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A Trek in the right direction

A memo to George Lucas: It's over.

The children have taken over the school. The inmates now run the asylum. You are the chubby loser with the comb over and tweed suit in those intolerably smug Apple commercials, clueless and emasculated.

You got old. It happens to all of us.

Much like our good friends in the banking industry, you went to the well a few times too often while ignoring the coming drought. The ideas became hollow, shadows of their former selves.

But you knew we'd buy it anyway. And buy it we did, but not anymore.

I have to believe you watched the latest incarnation of "Star Trek" this past weekend. In fact, your special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, built the magic in that movie and sent it into places your ill-fated "Star Wars" prequels dared not to go.

I say this as a guy who doesn't even like space operas all that much. I prefer westerns and crime films.

However, "Star Trek" was about as good of a time I've had at the movies since "Iron Man" at about this time last year. It seems Hollywood can crank out at least one summer puff piece that lives up to its billing.

(I'm not holding out hope for the "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" or "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" disasters-in-waiting. And since when did it become a law that sequels contain lame subtitles following semicolons? Isn't a simple "2" sufficient?)

Certainly, "Trek" bested Lucas' "Wars" prequels in every conceivable way. This was something that occurred to me as I watched "Trek" during a recent matinee. Why "Star Wars" should pop into my head in that situation was strange. I haven't given "Star Wars" a solid thought since, well, the last time I endured "Revenge of the Sith" in 2005.

Then it hit me. The "Star Wars" prequels represented the last time I approached film with a vulnerable sense of hope and wonder. This was my childhood on the line. I needed to feel safe and protected while my boyhood idols fought it out with light sabers in hand for one last go-around.

The rush lasted about as long as it took for Jar Jar Binks to waddle on screen in "The Phantom Menace." The final two hours of that flick felt like a mugging, during which I was left beaten, Tasered and helpless as my attacker left giggling with my $7.50 in hand.

It was somewhat liberating, following the "Star Wars" prequel debacles, to realize the tenets of my childhood were firmly rooted in nothing deeper than mindless commercialism. It would save me the pain of pinning my summer on the promise of "G.I. Joe: etc, etc, etc."

I shrugged my way into "Star Trek" this past week. My father was a Trekkie, so I grew up watching the original series on video cassette tapes. This was before the series was sold in collections, so the old man had to rip them from the TV the old fashioned way.

I can remember when I first watched the "Space Seed" episode with him. The old man seemed honored to introduce me to Khan Noonien Singh, the best and least understood of all the "Trek" villains who would return decades later in one of the best sequels of all time, "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (that damn semicolon again).

This was followed by "Star Trek: The Next Generation" which I watched in rerun on WGN Chicago throughout my middle school years. In some ways, "Next Generation" sharpened the ideas Gene Roddenberry built in the original series — inequality among races and alien tribes, the evils of corporate control of the universe, what makes us human, etc.

High school happened. I left "Trek" behind in the face of a string of terrible films that did little more than cheapen the original series. Sorry, but as much as I love Bill Shatner, the guy need not wear the badge of the Enterprise again. Ever.

Soon, Hollywood began mining Gen X nostalgia for profit in the late '90s and I was sucked into the "Star Wars" rehashes and ironic T-shirts bearing "He-Man" logos. I managed to set that aside quickly.

The dandruff of childhood is shed for a reason and in the past it should remain, lest we make some marketing vampire in New York City more money than he deserves.

That said, "Star Trek" was a pleasant surprise and a reminder to the George Lucases of the world that you can revisit myths without ravaging them for profit.

Sure, "Star Trek" made a mountain of cash this past weekend, but the deft storytelling, solid acting and sympathetic villain proved director JJ Abrams truly cared about the product.

Abrams acknowledged the needs of hard-core Trekkies early in the film, but through a shocking plot development midway through, was able to explore an alternate vision of these characters people have grown to love and make them relevant again.

Are all Trekkies happy with the end result? Of course not. But they don't really matter, anyway. Just watch the amazing eponymous documentary about Trekkies. It's safe to say we can write most of these people off as insane and move on.

The problem with the Lucas approach to Gen X mythology is that he assumed we would blindly follow him anywhere, even if it meant slapping together boring characters, presenting actors that can't, you know, act (with the sole exception of Ewan McGregor) and staging ridiculously convoluted set pieces to sell video games.

Abrams, who no doubt spent his teenage years living and dying by the machinations of Darth Vader and gang, snatched the crown from Lucas' graying head and set a different course toward the stars.

I might even forgive him for writing "Armageddon" when it's all said and done.

Mmm ... maybe not. My goodwill has its limits.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.