Monday, December 5, 2016

Star Trek Double Feature

Trying to write about the two most recent Star Trek movies, it became clear that I really can't talk about one without the other. Fortunately enough time has passed to consider Star Trek: Beyond and what it meant.

Movie posters are great and usually express some of the same themes as the whole movie.

It's hard to miss just how forgettable Beyond has been.

Into Darkness... Into Darkness is almost the Prequels Trilogy of Star Trek. People hate it so much, and they will let you know. They hate that it's not about exploration. They hate that the Federation is a dark, warlike cabal. And most of all they hate that Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan - a white actor playing a famously non-white role.

There's nothing wrong with caring about these things, nor about identifying the themes behind Trek and wanting them in new movies. It's just that in terms of getting people to care about a movie, Into Darkness has been as successful as when Lucas made a racial caricature people are still talking about seventeen years later.

You see Beyond, and it's clear the movie was trying to address the Darkness-related complaints. We're exploring space again! Non-humans are foregrounded. There's no way in a checklist of reasons it fails... and fans just kind of shrugged their shoulders. "Thanks. We have consumed a movie-like product and have no complaints to register."

It's sort of the "The Force Awakens" of the new Star Trek movies, in this incomparably useful parallel.


It's also interesting the way Into Darkness and Beyond use the first five minutes of the film to tell a mini-story whose imagery persists throughout the entire movie.

Into Darkness has been criticized for it's white-washing of race, and look, the "savages" of the first scene are tribepeople who run around wearing whiteface.

Image result for into darkness tribe

They look a lot like (a cartoonish exaggeration of) the quasi-inhuman Khan who is a savage Other inside and only has an imperfect mask of whiteness. From SMG on Khan's race:

I find this line of discussion uninteresting because it seems like multicultural identity politics without much concern for the broader struggle against oppression. What is the end-goal? 
Khan has been totally ruined from the beginning, being (in Space Seed) a bizarre clusterfuck of 'oriental' signifiers played by a blatantly not-Indian dude. It was pretty much blackface.  
Wrath Of Khan subtly (and tastefully, and rightly) retconned this by just having Montalban 'play himself'. Khan became a Latino dude with a unique name - no turbans, no over-application of tan makeup... 
A large part of this debate seems based on it being Memory Alpha canon that Khan (the objective virtual person within the Star Trek simulation-universe) is "probably a Sikh from the north of India". This overlooks that the scene in the original episode - where they actually stop to explain to the audience what race the character is supposed to be - is a fucking embarrassment. Folks are oblivious to Wrath Of Khan's tasteful solution (because Wrath Of Khan doesn't have any clumsy exposition telling us Khan's official, canonical race). 
It's obvious that Into Darkness is following Wrath Of Khan's retcon of Space Seed, and ignoring the episode almost-entirely. This makes the crucial point that Khan was never actually an Indian character. The canon was based on the blackface. The canon lied. 
It is unfortunate that they didn't get another Mexican dude for the reboot, but it's very hard for me to get worked up about it when Into Darkness' critique of the series' liberal ideology is so strong. And Cumberbatch gives us a queer Khan, seemingly based on David Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not talking about that kind of 'post racial' nonsense. In fact, the film specifically attacks the superficial race-neutrality of previous Trek entries (that all races are equal, so long as they join the federation). Mere inclusiveness represents, in the film, the status quo. The Federation here is presented as very similar to the "post-racial, post-feminist" world of Starship Troopers. 
I totally agree that casting a Mexican dude as Khan would be a good political act, but that politics needs to be linked to the ethical concerns you dismiss as irrelevant. Inclusiveness can open up the space for genuine equality, but it can also just reinforce existing power structures. 
In this film, Khan is basically a clone whose genetic code, and therefore his body, is treated as intellectual property and therefore owned (by the Federation?). I've already gone over the tics that emphasize his otherness, and his ability to move fluidly between various identities that corresponds with a fundamental ambiguity in the character.  
The film employs class imagery instead of race imagery (in this specific instance) when it should employ both and link them, but this is way preferable to the opposite tact of being 'multicultural' while discounting questions of class conflict (that is, effectively, tokenism)
 People are getting way too caught up in the big shyamalan plot reveal mystery Lost twist(!!!), when the emphasis Cumberbatch places on his name in that line is an expression of that character's defiance.  
In one of the few places where the film doesn't over-rely on exposition, Khan is obviously altered to be white (In 'canonical' plot terms, he had to have had future Face/Off plastic surgery. He's also literally been assigned a false, Anglo-Saxon slave name - and you can get meta with the obvious real-life recasting). All of this is fairly clear without additional reams of exposition. 
Cumberbatch is a white dude playing a latino dude in brownface wearing whiteface. The cumulative effect is, as I've gone over earlier, to complicate notions of race while underlining the importance of class - because the character's class is indisputable. This is less Birth Of A Nation, and way more The Jazz Singer. It's like how King Kong remake opens with an Al Jolson song, and features Andy Serkis under ape makeup in a story of how poverty and destitution can turn anyone into a criminal - including lilly-white Ann Darrow. 
"But SMG, what if this wasn't intentional?"  
If it's intentional, then good. If it's unintentional, then I'm appropriating it.

[That's a reminder that people should really watch The Man Who Fell to Earth in this year of David Bowie, to understand so many scifi films, from Star Trek to Watchmen to Prometheus. And also Starship Troopers is amazing.]

To return to the intro scene, there's also the textual discussions about the Prime Directive which come up again throughout the film (and Spock's fetish for personal sacrifice.) In terms of imagery though, I am more interested in the way the spaceship exists as a symbol of ultimate, godlike power. It's mere arrival causes mortals to quail in terror, in a way that foreshadows the Vengeance warcruiser, and even Khan's terror attack. The chief image of Into Darkness is a vengeful Abrahamic god represented by a spaceship.

This is all very different from the intro scene to Beyond. Kirk is unprepared for a diplomatic presentation because he's bored at his job, some dog-aliens who weren't very open-minded anyway get angry and attack him... and a change of scale shows us that they are very tiny dogs compared to Kirk. But there are a lot of them, and many tiny entities can swarm and take down a larger creature.

Oh hey, the villain in this movie keeps using swarm-like weapons to take down superior foes. His fleet is a swarm that can't be targeted and just burrows into the Enterprise. His biological weapon is another swarm of tiny creatures that can infect and shred a host.

The villain's tagline is "the Frontier pushes back" and his eventual goal is to storm the Yorktown super-space-station, and this imagery is an excellent way of explaining how the mighty god will fall.

The intro scene also attacks Kirk's boredom, and in doing so, is critical of Into Darkness. "It's easy to lose yourself in space" as a contrast with Kirk's desire to kick ass and fight a clear enemy. And yet, we find out the villain had Kirk's same problems, and that sort of warlust eventually found physical expression in his new monstrous form.


God, checking with the wikipedia entry on Beyond, the plot summary does not even mention the dog-alien parliament scene. Lesson: Imagery matters for interpretation and wikipedia plot summaries are terrible ways to understand media.

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