Thursday, May 21, 2009

The incredible shrinking God


This week, they found the missing link.

The missing link has long been a major problem with the theory of evolution. Darwin himself acknowledged that fossil evidence of transitional forms between species had not been found, but assumed they would be, in time. However, while many have been found, many others have not. Biologists have proposed a number of solutions, one of the most promising being “punctuated equilibrium”, in which a species stays rather static for a long time and then undergoes rapid evolution in a relatively brief time in response to dramatic environmental changes.

Religious fundamentalists have long pointed to these gaps as evidence that evolution is untrue. But science & Torah reconciliators (or their corresponding thinkers in other religions) have been more than happy to see God in the missing places. This is sometimes referred to as the “God of the gaps” concept. Where science can’t explain something, that is evidence for God.

I’ve never been happy with inserting God as an explanation where science falls short. That’s not to say that I don’t see God’s hand behind all of creation and its infinite complexity. But I don’t feel the need to glean “proof” for God’s existence from those presently inexplicable scientific gaps. Emunah shouldn’t need science to back it up. Emunah shouldn’t be empirical – it’s belief on a spiritual, intangible plane. And when empiricism is mixed with spirituality, both suffer.

But it’s more than that. With the “God of the gaps” concept, God’s existence is made susceptible to the progress of science. What happens when science fills one of those gaps? God is immediately less remarkable, less all-powerful.

That’s precisely what happened this week, when scientists announced they had found the missing link that “bridges the evolutionary split between higher primates such as monkeys, apes, and humans and their more distant relatives such as lemurs” in a 47 million year old fossil nicknamed “Ida”. With that discovery, it’s yet another weakening of the argument that we could not have evolved naturally from apes.

So for all those science & Torah reconciliators who insist on seeing God in every nook & cranny of science, I ask, doesn’t this diminish God? Doesn’t this make Him smaller and less significant? What happens when science explains everything? Will you discard God as yesterday’s news?

As for me, my faith will remain strong, because I never saw Hashem in the questions of science. He just is.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A very Charedi Lag Ba-Omer


I am firmly left-wing Modern Orthodox, with Conservative tendencies. And since I left NY a few years ago, I haven't really been to any Charedi events at all. But tonight I found myself in NY on business, staying in Brooklyn. And there was a big Lag Ba-Omer celebration going on outside on the next block, cordoned off by the police. So I decided to go.

I think there's been enough time and distance that I didn't feel the need to mentally criticize the Charedi community for things I don't agree with at such a benign event. So I just decided to go in Anthropologist's mode and enjoy. And I did. I think I was the only kipa sruga in a sea of black.

It was a little startling to me to hear them announce, in the middle of the singing and dancing:

"We respectfully request that all women get onto the sidewalk so the men can continue dancing around the fire"

Yes, it's not my style, and I have objections in principle to the marginalization of women, but hey, nobody there seemed to mind, and everyone was having a good time. And it's not my community anymore. I don't really belong to the same denomination anymore ("Orthodox" encompasses way too wide a range.) So I decided for tonight to just see it as quaint and I put aside my issues and danced.

Chag Sameach.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek movie review


OK, this review is full of spoilers.

This was a great movie. Excitement, special effects, great dialogue, great characters, some good humor. Great, that is, if you’ve never heard of Star Trek before. But if you’re a long time fan, as I am, it’s hard to separate the Star Trek universe from the bright & shiny new movie.

ALERT: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

Since I’m assuming that the only people reading past the spoiler alert are people who have already seen the movie, I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining the setup. This is just my reaction to the movie we’ve both seen already.

Casting: Supporting characters: excellent!

Each of them brought a newness to the role, and didn’t copy the original actors, but still channeled the essence of the characters we’ve come to love.

Special mention goes to Karl Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty. Both were pitch perfect in their roles from the moment of their first appearance onscreen. Anton Yelchin as Chekov was one note, played mostly for his humorous earnestness, but that one note was hit perfectly.

John Cho, as Sulu, didn’t really evoke George Takei much other than his enthusiasm, but he fit into the cast well and had some great action scenes. Zoe Saldana didn’t even try to be another Nichelle Nichols. And why should she? In the original Trek, Uhura was docile and was just a glorified telephone operator. But they wanted to update the role and bravo for trying. So why, after a good start, did they relegate her to the role of Spock’s arm candy?

I was a little disappointed in Zachary Quinto as Spock. He’s a decent actor and played the numerous scenes he was given fairly well, but couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Sylar, from Heroes, was hiding behind that calm expression.

And Chris Pine as Kirk? Well, no one could ever fill William Shatner’s hammy shoes, and no one should even try. But as a fan of original Trek, it was hard to see anyone else in the role. Plus he seemed too young.

The special effects and action sequences were amazing! If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

Now, what was up with the relationship between Spock & Uhura? I guess I could swallow it, but there was one big “huh???” moment when watching the movie. I just don’t see that it added anything. And, as I mentioned above, it sidelined Uhura into a man’s woman. And there were no other women, unless you count the sexy green girl Kirk was in bed with early in the film (nice touch!) But why couldn’t they have nurse Chapel? Or Yeoman Rand?

The story was pretty good, with one big problem that I’ll get to in a moment. But the scene changes between comedy and intense, emotionally fraught action, were a little abrupt. Considering the seriousness of what was going on, I couldn’t really enjoy Scotty materializing inside the water tubes as much as I would have otherwise. Speaking of those water tubes, it reminded me of the scene in Galaxy Quest, where Sigourney Weaver complains loudly about the smashing hammers they have to jump through, saying: “What is this thing!? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway! No, I mean we shouldn't have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here!?” and Tim Allen answers “Cause it's on the television show”

Nero was a pretty good villain, albeit one dimensional. But his desire for revenge on Spock seemed somewhat arbitrary. Yes, sometimes things happen that way, but given the lengthy exposition of the origins of Spock & Kirk, you’d think they could spend a few minutes making Nero’s lust for revenge a little more plausible.

There were some major illogical leaps, like old Spock standing on a planet and seeing Vulcan be destroyed. How close was that planet to Vulcan, so that Vulcan would be several times the size of our moon as seen from Earth? It seems like the science was very weak. The movie just assumes that an audience coming to see a sci-fi movie would expect there to be a time portal inside a black hole, so doesn’t bother to explain. And that something labeled “red matter” can collapse a planet. Again, no explanation of what “red matter” is. The science on original Trek was pretty flimsy too, but at least they made up some silly dialogue to explain it. On the other hand, the audiences today have seen enough sci-fi to fill in the blanks, so maybe this isn’t such a big deal. So I’ll go ahead to my biggest issue of the movie.

VULCAN IS DESTROYED! AND ISN’T RESTORED!

There’s a scene where Spock is explaining to the bridge officers that since Nero changed the past, what Nero experienced is no longer relevant and the future belongs to whatever they do. They are not beholden to what others may know about the future. That was directed straight at the audience. So we are told by JJ Abrams; “Hey, we can do what we want. We’re not beholden to what you fans think you know about the Star Trek universe.”

Still. Destroying Vulcan? Vulcan is so much a part of the world of the federation. As some other reviewer I saw online pointed out, it’s not like Aalderan in Star Wars, a planet with no real emotional resonance to the viewers. But Vulcan? Leaving the surviving Vulcans an endangered species? How can you have Star Trek without Vulcan in it?

This is more than just sentimental. It affected my viewing experience of the movie deeply. First of all, after such an emotionally wrenching and apocalyptic event, it was hard to enjoy the humorous scenes. But more than that, from that point on, I was assuming, or at least deeply hoping, that time would be reversed and Vulcan would be restored. So in those climactic scenes near the end, where the Enterprise is being pulled into the black hole, I was rooting against them! I was hoping that they would be destroyed, and all of the red matter’s destruction would set the timeline to back to the way it was supposed to be. Ditto for the scene just before that, with Spock’s taking the ship with the red matter on a collision course with the (bizarre looking) Romulan vessel. So when the Enterprise finally emerged from what I presume was supposed to be the event horizon of the black hole (never mind the scientific inaccuracy of that), my heart fell, obviously the opposite feeling than what the moviemakers intended.

Maybe the next movie will be subtitled “The Search For Vulcan”. Hey, they brought back Spock from the dead. Maybe they can bring back his whole planet!


Old Haloscan comments

WARNING-MORE SPOILERS

Wow. You were way more generous in your review than I ever would have been! I thought that this movie was to Star Trek as porn is to sex. No plot, cheesy dialogue, and just gratuitous images of starships and phaser fire.

I agree with you that the movie was well-cast, though. I especially liked Zachary Quinto as Spock. I was really disappointed with Leonard Nimoy's performance- and that's a problem! In the movies and in Next Gen, Spock was played with real gravitas and wisdom. Here, he was played as flatly as a computer-game character, devoid of passion, and there only for the sake of showing the audience that the torch of Trek-making has been passed from the original cast to the new one. Nimoy's flat and sugary performance, of course, was in no way his own fault; we all know what a powerful actor he normally is. But he was simply given nothing to work with!

You feel that Kirk and Spock's origins were both given a great deal of exposition. I disagree. Spock was handled well enough, but Kirk? Okay, fine. It's completely believable that he would have been a young, impulsive, reckless, horny, insubordinate frat-boy as a cadet. He was even fun to watch, even if he was a stock character seen in almost every movie that has a young action hero or soldier protagonist.

But there was no explanation as to why he would have joined Starfleet. Captain Pike, whom he had never met, ave him one pep-talk and then he's off to San Francisco! What about feelings of abandonment by his dead father? Survivor's guilt? Hatred of Starfleet for having taken his dad away? Give him something to wrestle with and overcome to make him join the fleet! That's basic storytelling sense! No drama, no story! Without all that, what difference does it make to the story that he grew up fatherless?

And like you said, Uhura and Spock... what the hell?? It's bad enough to a Trek fan who knows how seriously out of character that is for Spock. But even in the context of this movie, for Spock, a full commander and instructor at the academy, and a stickler for rules and discipline, to have a relationship with one of his cadets.... Huh!?? Bad storytelling.

And as you said, Nero was a character with no development and no motive. So his planet was destroyed when a star (not the Romulan sun...?) went nova, Spock couldn't stop it in time (would Romulus do better to orbit a black hole and get sucked in than to get ripped apart by the explosion of its star?), so now Nero's blaming the Federation and Spock in particular? It doesn't make sense.

And if the fact that the whole plot had no motivation, what about the fact that Kirk, as an insubordinate cadet on probation, would be put in command of the Federation's flagship without going through the ranks and gaining some experience and maturity, and then have Spock who outranked him to hell and back be his first officer.... GIMME A BREAK!!!

That whole scene on Hoth the Ice Planet with the monster