Monday, May 20, 2013

The Ship Itself

I saw Star Trek into Darkness again this weekend, same movie twice in three days, something I don't normally do. I wondered why to myself afterwards. What makes me want to see a movie again, especially back-to-back? As you might tell from my review, or possibly your own experience, the movie is good, very good in places, but certainly not the best-thing-I've-ever-seen great.

So why was I so enthralled? What was I hoping to get out of a repeat viewing?

To me it boils down to two images, one of which is a SPOILER and one of which is definitely not.

First, I loved the image of the monster crying. Benedict Cumberbatch does a phenonemal job selling a sinister and yet devoted Khan Noonien Singh. There is something so perversely right about the helpless rage he lapses into after surrendering to Kirk. He was convinced the others exiled with him had been killed and now he saw the possibility that they would be saved. The idea of these genetically, genocidal maniacs running around "continuing their work," is appalling but so is your own empathy for Khan in this moment. Khan is the beautiful monster as played by Cumberbatch: clever, manipulative, malevolent but still essentially human. That's not to slight Ricardo Montaban's take on the character obviously, but just to point out this movie's fully realized villain.

The other image I like follows the first act, immediately after the crew of the Enterprise has saved the primitive inhabitants of Nibiru. The Nibiru priest traces the silhouette of the star ship in the red sand which quick dissolves into the Enterprise racing across a field of stars on its way back to Earth. That image, of the ship and the stars is sails through, deftly expresses for me what is special about the show and the movies. The iconic NC-1701 form holds this sense of great speed and purpose, the promise of limitless exploration.

I find it difficult to be ironic about this aspect of Star Trek. In one sense, I know that the original design was inspired by stove parts and the model itself was made out of balsa wood and baling wire. I don't care. The union of saucer, nacelle and hull into a balanced organic shape evokes something that no other space ship (Star Wars, 2001, etc.) really matches. A sense of a working, functional thing with a background, a history, and an ongoing mission.

Consult the design notes on the original models and you see how some of the extremely vague notions from Gene Roddenberry got turned into the framework for the entire show. The nacelles are held outwards from the rest of the hull, suggesting engines of great power and danger. The saucer evokes something familiar and alien simultaneously: flying saucers and UFOs. The hull resembles a nuclear submarine, the aft shuttle bay the doors of a dirigible hanger. And yet when these diverse and somewhat contradictory elements get placed together something logical and terribly romantic emerges.

So yeah, I watched the show a second time and partly that was because the movie was funny and exciting and partly because when you peel away all of the 21st century spectacle, there's still something incredibly inspiring about a lone human ship setting course through all of the vast unknowns of the 23rd century.
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