11 May 2009

STAR TREK (Dir. JJ Abrams, 2009, US) - 'No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space...'

Rebooting an old franchise; the new crew of the Enterprise

The next few weeks will see the release of a number of high profile tent pole blockbuster spectacles yet the idea of a summer movie season seems relatively absurd today especially when scrutinising the UK release schedule which is over crowded with high concept studio products and franchises. With the successful commercial gains made by the rebooting of dormant franchises like the Batman films and also older, more familiar brands like Indiana Jones and Die Hard, Paramount Studios were anxious to give the green light to one of their oldest and most recognisable of film series; Star Trek. Creator and Producer of the hit TV series Lost, J J Abrams seems to have been a natural choice for rebooting the Star Trek franchise.

Since signing an exclusive in house contract with Paramount, Abrams has overseen the production of Cloverfield as well as debuting as a director with another Paramount-Tom Cruise franchise, the Mission Impossible films. I’m not entirely sure if Abrams wants to be seen as a film maker and though Star Trek is a well made mainstream Hollywood film, his strengths lie in his ability to shape ideas, manage budgets and execute well thought out marketing campaigns. However, being given the responsibility of revamping what is a very iconic science fiction brand meant that Abrams was able to more or less learn from the success of both Batman Begins and Casino Royale in helping to rejuvenate and ultimately reinvent a tried and tested genre for a new contemporary audience. For any genre to remain popular with audiences, it must constantly learn to adapt and reinvent itself several times over by adding new elements but also ensuring that straying too far from the conventions may result in a kind of nostalgic betrayal.

The 1960 original and definitive Star Trek crew

Like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, the new Star Trek film returns to an origins story by casting a set of youthful faces in the roles of genre defining characters like James T Kirk, Spock, Uhara and Chekov. The original television series was created by Gene Roddenberry as a reaction to the cold war and the universal animosity that had been generated between America and Russia. Capitalising on the worldwide interest in space travel and the landing of the moon, Star Trek was interpreted by some as a manifestation of American imperialism yet in essence, the original series used science fiction as an ideological vehicle to address a range of important social and political issues. The first series was released between 1966 and 1969, a turbulent time of massive social upheaval and political questioning. Simultaneously, the United Nations was still a relatively new and formidable international organisation, having been set up after World War II in an attempt to create a consensus of core moral and political values which all nations were obliged to follow.

Originally, the Federation in Star Trek took its political inspiration from the United Nations and it is fascinating to see how the isolation of the UN under George Bush is readdressed in the ideology of the new Star Trek film. Not only do we see in the film, the repositioning of the Federation as an ideological re branding of contemporary American politics by Obama but such a progressive view of the future could never have been refashioned with such liberalism under the auspice of George Bush’s conservative administration. Like many of the best science fiction films, Star Trek taps into current fears and anxieties to do with political diplomacy, pre emptive ideology, genocide, torture and most significantly, racial tolerance. It’s not a brilliant film, nor is it in anyway definitive science fiction cinema but it seems to work quite effectively as a cinematic spectacle which succeeds in fusing the new with the old.

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