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Live Long and Prosper: Star Trek and More | The Nation

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Live Long and Prosper: Star Trek and More

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PARAMOUNT PICTURES/INDUSTRIAL LIGHT & MAGICGreg Ellis, Chris Pine and John Cho in Star Trek

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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The martial rhythm, the close-stepping intervals, the triumphalist orchestration: Jerry Goldsmith's theme for Star Trek, introduced thirty years ago in the first of the motion pictures, may be catchy enough in a "Hail the leader!" way, but it just didn't match the spirit of the television score. Of course, that earlier theme by Alexander Courage had sounded its own heroic notes, in an opening fanfare (or rather a quasi-Wagnerian motif) of the upward-striving sort. But then the piece swung inexplicably into a kind of bolero rhythm, with the melody first swooping high in a glissando leap and then swooning back down on an Orientalist scale. In Courage's Star Trek, Siegfried gave way to Scheherazade, conventional swagger to an exotic fabulousness.

No composition could have better suited the weekly action of the television show; and the most fitting trait of all, as it turned out, was that nobody back then--nobody--was listening to anything like this lush bit of weirdness, which seemed to have emanated from MGM's old Freed unit (where Courage in fact had gotten his start). Like the TV series itself, that found object taken up by fans only after it was cancelled--or like this review, which is appearing weeks after all other Star Trek articles--the theme was, from the beginning, a relic of another time.

That's why the full-scale revival of Courage's music after all these years is one more reason for the faithful to have received the new J.J. Abrams movie as authentic: true Trek of true Trek, begotten not made. No matter that everyone in this picture is younger, shinier and better outfitted than on syndicated TV; and no matter that the commercial motive behind the film could have been expected to yield only a synthetic product. Abrams and his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have brought forth a living descendant, drawn solely from material that was immanent in the original. Case in point: the ever-serviceable plot device of a trip back in time, which now explains, in inherently Star Trek fashion, why Kirk, Spock and the rest are being played by new actors.

It seems that tattooed hotheads from the future have come back and tampered with the early twenty-third century, causing a different reality to branch off from the one we knew. In its own terms, then, the new Star Trek is not a prequel to the television show but a parallel development to it (well, all right, oblique), in which various people still grow up to become the crew of the Enterprise--character being destiny--but do so with slightly altered appearances and curricula vitae.

If you're inclined to disparage this conceit as a mere excuse for relaunching the franchise, then I bet you'd also belittle the kid who stays up all night growing a dog in a test tube just to show what ate the homework. The premise for the new Star Trek is far more clever than any production company could have demanded. More important, it adds meaning to the Star Trek of old.

You might have guessed, for example, that if not for the grace of God, or an anomaly in the Infrandibulum System, James T. Kirk might have been nothing more than a drunken, arrogant, self-destructive jerk. Now you can see his implicit flaws made manifest in everything about young Kirk, from his pickup lines to the lovingly lighted cuts, bruises and pimples worn on actor Chris Pine's face; and you appreciate as never before how deeply this man needs Spock, not for the Vulcan's reasoning powers but for his example of humility and self-discipline. Spock, unlike Kirk, will not invariably decide that his first option is to fling himself over a cliff. He will drop off calmly, and only if he's calculated that it's in the best interests of the group. You always knew that, too; but now you can see the vulnerability in actor Zachary Quinto's youthful features and understand that Spock's failure to be perfectly selfless is an unbearable shame to him, when disclosed to anyone but Kirk.

While these two young officers bicker toward their inevitable union like an interplanetary Beatrice and Benedick, Star Trek keeps you occupied with the usual sort of thing you find in science-fiction adventures, done somewhat more wittily. There are well-plotted fight sequences (which peak early in the film, in a scene that involves hyperextended sky diving) and a few uncommonly beautiful images of cruising spaceships: tiny escape pods drifting away from the mother vessel like so many seeds blown across the sun, or the Enterprise rising out of a cosmic dust cloud just beyond the rings of Saturn. Best of all, though, are the countless gags tossed off in passing, with a complicit wink. Whether toying with Spock's salute of "Live long and prosper" or inflicting on Kirk a series of slapstick medical indignities, Star Trek always assumes that you are in on the joke.

Maybe this doesn't seem to be a very large claim to make for a movie: that it takes itself no more seriously than it should (and no less seriously, either) while addressing the audience with respect. If that's what you'd like to think, then you might as well try watching Angels & Demons.

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.

Olivier Assayas's new meditation on French domestic life, the wisely ironic Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été), begins with children's games and ends with adolescent partying and pairing off--that is, the real business of life. All the rest focuses on the concerns of a middle-aged man, who is determined to hold onto his responsibilities--toward his mother, his siblings, his family property--while slowly and unwillingly being made as carefree as a kid.

The real kids, who open the film on a fine bright day, are a brood of cousins, seen romping through the woods and down the hilly paths of their grandmother's country house. They're on a treasure hunt; and from the way Assayas's always-mobile camera presses forward when they find a clue, as if it were looking with them, you may guess there is much more to be dug out of this place. Sure enough, the discoveries begin as soon as the children's parents settle down to lunch around the long table on the patio, to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of a very elegant mother (Edith Scob) who coolly dismisses everything they do.

None of them pleases, or can even interest, her--not Frédéric (Charles Berling), the pensive but ever-hurried economics professor who lives in Paris, not Adrienne (a bright blonde Juliette Binoche), a designer who resides in the United States and has adopted its slouching ways, and not Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a corporate functionary who is making his home and raising his family where the opportunities are greatest, in China. Their Champagne, their presents (admittedly dull and practical), their efforts to draw out a festive mood all fall flat with the mother, who comes to life only when presented with a book. It's the catalogue of a new retrospective of the paintings of her late uncle, a great and celebrated artist, who had left her this house and all the wonderful objects in it.

What is to be done with this property, after her death? The mother raises the question herself, without prelude, in a scene that takes her and Frédéric away from the outdoors and the group, into mutual isolation in a clutter of rooms where she insists on making an inventory. With seeming indifference toward her son, his childhood memories and even the claims of an artist's legacy, she commands that everything be sold--the Corot paintings, the Art Nouveau furniture, even her uncle's sketchbook--and the house shut down. Frédéric, increasingly agitated, won't hear of it, though it's not clear in this tense and protracted scene what exactly he wants to hold onto: the hope that his mother might relent before her death and love him, or the fantasy that his children will eventually love this house enough to make it live again.

These are the first of the discoveries in Summer Hours. The rest have to do with the different meanings of the house and its artworks to the mother, the siblings, the children, the old housekeeper and even the French state (as represented by the curators of the Musée d'Orsay). Despite the predominance of Frédéric's viewpoint, the perspectives are multiple and the scenes containing them discontinuous, often beginning abruptly (with the intrusion of a speeding car, for example) and ending with a fade to black; and yet the texture of Summer Hours somehow feels smooth and whole. Maybe it's because Assayas, unlike Frédéric, always seems to have enough time: to pause and look down on a village, to watch reconciled brothers say goodbye in a gentle rain, to follow the transfer of an expensive objet d'art into the hands of someone who just wants to put flowers in it.

How do we value our lives? Frédéric, as an economist, has some idea. Summer Hours respects him for that; but it respects him more for the way he lives, after he has to let his idea go.

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