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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

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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.

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