continuing voyages,” Lane de-cloaks his pre-viewing agenda: his thumbs were down before the curtains were up.
Consider his contempt for prequels in general as he growls at Batman Begins, asking: “What’s wrong with ‘Batman Is‘?”
“In all narratives,” he says, “there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?”
I find this critic-angst to be brilliant and funny—I’ll admit to being amused by the thought of Hamlet pondering, “To left, or not to left?”—and yes!, far too many screenwriters coddle and condescend their viewers with justifications for behaviours we would have gone along with, anyway. The only (tiny) trouble I can see with the argument is that it’s fired at the wrong film. Star Trek is not a flashback built within a movie to help us understand; we already took Kirk’s status as Captain for granted—we were okay with Spock’s pointy ears, and nobody wondered how McCoy got through med-school; in fact, we were so comfortable with taking the universe as it was that we kept on flying with it through all those other series. Star Trek does not seek to answer a chorus of confused Trekkies who have always wondered about Scottie’s curious accent; instead, the film is a treat for Star Trekkers who are so enamoured by Roddenberry’s universe that a little hint into their heroes’ pasts makes their wee hearts grin.
More importantly, although it has all the titillations of a prequel, this Trek is not actually telling us what happened before the other episodes: instead it is the consequent of a post-Kirk Vulcan blunder that found its way back in time and killed a butterfly (Captain Kirk the 1st) just as Kirk Junior—our Kirk—was born. The result is a universe similar enough to allow our favourite Star Trek characters to still exist, but altered sufficiently to tweak their histories and personalities. The back-story here, then, is more than just Trekker-gratification: it also allows us to grasp the new rules in the adjusted-for-butterfly universe before we start re-Trekking our steps. Thus, the film is not a prequel, but a requel.
Lane regrets this “dose of parallel universe.”
“Come on, guys,” he says, rolling his eyes, “you’re already part of a make-believe world in which mankind can out fly the speed of light. Isn’t that parallel enough for you?”
This sounds like an impressive accusation; however, is it not the case that every science fiction movie (in fact, every movie, and, for that matter, every fiction ever invented) presents a parallel universe where the characters and sometimes the rules of the world are, to varying extents, different from our own? Lane seems to be suggesting that if we already have one fantastical element within a single film, we cannot have another. I’m not exactly sure why; a world that includes speed faster than light seems to me to be the most likely one to also include time travel.
Sure, time travel is irritating on film (How come someone from the future can still exist after he’s changed the past? and all that); nevertheless, can we not acknowledge that the Star Trek industry has boldly gone where no one has gone before? The authors of the film have, in essence, erased their universe and are set to begin a new stream of the same water. As a moderate fan, I am saddened to think of the many previously-witnessed voyages that will no longer happen in Kirk’s life, but, as a connoisseur of consistency, I am awestruck: Star Trek can persist, beginning again with the icons that brought it, without having to worry about matching up story lines. If they want Spock to be captain instead of Kirk, he can be; if they want the half-orphaned Kirk to be cockier than ever, the sky’s the limit!
I will leave the question of whether this do-over offering is the right course for Star Trek to more addicted fans than myself (and it seems that they have reported in with their support), but, to ignore its creative moxie is another symptom of Lane’s unwillingness to consider this movie long enough to pay attention to what it is doing.
Recall his complaint that Chekov’s funny accent was merely a regurgitation of an old Dickensian joke. Maybe, but I think the Star Trek writers and fans were also laughing at the original Star Trek for having such a silly-voiced character. (Which, in fact, was likely a necessity of the cold warring time in which Chekov was created: he signified Roddenberry’s utopian view of future earth relations in which he predicted the Russians and Americans would have long patched up their frigid dispute. He even paralleled the anticipated truce with a pledge from the Star Trek future, itself, that his own rivals, the Federation and those over-gruff Klingons, would eventually become allies—a promise he fulfilled in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, in order to ensure that Roddenberry’s “preferring to be dead than red” audience would go along with his super-truce, he designed his Russian symbol to be silly.)
Indeed, this requel teased several of our beloved: McCoy gave us one fantastic “Damn it, man! I’m a doctor not a physicist!” and Scotty, in his own unwieldy accent, complained that the ship didn’t have enough power to comply with Kirk’s demands. I am confident that the audience with whom I attended were laughing not because the lines themselves were so funny; instead we appreciated the unapologetic wink towards our corny original. I doubt Dickens’ Pickwick jokes were meant to satire himself.
But, if that doesn’t convince you that Lane’s review is a triumph of skill over substance, consider one final point: Lane’s review of Star Trek contains “humpback whales.” Enough said.