The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Armond White on 'Star Trek': It's TV masquerading as film

May 7, 2009 | 12:16 pm


The New York Press' Armond White, the head of the New York Critics Circle, is one of those critics who can drive you 'round the bend. A natural-born contrarian, he dismissed "Milk" as "silly," called "Wall-E" "ugly" and blasted the "dunglike banality" of "Iron Man" while celebrating "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (White is an official worshiper at the Church of Spielberg), a movie that White found far light years superior to "The Dark Knight."

So let's be clear: We have grave differences over our taste in movies. But I have to admit that when it comes to brashly original and provocative ideas about film, White is up there in the pantheon. So even though most of the everyday critics are rubber-stamping "Star Trek," which has a 94 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it is White who has the most compelling take on the J.J. Abrams-directed film, arguing that it represents the triumph of passive, domesticated small-screen drama over the brawny, bravura filmmaking that once dominated the big screen. 

Or as he bluntly puts it in his review: "'Star Trek' isn't a movie so much as a confirmation of TV's cultural dominance. It's watchable, yet still terrible cinema, a [movie] designed for adolescent awe."

White makes a fascinating point, saying that the original "Star Trek" TV series was meta-TV, in the sense that its central location -- the deck of the Starship Enterprise -- was for all intents and purposes a replica of a '60's TV sitcom, only set in outer space.

Or as White describes it: "...essentially a living room commanded by a father figure sitting in an easy chair who, with his crew, watched a big-screen TV." Abrams, he argues, simply embraces the cozy familiarity of the TV show, updating it with fancy visual effects and swish pans. Saying the film represents a huge step backward from "Blade Runner," "The Matrix" and "Minority Report," White flogs it for having no aesthetic tension or rhythm, calling it "remote control entertainment."

He ends up by saying: "Not only geared to fan boys (or Trekkies), this is designed to thrill people who cannot tell the difference between movies and TV. ... Turning cinema audiences into easy-chair Kirks, 'Star Trek' is literally big-screen TV."

This isn't bound to be a popular stance, but what interests me is that White seems to be offering up an unsettling question -- Have some of our summer movies become just big blow-up versions of soft-headed TV drama? If anyone sees "Star Trek" this weekend, I'll like to hear response to the White argument. I'd say he's certainly thrown down the gauntlet.

Photo of the Enterprise in "Star Trek" from Paramount/ILM.