I saw the new Star Trek movie. When I tell you that it’s all punching and shooting, I’m really not exaggerating. It’s all punching and shooting. And as far as punching and shooting summer action movies goes, it’s OK. It has an ending that’s like two 13 year old boys talking about what a good ending would be via text message, but it isn’t completely soulless, which is better than you can say for most franchise movies.
But Star Trek isn’t about punching or shooting. It’s contemplative. It’s about actual moral conflict and ambiguity. It’s optimistic about the prospect of peace and the ability to solve problems nonviolently. It lets stories develop slowly. It’s about exploration and diplomacy far more than its about combat. And, look, yes, the old Onion joke – “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As ‘Fun, Watchable'” – I get it. You have to make concessions to the box office. But I don’t understand the point of turning Star Trek into a punching and shooting franchise, which is what all of these movies have been. I mean, I do understand. It’s the fact that our culture industry is a human centipede that has to keep passing predigested excrement from one host body to the next, so every preexisting “IP” has to have all of its value sucked out until there’s only a dry husk remaining. But it just doesn’t work, fundamentally, to turn Star Trek into Punch Quest. There are other problems with the movies – I just don’t buy Kirk and Spock’s friendship, the actors don’t have chemistry – but on a basic level they suffer from trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
I’m not saying every movie should be a Tarkovsky film. I’m saying that there’s already plenty of opportunities to get punching and shooting. You can watch Captain America punch and Han Solo shoot and dinosaurs get punched and shot at. It’s not like it’s just not possible for movies about other things than punching and shooting to make money. Is there any punching or shooting in Star Trek 4? Any at all? But it made $130 million in 1986. I fundamentally believe that it’s still possible for that sort of thing to happen again. But there’s no studios willing to risk it. So we get two characters in bad alien makeup doing half-assed movie karate in the climax of a Star Trek movie.
We’re getting more and more diverse, in these blockbusters. Sulu’s got a new husband in one of the rare non-punching, non-shooting scenes; the lady Ghostbusters have a pointless and wearying scene where they shoot a lot; soon you’ll be able to see the Black Panther punch. And while I think the current liberal obsession with superficial diversity above structural equality is weird, I recognize that there’s progress in greater representation. But if there’s diversity in the faces but not in the stories, if we start to better include women and people of color in movies but give them nothing else to do but punch and shoot, that’s barely progress at all.