Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek

Entertainment value. What does it mean? For the money you spend the product you purchase possesses an intrinsic worth directly proportional to the pleasure it gives you. The entertainment value of the new Star Trek (2009, dir. J. J. Abrams) is high. There is nary a dull moment. While the original television series often took time out for political or philosophical pontifications, the new film takes little time out for anything. It is constant action, motion, noise. It has numerous cliff-hanging moments, free-fall hijinks, warp speed teleportation, sex with green women, phasers set at stun, black holes, imploding planets, brain devouring parasites, you name it. It has a strong sense of fun—it takes seriously the TV series on which it is based, but lacks more than enough respect to play fast and loose with the particulars. If you are a fan of the original series or any of the films it spawned, then you will watch this film with a particular anticipation—awaiting the appearance of each of the original characters, awaiting the appearance of the Enterprise itself. (If you were not a fan of the original, then you will simply be entertained). All the original characters are here, including Scotty, who appears relatively late, but who is immediately recognizable. The characters, especially Spock, seem more three-dimensional than their TV-based originals. Chekhov and Sulu for the first time are genuinely interesting. Uhuru for the first time seems more than a token representative of racial equality—she’s downright fetching, a brilliant linguist, and, as we learn, she and Spock are romantically involved. The film shows the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock in a series of transitions as he chooses to be neither wholly Vulcan nor wholly human. He has logic and precision but also passion and, surprisingly, a temper. Obviously, the full-grown adult Spock is a product of self-discipline. Spock and the actor Zachary Quinto who portrays him are the best human elements in the film.

Basically, and fundamentally, Star Trek is entertaining. It reinvents and reinvigorates the original story line, pays homage (not too reverently) to the mythology of the television series, uses a legion of special effects to the maximum (this is not a film where one can complain of too many special effects), is full of humor and humanity and constant movement.

The film has its problems. For one, Leonard Nimoy’s appearance was contrived and unnecessary. For another, the science underlying the series has always been questionable. It remains so here. A major problem has always been Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Star Trek neatly avoids the light speed limit by use of warp-drive, a technology that allows the Enterprise to bend space and travel light years in only a short time. The series has never offered much explanation for this technology, other than the fact that it relies on the ever-present (and problematic) lithium crystals. Physicists have speculated about warping space as a way of evading the light-speed limit but have not gotten far in proposing how it might be done, other than to suggest that it would require more energy that the galaxy or the universe or certainly human technology can generate. Over the past few years physicists have succeeded in creating a form of teleportation—but this has never involved more than moving a proton or two at a time. Theoretically, teleportation may be possible. Practically speaking, it may not be, and if it is, we are probably millennia away from being able to employ it in the reliable way the folks on the Enterprise do. The film also invokes time travel and parallel universes, and the science for these remains speculative though tantalizing as well. In general, Star Trek depends on the premise that it’s possible to move around in the galaxy without much difficulty—a galaxy that is 100,000 light years across and a 1000 light years thick, populated by some 300 billion stars. In Star Trek the galaxy is conveniently small and navigable. It is like the Old West in cowboy movies, easily traveled, fraught with its own perils. The real galaxy is a lot bigger, emptier, colder than this film would have it.

But Star Trek does not rise or fall on such quibbles. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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