Thursday, May 28, 2009

Looking Forward to the Next One

The missus and I, through the generous help of my father in law, had a rare chance to sneak away and go catch a real, honest-to-gosh movie the other day. And groan though she might, I was not to be dissuaded from seeing Star Trek, which is just ending its run here in Dubai.

Well, whatever my wife's thoughts before the movie, she came out loving it, and so did I. She mostly liked the humor, which was broad enough that you didn't need a Ph.D in Trek-ology to understand, and the movie moved at a relentlessly quick pace. It was not so fast as to make the story unintelligible, and it never really slowed down enough to get bogged down and dragged away from the main feeling of forward momentum.

I have to say that I completely agree with the screenwriter John Rodgers, who believes that perhaps the best part of the film is that the hero, Captain Kirk, has no character arc (transformative arc) whatsoever. And if that sounds bad to you, it shouldn't, because if you look at the stages of the hero's journey as defined by Joseph Campbell, there should be no transformative arc at all. There is a task, yes, and early on the job of the hero is to accept that task, but once the task has been accepted, the hero soldiers on. Others may lose faith in the hero, but the hero never loses faith in himself. This sort of arc is know as a revelatory arc, and it is the primary mode of heroic stories.

A transformative arc is called for when there is something off about a hero, or the hero is not really a hero. In the movie Iron Man, the hero goes through a transformative arc, where he falls, hits a low point, learns the errors of his ways, and then gets back on about the hero-ing business, but only because at the beginning of the story, he wasn't a hero at all. And for that story, a transformative arc was necessary. The movie Kung-Fu Panda also has the lead character go through a transformative arc, and it works for that movie also, because the hero doesn't see himself as a hero, has no confidence in himself, and nor do others have confidence in him.

But for Star Trek, and for a character like Kirk, that sort of arc, having the hero sit on the floor, tears in his eyes, vowing to be humble and donate to a tax free charity, but not before attends a save-the-Earth rally and converts to veganism, would have been ruinous. Don't believe me? Well, I have three words for you - On Deadly Ground.

Here was a movie, by an actor who had broken out of the B-List and made it fully onto the A-list of action movie stars. The film Under Siege really broke Segal's career wide open, but quicker that you can say "Save Mother Earth!", Segal destroyed all that forward momentum by creating a film so terrible, so undeniably awful, that within a few years he landed in the purgatory of direct-to-DVD, and has pretty much remained there since. And all of this was accomplished by taking a story with a hero character, one clearly needing a revelatory arc (he learns of the task, accepts the task, then kicks some ass), tacks on a transformative arc, and mashes them into a bastardized combination that serves neither the film nor the audience at all.

During On Deadly Ground, Forrest Taft first learns of his task, accepts the task, kicks some ass, but instead of ending it there, he goes on to realize that he is an evil white man who is destroying the Earth and must give in to the loving embrace of the Mother Goddess, and then sets of to lecture all and sundry about their nefarious ways, boring them to death instead of beating them to death, and caps it off with an attempt to inspire a legislative push at the Alaskan State Assembly.

If Segal had kept Forrest Taft as a simple ass-kicking hero, and had his evil oil-company stooge sidekick undergo the transformative arc, the film might have worked, and that second story line might even have been wonderfully funny if handled right. The new Star Trek splits up the story this way with Spock taking that transformative journey, but instead of bogging us down with a lot Prince of Denmark indecision and metaphysical angst, the screenwriters kick us back to Kirk, who is still kicking ass, had never stopped doing so, and and is busy continuing to do so.

That's not to say that you cannot ever combine those two arcs, because you can, and the film Gran Torino is proof of that. In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski, like Kirk, never stops kicking ass from the word go. From staring down a bunch of punks on his lawn, to sticking a gun the face of a bunch of hoodlums hassling his female neighbor, to his final act, where he defeats the villains (the Hmong gang) and saves his neighbors at the cost of his own life, he just keeps on being awesome. But the other side of coin was how Walt came to know, like, and even respect his neighbors, starting out from seeing them as a bunch of "zipperheads" and "fishfaces" to seeing them as friends, and people he cared about a great deal, and then seeing them as family. But the catch here is that the transformative arc is relatively subtle, and occurs over the course of the film. There is no climactic moment where Walt has an epiphany and decides being a racist is bad, because he remains a racist old bastard to the very end. But he learns to accept his neighbors as people, just like himself, and that process is so gradual, and so smooth, and so realistically done, that it never jars you.

It begins when he saves his neighbors, who are Hmong, one night and scares away the gangbangers, but only does so because he likes gangbanger "zipperheads" a lot less than he likes the next door "zipperheads", and he'd just as soon shoot both, but for the moment the punks were a much more satisfying target. The next day the entire Hmong community is at his doorstep dropping off gifts to thank him, and he responds by grousing, grumbling, and dumping all the gifts in the trash, and hollering for all the "fishfaces" to get off of his property. But from there, he eventually meets one or two Hmong personally, realizes he sorta/kinda likes them, and then, at some point, he nibbles on a chicken dumpling that really does taste very good, and pretty soon he has Hmongs tramping into and out of his house, and he is even smiling at them and seeing them as friends. By the end of the movie, they are family to him, one hundred percent.

The way the two arcs were combined in Gran Torino was brilliantly done, and shows that doing this is not an impossible task. The caveat, however, is that as much as I love Gran Torino (it's now in the pantheon of my top five favorite films), it is not an edge of your seat thrill ride. It is not an action movie the way the new Star Trek is, and can afford the slower pace. Which is why, for a movie like the new Star Trek, a character like Walt Kowalski wouldn't work. And which is why the Star Trek screenwriters were smart to split the arcs up and assign them to different characters.

Overall, while I am not head over heels love the new Star Trek film, at least not they way I loved The Shawshank Redemption, or Magnolia, I think it is a film that has a lot to teach in terms of good storytelling, and I am really looking forward to seeing if they can keep up the good work in the sequels soon to come.

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