Live Long and Prosper: Star Trek and More
Go see a movie that has no characters at all, just explainers; that makes its protagonists race to beat the clock, over and over, but doesn't acknowledge the humor of their always being almost on time; that pretends to be giving you a fact-filled education in ecclesiastical history and politics, while actually sounding like a high school history teacher who has simultaneously achieved senile dementia and the thirty-second degree of the Masonic order. Preposterously solemn and solemnly preposterous, this Paranoid's Tour of Rome, conducted by Tom Hanks and a perpetually breathless Ayelet Zurer, careens through half a dozen architectural monuments and twice as many murders before it can finally relax enough to venture a joke, in the final scene.
And the joke, after all that, turns out to be in code. A cardinal, bidding farewell to Tom Hanks, addresses him for no apparent reason in a version of the last words of Tea and Sympathy. People who don't know the line--the great majority of the audience, I suspect--will of course be oblivious. Those who do recognize the allusion will find it meaningless, unless perhaps (picking up on the plot of Tea and Sympathy, with its tale of sexual initiation) they interpret the words as a cryptic way to say, "Screw the Church." Either way, screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have shared the fun with each other but not with you, as they step outside the story to mock their own movie, and anyone who might provisionally buy into it.
As François Truffaut once wrote, this isn't the art of cinema--it's the art of putting one over. That is a sin never committed by the makers of Star Trek. Steadfastly remaining within the fictional world imagined by Gene Roddenberry, Abrams and his writers have even resisted the temptation to work in suggestions of new social and political messages (a job that would eventually be done for them anyway, by a thousand op-ed writers). What mattered, they knew, was for Star Trek to be true to itself: to have the internal coherence of a piece of music, even if it was a silly one.
So they let themselves be old-fashioned. The '60s liberalism of the TV series went untouched, though it might have seemed antique to Abrams and his team in 2006, when they set to work. But then, even in the early years of the show's popularity those ideals had seemed quaint. In the depths of the Nixon era, a generation's fading hopes for international cooperation, nuclear disarmament, widespread cultural relativism and hassle-free interracial dating lived on in Star Trek reruns, playing out as half camp and half nostalgia.
Abrams understood and changed nothing. And for this integrity, he received the unforeseeable reward of having Star Trek released a little more than 100 days into the Obama administration, when its sentiments from a bygone era suddenly made it the most up-to-date picture imaginable.
Captain! I think I'm picking up a signal.