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Being and Amok Time [May. 30th, 2009|11:51 pm]
[mood |geekygeeky]
[music |Peter Schilling, "Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst)"]

In growing accustomed to the idea of events happening in an ever-continuing present, the reader loses track of the fact that they should develop according to the dictates of time. Losing consciousness of it, he forgets the problems which are at its base, that is, the existence of freedom, the possibility of planning, the necessity of carrying plans out, the sorrow that such planning entails, the responsibility that it implies, and, finally, the existence of an entire human community whose progressiveness is based on making plans.
--Umberto Eco, "The Myth of Superman"

There is a strange theme running through geek culture these days: predestination. It's a perennial theme in fantasy, of course--either a prophecy must be fulfilled (the current example: Harry Potter, whose entire life and seven book series is dominated by a prophecized encounter with running villain Voldemort), or divine intervention guides or influences the protagonist's actions and choices (as with the show Reaper--most notably in the recent season 2 finale, in which Sam's season-long plan is undone by the timely intervention of an angel). But it is a theme cropping up with increasing frequency in both the super-hero and sci-fi genres as well, in the form of the prequel (for lack of a better term--in short, stories designed to show the histories or "back stories" of iconic characters, to show how they got to be who they are, etc.). The recent trend arguably began with Marvel's Ultimate line (relaunches more than prequels, but already with some of the elements we'll be dealing with below), but was certainly carried forward by the early success of the Smallville television series, and more recently the show (tragically cancelled in its prime) Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. (More examples could of course be mentioned; for example, a prequel series in the true sense, Star Trek: Enterprise...)

As far as it goes, this is only moderately interesting: it's one, currently popular, theme among many (or at least several). But what is really striking is that all three major, geek, blockbuster movie releases this summer have been 'prequels': X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Star Trek; and now, finally, Terminator: Salvation.

Of course, you will object: of these three, only Wolverine was a true prequel. Star Trek was officially billed as a series relaunch, and Terminator: Savlation is officially billed as a sequel. Allow me, then, to say a few words about these most recent two--for in doing so, I'll also be able to get to the heart of what I think is at stake in this newly-popular geek theme. What follows, then, will be a (lengthy, sorry!) combination of multi-movie review and rumination on the philosophy of history...

Star Trek

By this point, geeks are well and truly familiar with series relaunches--from the many incarnations of Batman, several incarnations of Superman, etc. A "relaunch" is an odd mixture of predetermination and free action: certain (iconic) things must happen, some major plot-points are pre-set, but otherwise the series and characters are "free" to develop in their own unique ways. And so, for example, we know that Bruce Wayne's parents must die in Crime Alley; Bruce Wayne must vow revenge and become Batman; James Gordon must eventually become police commissioner; etc. But each series is allowed to develop on its own beyond these major plots--and so the Batman of Batman Begins (a relaunch presenting itself as a prequel...) can act independently of the Batman in, say, the Animated Series. They are considered separate worlds, universes, or dimensions.

Presenting Star Trek as a relaunch, then, we are initially presented with this same tension between new plot (action) and iconic plot-points (necessity). James T. Kirk must take over for Christopher Pike at some point as the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise; Spock must become the chief science officer (while Pike is still captain...); Uhura must become the chief communications officer; Leonard McCoy must take over for Phillip Boyce as the chief medical officer at some point...etc. And so the story moves along, as if it were a new plot in a series relaunch. At the heart of this story, however, is a mystery: who are these angry, technologically-advanced, tattooed Romulans? They have of course come from the future (events in the future always determine the plot of prequels, mind you...), but their quarry, the man they've chased into the past, is a game-changing surprise: Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as Mr. Spock. In other words, this movie is not happening in a world separate from the first series, it is happening in the past of that same series: it is a prequel. It is, however, a unique sort of a prequel (and therefore still a relaunch, of sorts), for reasons I'll get back into below...

Terminator: Salvation

Okay, the Terminator series has never been brilliant--the harder you look, in fact, the more cracks you see. (Why send only one terminator at a time to kill John? Why not send an army? Why not cover an HK in living tissue, or any number of kickass futuristic weapons?) But James Cameron's contributions to the franchise--despite their flashy, big-buget special effects--always made simplicity, and even restraint, their virtues, which allowed for at least some basic cleverness and credibility. The first two movies built one upon the other very nicely: T1 was about running away from death, and it was about learning to think about the future. T2 was still about running away from death, but it was also about turning to face death when something more important was at stake. Brilliant? No. But clever, and even occasionally thoughtful? Sure.

All the more disappointing, then, for Terminator: Salvation to cast restraint--and with it, credibility--to the wind. The 'cleverness'--in this case, a cyborg who thinks he's human--turns out to simply be a cog in an elaborate (and utterly implausable) James-Bond-villain-style deathtrap for John Connor. In fact, the entire plot of the movie turns out to be an incredibly complex trap, laid out by Skynet--which is apparently omniscient enough to plan for chance encounters (like Marcus meeting up with Kyle Reese, and then also escaping to meet up--and happen to have a conversation about Kyle--with John Connor), and yet not clever enough to simply kill Kyle (before he has the chance to sire John) when he's captured, nor install poison gas for the anticipated infiltration of John. And of course, Kyle is kept alive as bait even when there's no need (how was John to know that Kyle hadn't been killed?); Marcus is given an elaborate amount of freedom and almost goaded into 'betraying' skynet; and, of course, the paper-thin plot is yet made so ridiculously labyrinthine that Helena Bonham Carter must put the movie on hold for five minutes to explain to the audience what the hell is going on. Again, it's a matter of finding more cracks the longer you look--but for what end? Is there a build on the earlier themes of running from death or finding a cause more important? Not exactly. Like all Terminator movies, there's a brief, hamfisted rumination about what it means to be human--though this can hardly be said to be the point, either. What justification can there possibly be for such a tortuous plot, such an unbelievable mousetrap?

It turns out that the entire movie is a way of setting up dominoes for the first few movies: This is the story of how John Connor became the leader of the resistance (i.e., how Michael Ironside and the rest of the superior officers die); This is the story of how Kyle Reese got his green jacket (What is it with prequels and the explanation of jackets? In Wolverine, it's equally ridiculous...); This is the story of how John Connor of the future got the scar on his face; This is the story of how the Arnold Schwarzenegger line of T-800s is unleashed (though, respect where it's due: digital cameos have never looked quite so good...!); This is the story of how John Connor and Kyle Reese first met; Etc. Etc. Etc. The only justification for the painfully stupid plot is to allow for the elaborate setting-up, in excrutiatingly anal retentive detail, of all of the details referenced as future-backstory in the first few movies. In other words: this movie is a prequel, albeit one set in the future.

We have, then, in Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation, two surprise prequels, prequels that present themselves as something other than prequels. However, if you pay attention to how they function as prequels, you'll notice a striking difference: Salvation pretends to be a sequel only in order to perfectly fill in all of the gaps, closing the circuit with the other movies. Star Trek, on the other hand, acts like a prequel and a relaunch: by coming back in time, Spock and the Romulans have changed the past--these changes will then not lead to the same future. The game has been changed; in ways that have thusfar only allowed for minor differences (presumably less than minor for Kirk, who has now never gotten to know his father--despite the fact that this loss seems not to have changed his personality at all, and delayed his ascension to ship captain only but slightly...), but can presumably over time lead to a very different version of the Original Series. This past now leads to a different future, which must be thought of as existing in its own distinct universe: the prequel has effectively become a series relaunch.

Of course, this clever prequel/relaunch hybrid now presents its own little challenges--for example, what to do with Spock Prime? One can imagine that, try as he might to avoid becoming a crutch, there are simply cases where prudence (and logic) dictates giving counsel; Ah, yes--what you'll need to do is slingshot around the sun, so as to travel fast enough to break the time-barrier; once back in the past, scoop up some blue whales and bring 'em back to the future. Oh, and about this fellow, Khan... Of course, this is remedied easily enough by killing off Spock Prime--but obviously the ripple-effect from the altered past isn't going to be enough to alter some of the major "plot points" of future history...

All of this is several steps down the line, however--the simple fact remains that, in creating a prequel, J.J. Abrams and his Star Trek crew have reopened the circuit of the original series, instead of closing it. A new future can now be written--characters can, and will, make different decisions, choose different paths, etc. This is, of course, where the irony should really hit you: can you think of a better motto for the new Star Trek franchise than, "No fate but what we make"? Grandfather paradoxes be damned, the future isn't simply a predestined telos for the past, but in fact both can be freely rewritten! This, of course, was the central theme of James Cameron's Terminator series: hence the oft-repeated (or, at least, oft-quoted) speech, memorized by Kyle, Sarah, and John (a fun mobius strip: who wrote the speech, then?): The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. In creating a prequel which also functions as a sequel, in closing the circuit with the original films, Terminator: Salvation performatively denies the central theme of the franchise; the future has already been written, it is predestined and will simply unfold mechanically from the past.

This, I think, is what is really at stake in the theme of predestination, expressed recently in various geek-genres as a hyper-anal obsession with insider-referenced prequels. It is a denial of history as a realm of free human action.

There are three basic ways to deny history:

1. History is a long, steady series of improvements; the inevitable tide of progress, the long march toward the Kingdom of God, the unfolding of Reason behind men's backs, etc.
2. History is a long, steady decline; the inevitable tide of entropy, the repercussions of some primordial fall of man, etc.
3. Things are always basically the same; the "natural laws" of capitalist economics, the fixed nature of mankind, the eternal cycle of nature, etc.

In each of these so-called "philosophies of history," "history" is simply another name for necessity. And where all action is necessary, there is no action as such: only reaction, links in a long, causal chain. It is only where there is uncertainty that action is truly possible: contingency, the emergence of the unexpected, the "event" in the French sense...Since the "death of Communism," capitalism has become the "only possibility"--where there is one possibility, of course, you have not possibility but necessity. And in these days of massive crises of capitalism, there is thus no genuine philosophy of history to suggest that anything else is possible; and so how can we be surprised but to see the various basic forms of nihilistic denial offering themselves as false refuge? Either things are always like this, and there's no point in doing anything but riding out the storm; or things inevitably get worse, and there's no point in fighting inevitability; or things have been predestined from the start to turn out okay, and we simply need to batton down the hatches and wait out the storm...Where geek culture has found box-office success, it has long been in the form of blockbuster escapism: a distraction from the troubles of life. This, then, is why I think we are surrounded lately by big, geeky denials of history. It's a way to forget all about our troubles, safe in the knowledge that there's nothing else we could be doing about them anyway...

[User Picture]From: mavinga
2009-06-05 05:01 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Always interesting.

I think the fact that these works were chosen is one issue, how they were executed another, and then how they were received a third, and perhaps the more indicative one. I offer no specific correlation, but I do think it is interesting.

I wonder if our mythology grows, or is somehow sifted, or robbed?

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[User Picture]From: archas
2009-06-08 09:45 pm (UTC)
Was just thinking of you the other day--as I sat down to watch The Sky Crawlers...

It's a fair cop: in works like this, every reception--mine certainly included--is an interpretation, and says as much about the interpreter as it does about the source material.

As for the options you lay out: whether or not the other two are also happening (I don't think they're necessarily mtutally-exclusive options), I'd certainly agree that our mythology is constantly being "sifted." Reorganized. Made to speak to, for, and about new generations. The same myths take on new meanings, the same characters are seen in different lights. An interpretation says as much about the interpreter as it does about the source material...
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