Sunday, March 24, 2013

Themes and suprises

As noted in my last post, I am revisiting the Star Trek movies.  Most of them I haven't seen for over a decade. For some strange reason Amazon Prime has almost all of them for free, except III.  Whether this is intentional (maybe you will by it) or the product of some licensing thing (somebody's royalties are too high for them to just swallow the cost as part of the prime service) is unclear to me.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter. It does, however, mean that my foray through my cinematic childhood had to skip a step ahead to Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home. Of the movies I have revisited, this one is the strongest.  It has some of the alien mystery of the Motion Picture, without being tedious; and it has some of the action of the second movie, without all of the bravado and machismo that made that installment a little too over the top. Anyways, there is a lot going on in this movie, more than I actually want to write about, but I would like to note some of the most prominent aspects: the role of time travel, the role of Chekov's nationality (wink), and the appearance of environmentalism in this genre.

To my knowledge (which is far from complete), this is the first appearance of time travel in the Star Trek franchise.  This provides rich soil for subsequent installments of the franchise to re-till. In all of the instances that I am am familiar with, time travel is a vehicle for the show's creators to provide overt social commentary on the contemporary events of their audience, through the utopian foil of humanity in the 23rd century. This is obviously a blunt instrument. This movie provides a pithy, but incisive, commentary on the practice from Spock. Kirk wants whale from the 20th century to save earth of the 23rd century (where whales are extinct due to excessive whaling in previous centuries). Spock mind-melds with the whales. Kirk asks him why. In Spock's reply to this question, we see the inherent flaw: just because technology has advanced and humans get along with each other does not mean that the inherent egocentrism of humanity has been eradicated. Namely, Kirk - like the whaler's in the 20th century - wants the whales for their value as a resource, without any regard to the wants and needs of the whale itself. Despite this flaw, I do love the humorous situations these situations set up.

Speaking of the humor of time travel, I did enjoy the repeated use of Checkov's nationality as comedic relief. For people of my generation, who never lived during the nuclear tensions of the cold war, these scenes are probably not that meaningful.  One of the jokes is that Checkov is on the streets of San Fransisco, asking for directions to the nuclear vessels at the Alameda Naval Yard. This is funny because it highlights the ignorance of these technologically advanced visitors from the future.  Another level down, this joke is more meaningful. The movie came out in 1986, one year after Gorachev began his leadership of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev was pursuing a deescalation of tensions in the international arena, Hollywood - and by extension the viewing public - had become so comfortable with the constant state of nuclear standoff that this could be a joke.

Star Trek is, in a way, a genre defying effort. That said, it can be painted with a broad brush as an adventure movie. It can, alternatively, be described as a science fiction movie. Why is this important?  Normally it isn't.  In this instance, I was struck by the overtly environmentalist message of the movie. The central conflict of the movie arose from a lack of biodiversity on earth, caused by over-harvesting and environmental contamination. The flick is a strong condemnation of the route we are on now (well, really the course folks were on in 1986). This is impressive  as many flicks in either of these genres don't feature anything like this. Can you imagine Pirates of the Caribbean taking a stand like that? In any event, the movie is still disappointing on this front. While the condemnation is strong, the call to action is hedged. The conclusion of the movie relies on the futuristic technologies of Star Fleet to save the whales. While this doesn't explicitly advocate for deferred action, but it does show it as a viable alternative to immediate action. At the end of the day, this facet of the movie was a huge disappointment.

All-in-all I thought the movie was solid. Actually, it was more than solid, it advanced the franchise into a new area and tackled an issue (environmentalism) that was/is often neglected in motion pictures. I would note that children's  media does, by contrast, provide a lot of environmental messages, at this time.  For example: Free Willy and Captain Planet come to mind immediately.  They, however, are not major motion pictures sold to adults (voters and consumers). Children's media is paid for by people with an interest in the future (they have kids for goodness sake), adult productions don't have that inherent marke, so I think this writing choice was substantial and meaningful.

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