Postrel: Why the new 'Star Trek' is smaller than life
Like most blockbuster summer movies, "Star Trek Into Darkness" sells escapism. But not all versions of cinematic escapism are the same.
Some offer simple diversion - laughter, astonishment, an adrenaline rush - that generally lasts no longer than the film itself. By providing distraction, they allow us to escape our mundane lives for a couple of hours.
Others transport audiences into different, better lives, ones they dream about long after leaving the theater. These movies answer deeper yearnings, whether for love, friendship, family, heroism, adventure, beauty, recognition or achievement. From "The Wizard of Oz" to "The Lord of the Rings," from the choreographed romances of Fred and Ginger to the choreographed fights of the Avengers, these are the escapist entertainments that endure.
Until its latest incarnation, Star Trek exemplified this second, deeper form of escapism. It grew from a short-lived TV show to a cultural phenomenon - and a multibillion-dollar franchise - because it gave fans an imaginative home for their ideals.
"Let me be clear, for me, Star Trek is escapism," writes Treknobabble blogger Matthew Weflen, who teaches philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. "There are no two ways about this. But it is escapism of an order that elevates the mind, not that deadens it." To better understand Star Trek's allure, I conducted a lengthy online survey of fans during the first three months of 2011, receiving 1,444 completed questionnaires. The survey was modeled on one done by film scholar Jackie Stacey, who explored British women's memories of movie-going in the 1940s and 1950s. The survey wasn't intended to be random or to indicate anything about the average Star Trek fan but rather, like ethnographic research, to identify meaningful patterns - some well-known, some not.
It wasn't surprising, for instance, to find that fans often used words such as "optimism," "hopeful" and "positive" to describe why they like Star Trek, that they praised the franchise's celebration of science and technology, or that they enjoyed the idea of a society without poverty or racial tension. Many invoked the famously inclusive vision of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" or cited story lines that engaged social issues or probed philosophical questions.
One common refrain was less obvious. For many viewers, it turns out, Star Trek represents the ideal workplace. "I was most attracted to the competence of the characters," said a Tennessee businessman. "It would be nice to live in a world or even work in an office where everyone was dedicated to their jobs and to each other and good at their work." In retrospect, this escapist appeal makes sense. In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard- working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make. Star Trek features what law student Cindy McNew described as "a close-knit group of colleagues whose abilities complement one another and who don't seem to take out their animosities or ambitions on each other." Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It's the workplace as we wish it were - and as it too rarely is.
And the system is just. "Promotion by merit seemed the norm (as opposed to promotion by influence)," wrote a California electrical engineer. There were no stories of "officers who shouldn't be in command, of nepotistic promotions, or of people sleeping their way to the top," noted David M., a Virginia public-relations executive.
"Everyone wants to be a part of a group that is successful and everyone wants to contribute," concluded a Florida lawyer. "That is what Star Trek projected." Until the current installment, that is.
New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott captured the movie's betrayal of Star Trek's traditional culture when he observed that "Star Trek Into Darkness" is "essentially 'The Office' in space." While unfair to "The Office," whose portrayal of the absurdities of a vacuous workplace with a bumbling staff is much funnier than anything in the new Star Trek film, it's an astute comparison. Instead of effective teamwork, the movie gives us adrenaline and forced humor, with characters who seem barely able to do their jobs or get along. Caught up in a dysfunctional workplace romance, Spock and Uhura snipe at each other. Chekov fumbles about cluelessly trying to fix the engines. Dr. McCoy muffs an assignment to defuse a bomb. Scotty runs around shouting.
The script talks about the crew as "family" but doesn't show the problem-solving that generates loyalty and respect. Irritation rules. And Captain Kirk seems to have gotten his job not by demonstrating command skills over an extended career but by having the right connections.
"The movie attempts to address the issue of Kirk basically being a frat boy in the captain's chair, but even then, after getting demoted to cadet, he gets promoted to first officer and then captain in about ten minutes," writes Treknobabble blogger Kevin Curran, a Chicago lawyer. This arbitrary promotion "makes it seem like Starfleet is a crazy and or stupid place." If Paramount Pictures hoped that betraying Star Trek's fundamental premise would catapult the new movie to higher ticket sales, or draw a younger generation of fans to the franchise, the initial box-office returns suggest otherwise. Although the movie won its opening weekend, U.S. ticket sales were less than for the 2009 reboot and overseas sales look unlikely to make up the difference. The audience demographics - older and heavily male compared to 2009 - suggest that the long-time Star Trek fans most likely to be disappointed were overrepresented. That doesn't bode well for word of mouth.
"It certainly feels like the 'disappointment' label is applicable in this case," writes Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo in an analysis of last weekend's returns.
While the movie delivers a Michael Bay-style amusement park ride, it lacks the mind and heart that made Star Trek an enduring franchise. The deeper forms of escapism are hard to pull off. They require greater artistic coherence and empathy. They demand a willingness to let the imaginary seem real, and to acknowledge that the real often feels inadequate. They can be executed with humor and knowing winks - as both Quentin Tarantino and the much-beloved Star Trek parody "Galaxy Quest" demonstrate.
But they can't be achieved without conviction.
"I would love to live and work in that universe," wrote a Phoenix fan in the survey. It's hard to imagine anyone saying that about the latest version of Star Trek.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of "The Future and Its Enemies," "The Substance of Style" and the forthcoming "The Power of Glamour."