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Star Trekkin’, Across the Universe!

This weekend sees the much anticipated opening of Star Trek. And I have to admit, I’m a little excited. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good old-fashioned space opera on the big screen, the way that it’s meant to be seen.

Sure, it looks like it might have jettisoned all the moral and philosophical explorations that made the franchise what it was – where else could the American public have found dispassionate explorations of issues as diverse as the Cold War, Vietnam, assisted suicide, cloning, religion, even the American healthcare system? – in favour of an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, but it still looks incredible. It seems more like a rollercoaster to the stars than a wagon train.

"I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space..."

"I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space..."

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a complaint or two. I should introduce this article with the forewarning that I am not a hardcore Trekker/Trekkie/whatever-they-call-themselves, but there is one thing about the attitude of geek god JJ Abrams that really grinds my gears: the insistence that this movie is not for Star Trek fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with a movie that is not just for Star Trek fans, but that’s an entirely different sentiment than a movie that is not for Star Trek fans. It’s these guys who are going to see the movie three or four times and will likely make up a sizeably portion ($100m+) of the film’s revenue base. Maybe not a majority, but enough to justify being treated with a little ounce of respect. What’s the point of giving the franchise a much-needed overhaul if you’re just going to insult the fans in the national press?

Anyway, my pet publicity peeve out of the way, I look forward to the reintroduction of space-based science fiction on to the big screen. In the past few years it seems the genre has been confined to the telly (with the superlative, but over, Battlestar Galactica – which also sometimes draws the similar protest “it’s not for sci-fi fans!” – or the wonderful nonsense of Doctor Who, who is unfortunately out of the office bar four specials this year). It’s been a while since we’ve had a big out-and-out science fiction release (okay, most summer blockbusters could loosely be classified as science fiction – Transformers, Eagle Eye, etc. – but I like a bit of substance with my flash).

Ignoring the Star Wars prequels (I’m less of a Star Wars nut than a Star Trek nut), I can only think of a handful of respectable science-fiction films in the past few years. There was the George Clooney vehicle, Solaris, a remake of a classic Russian film of the same name, and there’s was director-of-the-moment Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Both are solid films, almost independent films in their mindset (being more psychological than epic). A few Michael Gondry fans might throw a hissy-fit at this classification, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is probably easiest classified as a science fiction film (there’s a machine that can erase memories!).

"Walking on... Walking on the moon... ((Some... may say...))"

"Walking on... Walking on the moon... ((Some... may say...))"

Of course, thoroughbred science fiction is the ugly stepchild of the major film genres, one that gets very little respect. The major studios are understandably antsy, with risky science-fiction flicks like Artificial Intelligence or Blade Runner opening to little critical or commercial success. Blade Runner has been subsequently rehabilitated critically, and has likely made its money well back (I own five versions of the film), but one gets the vibe that audiences just don’t dig science fiction settings. The most often-cited complaint about the disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the substitution of hokey fifties aliens ‘extra-dimensional beings’ for hokey thirties mysticism. Personally, I just thought the movie was a mess, and its problems had little to do with the close encounter at the film’s climax.

Still, the genre is home to some of the greatest films ever made and, when used well, can provide a creative team an epic canvas with which to work. 2001: A Space Odyssey combining breathtaking ideas with breathtaking imagery. Alien and Aliens gave us some of the most visceral body horrors of mainstream cinema. Metropolis remains one of the most influential films of all time ninety years after it was released. Few types of film can so deftly mix the existentialist questions with sheer visual flair; nor do they mix so well – I can readily name sci-fi dramas (Gattaca), sci-fi comedies (Galaxy Quest), sci-fi horrors (Event Horizon), sci-fi action flicks (Total Recall), sci-fi romances (Wall-E), even sci-fi westerns (Outland).

It is perhaps because of the breadth and scale of the genre’s potential that I can forgive it the occasional empty treat like Star Wars or Minority Report. After all, if Star Trek sucks, I can look forward to Moon.

It’s a low-budget claustrophobic drama set – where else? – on the moon, with Sam Rockwell playing an astronaut whose isolation is steadily growing into paranoia. It probably doesn’t help that his only companion is a computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. Nothing helps calm you down like creepy monotone.

So, yep, I’m looking forward to Star Trek. I’m hoping they catch the lightening in a bottle again. I’m hoping that there are brains to match the spectacle on display. Even if there isn’t, I’m sure there’ll eventually be a science fiction movie along with both.

Maybe Terminator Salvation?

Okay, I won’t hold my breath.

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