Brave new worlds: STAR TREK BEYOND and FORBIDDEN PLANET

Note: Incoming SPOILERS, captain. Or whatever.

O brave new world / That has such people in’t! –  The Tempest, Act V, Scene i

The early destruction of the starship Enterprise, at first glance just a repetitive stunt, is in fact Star Trek Beyond’s boldest gambit.[1] Narratively and thematically, it destabilises the character dynamics just enough to put the ship’s crew in a position where seeing them work together when re-united has an additional impact. This forms the core (the ‘warp core’, if you will … no, I’m not sorry) of the filmmakers’ approach to pushing their version of Star Trek forward.

Visually and iconographically, however, the stricken ship’s descent into the atmosphere, having been torn apart at the neck by a swarm of alien drones, recalls all those flying saucers of the early science fiction films of the 1950s (and the sci-fi pulp art which preceded them) from which artist and designer Matt Jeffries took inspiration in imagining the Enterprise. Like an archaeological excavation, its ruin reveals something of its origins.

star trek beyond enterprise

Eight years before Gene Rodenberry pitched a sci-fi television show called Star Trek to television executives, and a full ten years before the first episode aired on CBS, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in American cinemas.[2] Famously riffing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot of Forbidden Planet follows the crew of a saucer-shaped spaceship from Earth who, arriving on the desolate world of Altair IV in search of a missing colony, discover that the only intelligent inhabitants on the planet are an elderly scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a friendly robot named Robby.

The boisterous but well-meaning spacemen, led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen in an earlier, more serious role than the comedies he is now mostly known for), nevertheless undermine by their very presence the prolonged innocent girlhood of Altaira, and threaten to disrupt Morbius’s investigations into the hyper-advanced technology of the Krell, a long-dead alien race native to the planet. As tensions rise between the scientist and the crew, a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent attacks are mounted against the visitors and their vessel by an unseen entity.

Forbidden Planet C57D

Then, in a final act twist, this entity is revealed to be Morbius’s own subconscious id, actualised by the advanced alien technology hidden in the depths of Altair IV into an unstoppable force of destruction, lashing out against those who threaten Morbius’s peace of mind, attempting to destroy the crew just as it did the scientist’s fellow colonists. “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine”, says Prospero of Caliban in the last act of The Tempest; the Monster from the Id is only disarmed when Morbius acknowledges his subconscious actions and desires, his animal and base self, and rather than denying it exists, repudiates it consciously and with clarity of thought and vision.

Separated by sixty years though they may be, more specific resemblances between the two films, deliberate or accidental, are apparent.[3] Following its alternately melancholic and bombastic opening, the second act of Beyond’s plot finds the crew of the Enterprise marooned on the desolate world of ‘Altamid’, struggling to prevent an ancient and deadly technology  constructed by a long-dead alien race from falling into the hands of a dangerous, barbarous foe named ‘Krall’ (Idris Elba).

star trek beyond krall.jpg

Then, in a final act twist, Krall is revealed to have once been a human Starfleet officer, Balthazar Edison, a starship captain like the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), but from a more violent era of interstellar wars and interspecies conflicts. Edison resents the utopian Federation not only for failing to rescue him and his crew from Altamid, but also, on a more fundamental level, for making lasting peace with the alien enemies he spent his life fighting against.

This revelation does come, perhaps, too late for the film to fully flesh out Edison’s character in the same way that Forbidden Planet does for Morbius. The nature of and expectations for what constitutes a science fiction spectacle has, of course, changed greatly over the last sixty years, and the fast-moving action-adventure of Beyond will invariably have less time to spend on character work than the dialogue-laden atmosphere-building drama of Forbidden Planet.[4]

forbidden planet morbius.jpg

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating ideas behind the character and Elba’s performance, the lack of definition early on means the character never becomes as central to the narrative as he is to the film’s themes. This is a particular shame, since the parallels between Morbius and Edison are, on paper, quite fascinating. Both men become the thing they hate: Morbius, the rational scientist, is revealed to be a territorial beast, a Faustus whose passions overwhelm his intellect; Edison, once a heroic defender of humankind, is transformed into a monstrous, inhuman brute – a Kurtz who has lost his moral compass in the darkness of space.

The scientist is the more complex, developed character, but the soldier is (in theory at least) the more tragic. A fallen Faustian magus he may be, yet Morbius is able to reconcile with the beast within him, and even though it costs him his life, he is able to save the lives of his daughter and Commander Adams, as well as ensuring that the Krell technology will not be misused by anyone else in the future.

forbidden planet adams altaira

Edison is faced with a similar moment of self-realisation, at long last seeing clearly not his depravation, but rather his humanity. He ultimately rejects the epiphany offered to him, however, and makes one last nihilistic attempt to kill Kirk and destroy millions more lives. Beyond being the earnest, optimistic film that it is, he fails, dying alone in the vacuum of space, consumed by the very weapon he hoped to use to render his vengeance on the Federation, while Kirk is saved by the efforts of his faithful crew.[5]

Morbius was a tragic figure for the Atomic Age, a scientist who had tapped into a power too great to control, a father figure whose attachment to his daughter unambiguously recalls Freud, who needs a good, sensible, down-to-earth military man like Command Adams to fix his mistakes and bring his daughter into Adams’s own ‘household’ (or spaceship, in this case) as, essentially, husband and wife. Beyond, equally, is in small ways and large, very much a film conscious of the current historical moment. In contrast to the bridal Altaira, the alien survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the Enterprise’s crew encounter on Altamid, is not primarily defined as any other character’s daughter or love interest and is instead accepted into the crew and Starfleet on her own terms.[6]

star trek beyond jaylah chair.jpg

Moreover, that Beyond’s themes of tolerance, unity, and mutual cooperation seem to strike a particular chord in light of the current political situation in both Britain and the United States has already been remarked upon. Not only is Edison ultimately shown to be an embodiment of xenophobic hatred (an unusually layered example, in fact), but when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) praises Kirk for saving the day once again, his humble but honest response that “It’s never just me” comes across as an astonishingly direct rebuke to Donald Trump’s conceited, dictatorial line from the Republican National Convention of “I alone can fix this”.[7] The film’s stubborn adherence to the principles of teamwork and, yes, togetherness, is emblazoned by its stirring final moments in which whole crew, for once, gets to follow Captain Kirk in uttering each a part of the original series’ iconic opening narration:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, Star Trek’s progressive credentials have always been somewhat qualified and even compromised – leaving aside the original series’ Sixties sexism (trying saying that three times fast), the oft-acclaimed ‘first interracial kiss on television’ occurred when both characters involved (William Shatner’s Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura) were under the influence of mind control. Never particularly adept at dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, even the recent revelation that the character of Sulu in the new films is gay – partly to further diversify the crew and partly to honour the original actor and gay rights activist George Takei – encountered controversy when Takei objected on the ground that this interpretation of the character was not accurate to Rodenberry’s original conception.

Rodenberry himself has been suggested to have used his show’s ideals to further his own commercial interests, and his invention of the Vulcan ‘IDIC’ insignia (standing for the very Trek-like mantra of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) was accused by none other than Leonard Nimoy as an example of blatantly fan-exploitative merchandising. Even Trek’s famed celebration of the frontier is fraught (except for the excellent and underrated Star Trek: Deep Space 9) with mostly un-interrogated colonial baggage and primarily Western assumptions about discovery and exploration.[8]

star trek beyond yorktown

And yet. Star Trek is, at its best, a cultural manifestation of a wistful yet vital dream – one which has ebbed and flowed alongside the last fifty years of American and world history. It dramatizes the belief that better institutions, better ways of living, the discovery of our better selves, are all, in fact, possible. Though it may be a bit rough around the edges, Beyond exemplifies the best of Star Trek in ways Into Darkness and even the 2009 reboot only managed to hint at. “How far you’ve come,” Edison murmurs when he beholds the Yorktown – a complex, colossal, yet ethereal space station on the edge of the known galaxy; a strikingly imagined symbol of ingenuity and inclusiveness. Perhaps he is merely being ironic, or just maybe, despite his disillusionment, he can’t help but be a little impressed.

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[1] The ‘original’ Enterprise was also destroyed at the end of its third cinematic outing, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, directed by Leonard Nimoy.

[2] Star Trek Beyond thus managing to mark both the 50th anniversary of the franchise itself, and the 60th anniversary of one of its most notable pre-cursors.

[3] Given, at the very least, co-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s well-documented fondness for sci-fi history, the former is perfectly plausible.

[4] Seen as light fare in its own day, of course, but positively contemplative in comparison to its modern descendants.

[5] Not that the precise nature of the threat is particularly important to the plot (we’re firmly in MacGuffin territory here), but where the technological fears manifested in Forbidden Planet focussed on nuclear power, in Beyond the threat has been updated to a biological weapon, matching more modern fears of what scientific manipulation of the natural world can do.

[6] It’s just a shame she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura never have an actual conversation, at least as far as I can recall.

[7] Which is doubly remarkable given that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have scripted the film long before Trump was even the de facto GOP nominee.

[8] And don’t talk to be about the Prime Directive, the sloppiest narrative conceit outside of Doctor Who’s ‘fixed points in time’.

June, 2016

Sometimes I feel my dual nationality pretty keenly. There are times when I am fortunate to feel proud of being a citizen of both the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The recent strides taken in both countries for marriage equality, for the right of gay and lesbian men and women to have their love for each other be enshrined in law on equal terms with heterosexual marriages, seemed to me a precious cause for hope in this world.

But then there is June, 2016. The UK tacking towards international isolation and a potentially massive economic crisis entirely of its own volition largely based on the lies and half-truths of a mob of brazenly self-interested politicians, a compromised media establishment, and, I can’t help but feel, a deeply ingrained, jingoistic sense of national superiority. Then in America, a presidential candidate and election campaign  bringing out the worst aspects of the nation’s character, and in the middle of it, a tragedy like there’s never been.

Forty-nine innocent people, members of the LGBTQ community gunned down in one of the few places they were supposed to be able to come together and feel completely safe. Killed by one man and a weapon of war that has no business being sold to anyone in the civilian population.

So there follow the same old arguments. The same denials of a basic truth, that America’s obsession with guns is not, and cannot be, worth the terrible price. The blind insistence that the kind of regulations which have been successful elsewhere in the world are not even worth trying in the United States. And again the media response, distracted by xenophobic fear-mongering and a bizarre compulsion towards taking mainstream ownership over the persecution of (astonishingly resilient but still vulnerable) minority groups, whose ongoing struggles in connection with this tragedy must be acknowledged, not put to one side.

Much has already been written about the initial reactions of the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, and I have little desire to dwell upon the subject at this moment, but the self-aggrandising and corrosive message is all too familiar by now, and again I can’t help but feel despair at the support this charlatan still receives.

This year, however, I find myself in a pretty rare and, yes, privileged position, even beyond the usual social, cultural, and political advantages of straight white hetero Anglophone dudes. Earlier this week, I sent off my voter registration and absentee ballot application request to the town clerk of New Castle, New Hampshire. It’s the first time I get to vote in an American federal election, and it is a right (if all goes well) I look forward to exercising. And in case there was somehow any doubt, yes, I’m with her. Before that, however, a week tomorrow, I’ll also be voting for the UK to remain in the European Union. The circumstances surrounding them aside, I feel fortunate to be able to take part in both of these momentous decisions.

At the risk of conflating two separate, but equally complex, political situations, to me these nevertheless feel like voting for the same cause – or, rather, for the same hope. Yes, perhaps in both cases it’s voting for a compromise, for an imperfect candidate and an imperfect institution. But it’s also voting for the first woman president and, I believe, for mutually beneficial co-operation rather than a self-imposed exile. For communication rather than conflict. For building bridges rather than building walls. For tolerance rather bigotry. For empathy rather than callousness. For hope rather than fear. And, yes, love rather than hate. These things I believe in, they are at the core of my values, and my choices are, I hope, in great part the result of reasoning them out as best I can.

But that’s not all. Because I have brilliant, talented, extraordinary friends from other countries in Europe who we are fortunate to have contributing to our cultural and intellectual life, whose own lives may be upturned, or at the very least made unduly stressful and pointlessly more complicated (more so than this whole situation has already inflicted) by the UK deciding to spurn its neighbouring allies and trading partners out of, it increasingly seems, wilful pride.

I have friends in the LGBTQ community, whose heartache I cannot imagine, whose struggles I have not had to endure, whose kindness and bravery is inspiring to me. I’m lucky to have them in my life. So, yes, in both America and Britain, I will be voting with my heart, as well as my head. On both sides of the Atlantic, those who disagree will, I’m sure, be doing the same.

It’s hard not to be hypocritical in such matters, hard not to respond to what feels like an onrushing tide of anger and fear with more anger and fear in return. It’s hard to know when to call it like you see it and when to step back and re-evaluate. It’s hard to disengage when it’s healthy to and, when defeats come, hard to re-engage when it’s important to. I don’t know how much of any of that I’m able to achieve.

But I still believe that it is imperative we keep trying. I believe that change, even if it’s incremental change, can be realised, and that it can make a difference. That people’s lives can be saved and improved by our actions and our votes. That we actually can work together to build more perfect unions and better worlds. Because, if nothing else, it’s necessary.

A Midlife Crisis of Conscience: American Masculinity and Morality in IRON MAN and CASABLANCA

Iron Man PosterCasablanca Poster

Okay, admittedly, this post started out as a joke. In a conversation about the production of Classic Hollywood cinema, my PhD supervisor remarked on the numerous script revisions CASABLANCA went through right up to the point of shooting. I offhandedly commented that it was one of the many things that this most beloved classic of black-and-white romantic dramas had in common with IRON MAN, a comic-book superhero blockbuster about a man in a suit of CGI armour saving the world from villainy, because I have a weird sense of humour.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found the connection genuinely intriguing, and specifically the leading roles and their surprisingly resonant stories of wounded masculinity and personal redemption. The ground seems even richer given both characters’ relationship with America’s place in the world.[1]

Though it went into production in 1942 and premièred later that year, CASABLANCA is very deliberately set in December of 1941, the events of its plot occurring just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the Second World War. The careful neutrality cultivated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the complex internal politics of German-occupied French-colonised Casablanca became, no doubt consciously, a metaphor for the still-neutral America of the previous year.

TonyStark

The journey of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from wealthy industrialist to superhero takes place in a very different climate, against the context of two drawn-out wars, led by the United States, which have turned into military and political quagmires. A billionaire arms manufacturer who designs his own weapons, Stark represents an America at the height of its powers, but whose actions have appalling unintended consequences for the people ostensibly under their protection.

Like Tony Stark, Rick Blaine has a background in arms dealing. As part of his anti-fascist backstory, we’re told he ran guns to the Ethiopian army during their defence against Mussolini’s Italy in the ‘30s. In the film’s present, his café/bar/casino business in Casablanca certainly doesn’t suffer from the city’s importance on the refugee route out of war-torn Europe.

Like Rick, Tony has a practised cynicism about the state of the world and people’s behaviour that acts as cover for his damaged emotional core. Both begin their stories avoiding their issues with different brands of wit (Stark’s is that of the charming rogue, Rick’s is more of a world-weary deadpan). Both would rather seek solace at the bottom of a glass (or bottle) than genuinely open up to anyone. Both carry their cynicism like a shield.

Rick

Their wounds are born of different circumstances, different losses, but they are both deeply felt. As is continually hinted throughout Tony Stark’s appearances in both the IRON MAN series and AVENGERS, he retains strong feelings of parental neglect directed towards his father, Howard (depicted variously by Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, and Dominic Cooper). For Rick, the damage is rooted in his abandonment by Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and the false promise of true love; a personal catastrophe that is mirrored by the fall of France to the Nazis.

Tony and Rick’s responses to such emotional damage are almost mirrors of each other. Tony throws himself into superficial flings with attractive women in a futile attempt to plug the hole in his heart, while teasing and acting dismissively towards those who really do care about him. Rick, unsurprisingly, disdains the company of women, and almost anyone else. But what unites them is the reluctance to value personal connections, and an accompanying acceptance of the way things are and their established roles in their respective political ecosystems. They both, after all, do very good business out of war.

Both Bogart and Downey Jr.  were both in their early forties when they took on their most iconic roles. Indeed, one of the details that marks IRON MAN apart from most other modern superheroic débuts is that it’s not a teenage coming of age story, like either SPIDER-MAN origin. It doesn’t centre on a young adult male finding his identity, like DC’s BATMAN BEGINS and MAN OF STEEL.[2] His fellow headlining Avengers, Captain America and Thor, are characters blessed with youthfulness belying their true age, whether due to pulp science or mythic vitality.[3] Stark is vulnerable in way they are not, hence the metaphor of the suit of armour which is central to his character, hence his damaged heart.

Tony Stark's Heart

Stark’s resort to patriotism as a defence for his career buckles when he discovers that his weapons have fallen into the hands of America’s enemies, and that they are being used not just against combatants, but on civilians. Tony’s realisation, but not quite acceptance, of his own culpability is what drives him to shut down his company’s production and sale of weapons as his first act on returning from Afghanistan.

It is also, as far as the film is concerned, what gives him the duty and, in a sense, the right to go back to Afghanistan and take action. Of course, because this is a superhero movie, Tony’s means of going about this is building an even swankier CGI suit of armour and bringing the fight to the bad guys.[4] He lives out the fantasy of seeing something horrible on the news, feeling genuinely guilty about it, then going and stopping it. And it is, of course, a fantasy. But it is one which is fascinatingly caught up in a web of anxieties about guilt and responsibility felt towards those caught up in the wake of conflict.[5]

Rick’s revelation is more personal, as he discovers that Ilsa’s own situation was more complex than he had imagined. But the pettiness is part of the point, as he can no longer use her treatment of him as justification for his indifference to the state of the world. He accepts that he has a moral obligation to use his privileged position and resources to help her and Laszlo escape the Nazis. In coming to terms with his feelings of betrayal, and allowing Ilsa to leave with her husband, he returns to the world from his self-imposed emotional isolation. It is no coincidence that his (and the film’s) famous last line announces the beginning of a new and valued personal connection.

Casablanca Ending

So, yes, as humorous as the comparison was meant to be (to myself, anyway), both Rick Blaine and Tony Stark are confronted with a midlife crisis of conscience. They realise that the defence of their damaged pride and their attempts to insulate themselves from further hurt have obscured from them the reality that they can do more to help. In its best moments, Iron Man isn’t just about saving the world from comic-book villains. It’s also about the saving of its hero’s soul. And, as Rick himself famously states, Casablanca isn’t just about the relationship problems of three little people. It is, in fact, about saving the world. More importantly, perhaps, it’s about admitting that the world can be saved.

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[1] Iron Man is also, of course, the inaugural picture of the now all-conquering Marvel Studios, and in that sense the start of something of a throwback to the studio system of Classic Hollywood in which Casablanca was produced.

[2] Adulthood identities turn up in the most surprising places, like caves infested with flying rodents, or alien spaceships.

[3] Captain America actually has something of an analogue, albeit a non-American one, in Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance leader whose arrival in the eponymous city sets the plot in motion. They are, after all, both straight-laced heroes possessed of genuine nobility, whose very qualities of goodness and decency are often used as evidence that they’re inherently less interesting than their more cynical foils.

[4] Though, as has become something of a recurring motif for the series, it’s significant that the real villain is American and more embedded in the military-industrial complex than even Tony Stark.

[5] At least until the lacklustre last act of the movie, though it’s a theme the franchise returns to, most noticeably in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.