Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
On this Friday night, when I entered my local theater to see the new Star Trek : Beyond, the classic words of Gene Roddenberry's world-famous license immediately came back to mind and, as I sat comfortably in front of the big white screen, I had no doubt that it would soon disappear, beaming me up away from my ordinary life of an earthbound guy to witness the wonders of an exotic universe full of strange planets and shining stars, of extraterrestrial civilizations and cultures, garnished, of course, with sparkles of epic space battles.
And space battles I had, during the two hours of Justin Lin's show. But as for the rest of my expectations, I've been quite disappointed – to say the least. It might seem presumptuous of me, but when someone drags me into a show, boasting of "new worlds, new life forms and civilizations", that's... what I'm hoping to see. Silly me.
The reason for my dispair is that, as much as I can remember from the movie, I didn't meet a lot of alien life forms, and even less civilizations. I mean, there were aliens in the story, but they really didn't look THAT alien. Every single one of them had two legs, two arms, a head with eyes, ears and a mouth with surprisingly white teeth... Sounds familiar ? Yup, that's right, humans. Of course, a scientist could always say that it is convergent evolution at work: i.e., even species which don't have any ancestor in common can share the similar features, such as eyes, as fishes, birds, dinosaurs and men all need to see their environment to survive.
But when you reach such a low in designing the ET characters, that's not convergence, that's lazy copy-pasting. During the 60s and 70s, and until the apparition of CGI, the low budget of sci-fi TV shows and movies justified the fact that the appearance of many alien people was so close to ours, only disguised by make-up and funny clothes. But now that we have the sufficient technology to create the wildest creatures possible in the Universe, why do we still represent such life forms like human circus freaks? Even Stanley Kubrick, in his masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey, managed to symbolize the presence of the ET through a simple black monolith surrounded by Gregorian chants !
But as God created man in His own image, Hollywood seems to have condemned itself to create the extraterrestrials according to ours, as is evident in the narrative of Star Trek : Beyond (spoiler alert !). Led by the very human captain James T. Kirk, the Enterprise (whose crew is nearly entirely composed of humans) reaches a human city in space, before being lured into the fake rescue mission of a strange but similar-to-Earth planet – with the same gravity and a breathable atmosphere, how convenient – by a human-like extraterrestrial, who acts as a bait for the villain, who is... a human in disguise, and a former Starfleet officer.
After the Enterprise has crashed onto the surface, and most of his crew has been captured by humanoid aliens, a bunch of escapees – among which, what a surprise, are Kirk, the human engineer Scotty, the human doctor Bones and the very human-looking Spock – will get help from a local alien, a pale ET girl who wears human-like clothes, has nice, regular white teeth and a braid, who speaks English and lives in an abandoned Starfleet ship, enjoying human music – especially the Beastie Boys. This new Earth might be light-years from the original, hiding behind a belt of asteroids and space storms in an unchartered nebula, still – it's a small world.
Without taking the time to see if there wouldn't also be a Starbucks nearby, our bipedal friends decide to take their revenge. And there's where the shoe pinches. Because, despite the promise of making us discover new civilizations, cultures and rituals, the true core of the plot here lies in the struggle between the bad guy, who wants to send a deadly weapon to humanity on Earth just to remind its inhabitants that war is the essence of its progress, and the good guys, a.k.a the humans of the Federation, who want to ensure peace in the whole Universe. In other words: the hell with space exploration and making contact with ET life forms, the real question here is to know if humans can live without violence.
A topic that had already been used in the previous Star Trek : Into Darkness (2013), in which the super villain – a genetically-modified human - Khan was manipulated by a rogue human Starfleet admiral, with the hope that, confronted with a sufficient level of threat, the Federation would drop its peace-loving ideology in favor of an aggressive military strategy. Just as in the first movie of the new series, Star Trek (2009), we were invited to follow the young years of James T. Kirk, struggling with his own inclination for violence and self-destruction while Spock tried for the first time to mix his Vulcan rationality with human emotions. Surprisingly, this blockbuster also featured a human-looking enemy, a bald and tribal-tattoo-faced Romulian called Nero - yes, just like the Roman mad emperor - who also wanted to destroy the Earth. How original.
Humanity, violence, aliens with Homo Sapiens physical features: the imagination of the screenwriters and character designers of the Star Trek license seems to run in circles, like an automated ship slowly orbiting around the dead moon of over-used marketing tricks. Despite the legacy of unheard life forms that had appeared in the Star Trek TV shows – mineral, photonic, transdimensional people, micro-organisms – there is now only room for species that an ordinary guy like me can identify with, especially if I can break their legs, their arms, and hear them yell, with their tongues and mouths, how much they hate me.
Above all, the idea of discovering new civilizations – and the intellectual shock that it supposes for the humans, as they'll have to deal with a cultural gap as wide as the one that, today, separates sometimes the Western culture from the African, Asian or Middle-East's thinking – this idea has simply disappeared from the story. Spread the word, people : Star Trek doesn't care anymore about meeting the E.Ts. What matters now is to use the exotic scenery of the Universe to celebrate the human genius, capable of beating a huge army of aliens with superior technology only with the help of a VHF radio, a decommissioned Starfleet vessel and a song of the Beastie Boys. If we think that the famous hip-hop band recorded no less than eight albums, we can then assume that thanks to his work, we'll soon rule the whole galaxy.
In conclusion, I thought that the Enterprise would offer me the Universe, but it only handed me a depressing mirror. I thought the warp drive would bend the limits of space and time, but it only bended my neck so that I could stare at my own belly button. Tell me, Star Trek : what is the point of scouring the vast extent of space, in search of new worlds, new life and new civilizations, if it's only to offer me those I was seeking to escape?
Long live and prosper, Star Trek. But, for the Trekkie's sake, have a look around.