J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted by J on February 16, 2011

A professor of ours once declared that there was only one good science fiction work.  Everything else in the genre, he claimed, was simplistic and soon would be outdated, if it wasn’t already.  For science fiction is about ideas and tech, not humans, which is what great literature has to be about.  In science fiction, all characters are one-dimensional. They act in the plot according to their two or three major character traits, and they tend not to exhibit complexity.

We preface this short essay about the first Star Trek movie with this caution about science fiction because Star Trek, as everyone knows, makes little effort to portray human complexities.  Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are who they are, always. Yes, Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan, but he is merely a simplistic symbol of the clash between logic and emotion.  These characters have amazing adventures, encounter new places, and maintain their friendship.  Their beloved status is accorded to them by viewers and fans, who feel a sense of comfort in any story they inhabit.

But, like we were trying to say, they’re not rich, complex characters. Star Trek is about the adventure and the ideas behind the Enterprise’s encounters with new aliens and planets. The franchise, like this first movie, tends to rip off of Western “classics.”  Here, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a major influence. In the second Star Trek movie, Moby-Dick is employed.

The first Star Trek movie, this one, might be the best, which isn’t saying much. Its flaws are numerous. It is badly dated, for one.  The tech might’ve looked fascinating in 1979, but it shows limited imagination today.  Like those really small viewer screens, for example. Wouldn’t they be larger, crisper, and three-dimensional today? But again, in science fiction, the wonders of tech soon become outdated jokes.

The idea behind this first movie is that human technology can develop its own consciousness, which is not all that interesting an idea anymore.  The big secret here is that the NASA probe Voyager has become a living organism.  It emits a massive cloud that destroys everything, and the big problem is that this cloud is heading for Earth. The Enterprise is the only ship that has a chance of stopping it.  So Kirk, Spock, and friends, try to stop the cloud.

That’s about it for the plot. It should be said that Voyager did not develop consciousness on its own, but that some bizarre race of machines way beyond the galaxy, or somewhere, took in Voyager and gave it consciousness.  We are supposed to be overawed with what Voyager has become. It is massive and powerful, according to the crew. It tries to communicate with the crew via a human-like probe, after taking one of the ship’s crew and using her body as the probe.  This idea, that we can communicate fairly easily with the unknown, is silly. The hope of easy communication fuels SETI’s futile search for the alien life, but the novels of Stanislaw Lem offer cautionary wisdom about the impossibility of communicating with something so completely different than us.  (Lem, of course, uses science fiction to discuss complex human issues.)

Despite Voyager’s superior intelligence and technology, it is a moron. It couldn’t, for example, figure out who the “Creator” is.  The Creator is NASA, but Voyager thinks that “carbon-based units” are too simplistic to create anything. Voyager has traveled through the galaxy, it has unimaginable quantities of data, it has incredible reasoning capability, and yet it can’t figure out that humans are capable of building machines?

But the worst howler is that Voyager thinks its name is “V-ger.”  That because it didn’t blow the dust off the letters “O – Y – A.”  When Kirk and company finally see “V-ger,” they realize that its name is actually Voyager, only that those three crucial letters can’t be seen.

It has to be said that Star Trek is always filled with unintentional comedy like this, so it makes for decent, light, nonsensical entertainment for those like us who have a soft spot for science fiction. There’s a sense in which this movie is one of the most boring of all Star Trek stories, but we kind of like its attempt at grandiosity and the involvement of the Voyager probe. Other Trek fare features human-like aliens, and thus dives into sociology and politics. But Trek is at its limited best when its about grand ideas about tech, so, in a sense, this is possibly the best movie of the series.

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2 Responses to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”

  1. Chad said

    So what was the one good science fiction work?

    • J said

      Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. I don’t necessarily endorse that comment about only one good sci-fi work, though lists on the Internet of the greatest sci-fi books are a wasteland. Lem’s Solaris and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz are very good.

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