Posted by David Kalat on June 30, 2012
I always look forward to Greg Ferrara’s weekly posts; I find myself nodding my head as I read, as if I was at a concert that got into a really rocking groove. Sometimes as I read, I have to wistfully cross off a blog idea from my to-do list, since Greg got there first and did it better.
But this past week’s remarks on Star Trek the Motion Picture provoked a different reaction in me. I had intended to write about this film this summer, but from an entirely opposite point of view. The comments thread to Greg’s essay showed the obvious: a lot of people don’t like this movie. I won’t argue with you on the facts–yes, Star Trek the Motion Picture is slow, oddly pretentious, and has atrocious uniforms. But I will argue that what works about this movie depends on and derives from its alleged flaws (maybe not the uniforms, but the other stuff at least).
The comparison to 2001 is fairly apt but there is at least one crucial distinction. Kubricks’s 2001 had to build its fictional world from the ground up. Everything we know about the world of that movie is developed and conveyed within its running time. By contrast, Star Trek starts off with a fully developed fictional universe and premise that it could fairly expect to be at least passingly familiar to its audience. The overarching agenda of Wise’s Star Trek is to riff on that familiarity, to exploit it in various ways for dramatic effect.
Before I go any further I want to draw a distinction between plot and story. The two are not interchangeable synonyms. A plot is just the stuff that happens, the A-to-B sequence of events. A story is what it all means.
In the case of Star Trek the Motion Picture, the plot is pretty simple—you could probably burn through it in an hour or so. As has been noted already, it’s a remake of one of the TV show episodes, which got through the plot in 45 minutes, not counting commercials, in which a space probe develops sentience and returns in search of its maker. But the story of Star Trek is about the unmaking and remaking of its heroic team–about getting the band back together for one last big score.
The reason this film is so languidly paced is that the story needs to move slowly—the story isn’t about the mechanics of alien menace approaches Earth-Enterprise encounters it-Enterprise saves the day. The story is about humanity facing a humbling encounter with the unknown—and that requires time.
1. Let’s start with the opening sequence in which the Great Whatsit vaporizes some Klingon battleships. During the classic series, the Klingons and the Romulans served as analogues of the Cold War opponents Russia and China. Sure, on the bridge of the Enterprise, Western heroes worked happily alongside Russian and Asian comrades as if the contemporary tensions of the audience had magically vanished in the future, but the Universe simply swapped an Earth-scaled Cold War standoff for an interplanetary one.
Aside from the immediate Cold war parallels, though, the thing about the Klingons and the Romulans is that they were in equilibrium with the Federation. Week after week, Kirk & Co. could face weird gods and monsters and vanquish them in a single episode; but come the Klingons and it was always stalemate. Kirk could never defeat the Klingons—they remained a constant opponent, of equal power to the Federation.
So, to open the movie with the Klingons being zapped is a way of putting the audience on notice: the Klingons are the one thing the Federation can’t beat, and here comes something even worse.
2. The next thing the movie does is take the Federation out of play. Throughout the TV series, the Enterprise stood as the flagship of a vast empire whose military strength spread across worlds, and whose authority went unquestioned. Our heroes always had backup. But on this mission, it’s up to the Enterprise crew and that’s it. No Plan B.
3. Okey doke. Now it’s time to get to that famously interminable scene of staring at the Enterprise for what seems like half an hour.
I’d have been perfectly OK with this scene on its own merits—the special effects are quite impressive, especially in the context of when the film was made, and the music is one of the coolest film scores of all time, so you could justify this merely on surface pleasures alone. But there’s something else this sequence is doing.
For one thing, it is anticipating the middle part of the film, where we will see the Enterprise exploring the contours of a massive spaceship the way Kirk’s pod explores the Enterprise here. Or anticipating the finale, in how it treats inanimate machines as actual characters.
But mainly, it’s giving the Enterprise, and by extension her crew, a loving, almost fetishistic “hero” moment, indulging in all the iconic power that this beloved TV show has built up—all in advance of tearing it all down. Because right after this sequence, the movie is going to commit to ripping the rug out from under all this hero worship. To understand how messy this is all getting, how grim this mission is, we have to have some context to compare it against. And thus, the emphasis on iconography.
Simply having an alien menace that can whallomp the Klingons, and having the Federation enfeebled, doesn’t set the stakes high enough. Because this is still the kind of situation that was the TV show’s weekly bread and butter for over ten years. I don’t care that the series only ran for three seasons of original episodes—it thrived in syndication, its audience snowballing with time, fan clubs growing from cultish outsiders to mainstream insiders. Star Trek The Motion Picture was a big-budget tentpole movie marketed to a mass audience. And that audience came with the knowledge that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy routinely faced impossible odds and came out on top.
To set this story aside as something bigger and more substantial than a TV episode, the stakes are set much higher—and to that end, the fundamental setup of Star Trek is about to be destabilized. And in order to do that, the film first reminds us of what it plans to take away.
4. Things go bad fast once Kirk boards the Enterprise. Let us count the ways.
a. The ship is staffed by inexperienced kids and the actual machinery isn’t fully installed and operational yet. Stick a mental pin in this—we’ll come back to it.
b. The equipment isn’t working correctly. The transporter malfunction scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid—and I swore that I had actually seen the malformed bodies that emerged from the disaster. It was so horrifying, my own imagination got burned into my head along with the actual images.
Throughout the classic series, the transporter was a narrative convenience to keep the story zipping along – it was rarely considered as a plot point in itself. So to have this gimmick be presented first in such a serious and disarming way, and then to be removed from the arsenal of the characters altogether, sets a worrying tone for what is to come.
c. There are way too many people on board. The setup is supposed to be Kirk-Spock-McCoy. That’s three leads—the other beloved characters make nice supporting characters but we expect our three Jungian archetypes made flesh to take center stage and save the day. But there’s an extra character in Decker, throwing the equation out of whack. He challenges Kirk’s authority—and he’s right when he does so! It’s upsetting.
And then there’s Ilea, whose position as a crew member would seem to put her on the same status as supporting players Checkov, Sulu, or Uhuru, but who seems to be positioned in a place of narrative priority above them. It’s like watching someone younger and more junior than you get promoted ahead of you–who’s this upstart? What happened to the character dynamics I was expecting? (And mind you, I consider these strengths of the movie, not critiques–the disorienting effect of defying audience expectations is key to making the V’Ger menace sufficiently epic in scale).
d. There aren’t enough people on board. The setup is supposed to be Kirk-Spock-McCoy. But Spock isn’t here, and when he does show up he’s out of synch with everyone else and seemingly following his own agenda. His alien nature is supposed to be off-putting, but he is written (and played by Nimoy) even more out of place than usual. Taken together with point C above, we have this dilemma: the paradigm is Kirk-Spock-McCoy save the world. But we don’t have Kirk-Spock-McCoy, we have Decker vs. Kirk with McCoy and sort of Spock, maybe. The recipe is off.
And this takes us into the longest stretch of slow-paced inaction, as the Enterprise makes its way slowly through the V’ger cloud without any clear purpose or plan. I’d defend the majestic imagery and the glorious soundtrack again, but I said what I had to say on that count above, so I’ll continue in another vein instead.
Strictly from a plot standpoint, there’s next to nothing here—once they enter the cloud, the next important thing that happens is that they discover what V’ger is and save everybody. But what makes that discovery interesting and dramatic is how desperate Kirk gets, trying to buy time when he has no idea what to do. He gets backed against a wall and improvises—and that desperation feels more powerful when we feel time the same way he does. He’s had a lot of time to get ready—this movie goes on forever—and he didn’t use that time well. He gets to the very end, with mere minutes left before oblivion, without coming up with a plan of action. We have to feel the clock run out with him.
Which then sets up that bizarre epiphany as they step into V’ger’s heart and see the rusty old probe, a museum piece, and have it all fall into place. In the end, Kirk answers a film’s worth of existential angst by avoiding the question of “what is the meaning of life” altogether and just playing a few lines of computer code over an old timey radio line.
Well, that and Decker’s bodily sacrifice, of course. This movie takes its existential anxiety seriously, even if Kirk doesn’t. True to the progressive spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s vision, the film adheres to the idea that the universe is a massive wondrous place beyond our understanding but not necessarily hostile.
You could spin through the narrative beats of this film pretty swiftly—not much actually happens, per se. But the ending depends on a sense of humility—a sense that the heroes can’t be expected to have every answer to every problem at ready access, that some problems take a while to grasp.
One of my pet peeves is science fiction films in which the characters encounter unprecedented crises—aliens, natural disasters, unique scientific phenomena—and yet immediately know what to do. Here, the very best the Federation have to offer face down a problem they only just barely manage to suss out, at the eleventh hour.
Mind you, I don’t think every Star Trek film ought to follow this pattern–in fact, I think doing it once is enough. But while Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan is a vastly more satisfying and entertaining thing to watch, it definitely trades down from a “universe is big and hard to understand” concept to one of “Kirk & Co. fight a bad guy.” Something worthwhile is lost in that trade.
Interestingly, the Star Trek reboot also uses the familiar icons of Star Trek to establish and then undermine audience expectations. The Enterprise is staffed with inexperienced youngsters and sent out into a mission for which it is poorly equipped (see 4.a above–I said I’d come back to it), and pointedly denies the audience the desired (and inevitable) Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate until the end. And these self-conscious refusals to conform to expectations, while exploiting all the iconic imagery necessary to continue invoking those expectations, is the same agenda that enervated Robert Wise’s film. Where the two diverge is that for all the epic time-travel looniness of J.J. Abrams’ version, it feels smaller—tighter, zippier, more thrilling, yes, but psychologically smaller. The horizon of Wise’s film is limitless.
And that’s what I meant about the difference between plot and story—the plot concerns V’ger’s return to Earth, the story concerns sentient life’s humility in the face of the unknown. One takes next to no time to explain, the other benefits from as much time as the film can allot.
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