Star Trek (2009)

J.J. Abrams and the Heart of Science Fiction

The foundation of big budget science fiction cinema, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) theorizes its own bifurcated audience reactions. On the one hand, the film presents such a sumptuous world of the future that its production design continues to dazzle almost a century later, inspiring everything from Queen music videos to the greatest achievement in all of science fiction, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). However, the film’s seemingly simplistic plot has irked popular audiences and academics since its release. Relying on the basic Manichean principle of melodrama, Lang’s film forwards its mantra at the outset, and the conclusion, and at many points in between: the head and the hands must be mediated by the heart.

I offer this as the best way to understand the 2009 Star Trek film, and indeed the career of J.J. Abrams more generally. With his first hit, Felicity (WB, 1998-2002), about a young woman who goes off to college, Abrams learned the simple truth of television melodrama: tell compelling stories about real human emotions, and people will engage in droves week after week with intense passion. With Alias (ABC, 2001-2006), he constructed a true melodrama, housing such emotional character issues within action narratives about the CIA. As a filmmaker, like Steven Spielberg before him, Abrams relies on his strengths in television character development to gravitate toward the more cinematic wonderment of science fiction. As a love letter, Super 8 (2011) is as deeply felt an homage to Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) as anything Brian DePalma ever did for Hitchcock.

However, Spielberg is a lot of hands (whiz bang special effects) and a lot of heart (emotional appeals to the coming of age of young boys), but not much head. For its part, science fiction has suffered from its share of too much head: witness the cold calculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), in which the most engaging character is a computer played by an effete voice and a devilish red eye. In Lost (ABC, 2004-2010), Abrams took his artistry in a different, non-Spielbergian direction, mediating against the over cerebral nature of 2001. The lost-on-an-island fantasy show asks philosophical questions about freedom and democracy, more akin to Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) or the works of John Locke. What makes Lost so engaging is that it houses its heady philosophy within the melodramatic soil of character triads (Jack, Sawyer, and Kate’s love triangle being the most conventional). In short, Lost is the televisual Metropolis, fulfilling science fiction’s promise of imagining the future via the emotional concerns of human beings.

Since its inception in the 1960s, Star Trek has embodied such mediation between the heady intellectualism of great science fiction, and the emotional clarity of melodramatic television. Star Trek is both head (Can computers regulate human existence?) and hands (Can the Federation’s “peaceful” arms build-up triumph over the evil, warlike Klingons?). The genius of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek is that it houses this basic conflict within the heart, caring about characters who over decades would become among the most beloved representations of human beings in American social life.

In the 1980s, Paramount engaged in the construction of a mythical universe out of Rodenberry’s seemingly simple 1960s television show. Feature films and multiple television series explored different possibilities, some fully in keeping with Rodenberry’s 1960s Utopianism—the save the whales environmental message of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986)—while others, like Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), showed humanity’s future embroiled in galactic warfare modeled on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back here on Earth.

The heart of the original television series lay in its exploration of the deep bonds of love between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, seemingly opposites—one far too passionate and the other rational—yet fully complementary of each other. They were the parents we all wish we had; they were the brothers we wish we could be. The film which captured this spirit best was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982), an artwork literally built upon the Metropolis theme: the hands of plot machinery (a long exiled rival, Khan, seeks revenge upon Kirk) house the intellectual concerns of the head (Can a device create life out of dead space, thus replacing God? If Moby-Dick is the central intertext, is Captain Kirk the obsessed Ahab, or is Khan? What if they both are?). But it is the film’s emotional center, its heart, which makes it stand out from the rest of the Star Trek films: When Mr. Spock sacrifices himself for the good of his captain and his crew—“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”—his death provided this viewer with the most unexpected, tragic experience of his movie-watching childhood. Killing off Mr. Spock, one part of an essential dyad, would be like imagining Christianity without Jesus.

As the Star Trek universe developed, a more cerebral Captain Picard replaced the heart of Kirk with something more akin to the head. And, with the disastrous Star Trek: Nemesis (Stuart Baird, 2002), Star Trek seemed to have died an ignominious death at the hands of Picard et. al.’s bureaucractic rationalism. A cold film about a horrible Romulan out for revenge, the film was the first two hours of Star Trek I ever truly loathed. Meanwhile, the creators of the last television series, Enterprise (UPN, 2001-2005) were attempting to transfuse the heart back into the franchise. The show’s soft rock opening theme song (“It’s been a long time, getting from there to here”), the first Star Trek not to feature theme music in the Wagnerian epic mode, was a stroke of genius. However, fans did not respond to this too much heart, and not enough head and hands, and the show died as shameful a death as the film franchise, running only four seasons, just barely eclipsing the duration of the vastly misunderstood 1960s Star Trek’s three lowly rated seasons on NBC.

And then, in 2009, something wonderful happened. J.J. Abrams, a great televisual artist of the heart rebooted the film franchise with spectacular results. The greatest 10 minutes ever in Star Trek, a great short film in its own right, the film begins with the back story of Captain Kirk’s birth. As a huge Romulan monstrosity threatens a Federation ship, George Kirk, James T. Kirk’s father, sacrifices himself so that his wife and newborn infant can escape to safety, ramming his starship into the invading vessel. The short film pre-credits teaser, which sets the melodramatic tone of the Star Trek reboot offers what makes contemporary science fiction so vibrant. It is great storytelling, combining the hands of visual effects with the heart of emotionally engaging characters.

The emotional impact of the first ten minutes of Star Trek (2009), like a defibrillator of storytelling, restarted the heart of the Rodenberry universe. And yet, what is most fascinating about the film is how its time travel-based resetting of all the operating rules and given circumstances of what we know about Star Trek allows for an intertextual encounter with the meaning of the prior Star Trek experiences. In short, the head of the film concerns how textual meaning is built out of tissues of prior narratives. For example, the basic plot of the film deliberately takes the seemingly unwise risk of having virtually the same plot as the doomed Star Trek: Nemesis. In both the terrible film and the great one, a sour puss Romulan threatens our beloved Federation. However, because George Kirk’s opening sacrifice metonymically substitutes for Spock’s heroic actions in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the prior emotional highpoint of the Star Trek universe glues itself to Abrams’ completely re-scripted narrative world. In a sense, by re-sculpting the time line, not only is Vulcan destroyed and Spock allowed a romantic relationship with Uhura, the previous missteps and triumphs of the Star Trek creators before them can be corrected and used in refreshingly wonderous ways.

This is why the speculation surrounding Star Trek Into Darkness (the absence of the colon perhaps stressing the lack of a verb, instead of the film’s status as an endless series of sequels), the much delayed second film of the Abrams Star Trek era, to be released around the world in mere minutes as I draft this, is so anticipated. Is the mysterious terrorist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch this generation’s Khan? Will Chris Pine’s Kirk learn the lessons of the Kobayashi Maru scenario any better than did William Shatner’s incarnation (“I don’t like to lose,” says the arrogant Kirk before losing his friend to his hubris). It took Mr. Spock’s death (“What do you think of my solution?) in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to beat the smugness out of Kirk. What do I think of J.J. Abrams’ solution to the problem that is an aging Star Trek, now into its 6th decade? It remains to be seen, but given the promise of Star Trek Into Darkness, and the profound emotional and intertextual accomplishment of the 2009 Star Trek film, all signs point to a new film which will reiterate Metropolis’ golden premise, that the heart will mediate between the head and the hands, and fans of science fiction cinema could be forever transformed.

– Walter Metz