On opening night I took my wife to Star Trek: Into Darkness, a little concerned it would be a big summer movie with each scene a desperate clinging climax, that she wouldn’t like it because she hadn’t grown up watching the Next Generation show like I had. It was easy to spot the Trekkies even in the ticket line. They almost all arrived alone – a weirdo with a pedophile moustache and a Hawaiian shirt, a pale unsettled woman wearing a gigantic boot to balance out the leg that was a good eight inches shorter than the other, a blubbery giant breathing heavily and leaning against a four-footed cane. Inside the theater we found a 50-gallon trash bin in the front row with caution cones around it to catch water from a ceiling leak. Everyone appeared to be these extraordinary nerdlingers in shaded thick-rimmed glasses. (It was a 3D showing.) One older guy by the trash can snorted and clapped his hand in what could only have been involuntary spasms. We settled a few seats away from him – he muttered strangely under his breath, “It smells!” – until I got dripped on from the leak that slowly filled the garbage bin and we moved across the way near another guy running solo, balding in slacks and ancient tennis shoes that were losing their stitching all over.
My wife found absolutely no merit in the film. She left for home before the villain crushed an admiral’s head with his bare hands, a long boggle-eyed process that had the tennis shoes guy groaning and clutching his temples in sympathy. She was right to leave, really. It’s a simple movie, a superhero movie. There’re the good guys you’re assumed to like, who make brave fearless quips until things start going to hell and then they grit their teeth and dangle from the scaffolding while the bad guys stomps at their fingers, and eventually there’s a dramatic showdown whose outcome is never in question. I tried to see the film through the eyes of someone who had never heard the name Spock, picturing the crew of an imaginary Chinese spaceship going through the motions of blockbuster action sequences that provide the stage for virtue and villainy thick enough to be carved by a boxcutter. Who cares about this gang? You need to bring your own devotion with you to the cinema, otherwise Bones and Uhura and the rest are anonymous.
But there’s a moment – there’s this one moment that lasts for maybe twenty seconds as a badly damaged Enterprise topples in a nose-down freefall through the atmosphere and Kirk’s all hanging from the rafters trying to kick the power back on before the entry burns the ship to ashes – it always comes down to Kirk hanging from the rafters kicking at something, doesn’t it? – and the plummeting NCC-1701 is swallowed by the cloud cover, and the camera hangs above for a breath, lingering on the shape the vessel cut through the clouds, and they’re all goners for sure. And it’s kind of a startling scene, actually, how this gigantic ship just disappears and you don’t hear anything but the wind and you’re thinking to yourself, jesus, just like that and they’re finished, when – whoom! – she bursts back above the clouds, terribly battered, one of the warp nacelles blown almost entirely to bits, gaping hull breaches in the saucer section showing the blackened exposed bones of the ship, and she looks like hell but by god and the skin-of-your-teeth the thrusters of the starship Enterprise are firing and she’s in the air and her continuing mission has not ground to a halt, not just yet, not tonight – and all by myself in the theater I had to keep from pumping my fists and cheering with the tennis shoes guy next to me.
And right then, there rushed over me a conviction that there is something so precious about the shape of that ship, of that stardrive and that saucer – that despite the pathetic rotting idiocy swaddling our daily lives like mummy rags there’s space in our imagination where we’ve arrived at a better place with better natures where differences are honored and wisdom welcomed no matter what the origin, where our captains freely admit their errors, where we’re recognized for hungering excellence and shunned for lusting dominance. There’s something so precious about that little hopeful space, and even now it’s hard not to feel something in your heart when you catch another glimpse of this world, even if it is a hamfisted one.
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