The Star Trek Cult and the Art-Movie Cult

Two new films trivialize portentous subjects.

The Star Trek television and film franchise was always multicultural; then it became a pop cult; and now it boasts all of that as a social manifesto. This franchise enterprise’s entire one-world allegorical pretense — as seen in the new Star Trek Beyond – caters to millennials and fanboys who take their moral and political cues from pop trivia.

Filling in for our educational system’s failure and the spiritual void offered by secularism, Star Trek Beyond trivializes social issues like militarism and race by downplaying moral seriousness, and replacing it with “action” and genre familiarity. It’s cinema as comfort food. Director Justin Lin’s hyperactive set-pieces don’t have the same effect here as in his Fast & Furious brotherhood franchise. Star Trek Beyond’s cartoonish voyage toward intergalactic Utopia (fighting off weird villains along the way) depreciates the essence of political and universal unity. Millennials who have never read the Aeneid or seen La Grande Illusion don’t recognize the bait-and-switch.

The way the Star Trek franchise has always dealt with ethnic and species oddity, as if to normalize what academics call “difference,” might have contributed to the contemporary confusion about race, gender, and class relations. But things never get sorted out, given the ongoing fantasy franchise’s exploitation of the multi-racial Enterprise crew, and such new characters as Idris Elba’s cartoonish bad guy Krall, along with the enlistment of Sofia Boutella’s alien warrior Jaylah — a ghost-white creature with a face strangely inked with lightning-bolt tattoos. Like current frivolous political rhetoric, Star Trek Beyond is just distracting.

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Weirdest film of the week: Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader. Its seemingly political topic — the creation of a fascist as seen through the eyes of a boy named Prescott (Tom Sweet), seven years old when the story begins — is gradually, deliberately avoided by an emphasis on art-movie tropes. Prescott is the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and German mother (Bérénice Bejo) who reside in Paris in 1919. The father is assisting President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the forming of the League of Nations.

The film’s setting is not just political but a projection of Euro cinema references to highlight Prescott’s spoiled personality. He is a product of The Conformist, Death in Venice, 1900, and Vincere as much as of class and genetics. Obstinate like his father, Prescott is also as neurasthenic as his mother. Both parents are authoritarian, and the boy himself is exceptionally willful and defiant. He leaves a Catholic Christmas Mass and chucks rocks at the priest and congregation as they depart. Master Prescott wears a tunic-like pinafore that matches his girlishly long hair — it’s unclear if this androgynous affectation is the mother’s eccentricity or the boy’s own. He’s also a prodigy who, after making a pass at his female tutor, rejects her lessons on Aesop’s Fables, hides out in his bedroom, and masters the book on his own.

Corbet follows a similar inward, hermetic path to his simplistic climax. As his narrative develops (through three episodes, each numbered after a Prescott “tantrum”), it becomes increasingly remote. The adult conversations (the father discusses political theory with a friend played by Robert Pattinson; the mother covers up an affair with Pattinson and torments the housekeeper, played by Yolande Moreau) also remain obscure. Political and sexual meanings behind the doings in the family’s large, dark mansion on a wooded estate are implicit and never clarified. The film is portentous, but, as accented with an adventurous, volatile music track by Scott Walker, it just skirts boredom.

Yet it winds up being exasperating because Corbet, despite this bravura feature debut (and impressively textured cinematography by Lol Crawley), is, essentially, making a Lars von Trier movie. The visual style, edited momentum, musical intensity, and emotional clash that takes the place of drama are signs at once of huge ambition, maddening pretense, and perverse humor. (Corbet’s most artful image shows a wounded Prescott carried home by the forgiving priest; the silhouette symbolizes God-to-man complexity.)

#related#In Brady James Monson Corbet’s previous career as an actor, his taste was also perverse and maddening — from the Thunderbirds reboot to such repugnant indie fare as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake, Gregg Araki’s distasteful Mysterious Skin, and even von Trier’s end-of-the-world joke, Melancholia. Given that background, Corbet has left his Scottsdale, Ariz., birthplace far behind, but he could use a little Yankee good sense.

The Childhood of a Leader evokes a 1939 Jean-Paul Sartre short story of the same title that sought to explain fascism through the example of pederasty, as if political corruption could be directly traced to sexual decadence. It would be intriguing had Corbet responded to that now-ancient bugaboo with the late-20th-century sophistication of his cinematic mentors. Instead, he avoids real intellectualizing and, despite his ambitious technique, sticks to the superficial political innuendo of pseudo-political art movies. Like Star Trek Beyond, that’s a kind of decadence in itself.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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