If space is the final frontier, then it’s only a matter of time before we fill it with ourselves. Beautiful plasma vistas, stars and galaxies as far as the eye can see – one day it will all belong to us. All space will be home, and there will be nothing left to explore. We’ll have arrived back where we started, the same as we always were – carbon units that infest and ruin everything with our interstellar manifest destiny, just like we ruined Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The first film in the ongoing franchise about the exploration of space, Star Trek is disappointingly human-centric, especially for a movie that begins with a scene spoken entirely in a made up space language. Opening with a promising prologue that lodges the film in one of the more self-serious traditions of sci-fi, Star Trek starts off with high minded cosmic mayhem – three Klingon spaceships being disintegrated by a glowing cloud of unknowable cosmic death. The effects are beautiful, like a pulpy variation of what you’d find in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s paperback space opera cover art come to glorious life. Then the humans come and just fucking ruin it with their vulgarity and disregard for decorum.
You may have noticed that I used the term “Klingon spaceships” in the above paragraph. I know that’s not their name. But as a person who has never really cared about Star Trek enough to give the series a proper watch, I can’t tell you what those things are actually called. (Klingon Warbirds? War Hawks? Some sort of raptor-ish name?) In total, I have seen Star Trek: First Contact, the J.J. Abrams revival (just the first one), and the episode of Voyager where Kate Mulgrew adopts the Borg teens. I was a big fan of Reading Rainbow as a child so I had a Geordi La Forge action figure, but I played with it as a LeVar Burton action figure, which is to say that I don’t know a lot about Star Trek.
But I do know one thing for sure: Star Trek has a reputation for being smart, relatively plausible, and incredibly optimistic science fiction. That’s why I was so baffled by the film’s almost cynical narcissism. The series is about space exploration (right?), but the movie never manages to get out from in front of a mirror. Humans are crawling over every inch of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, including the primary plot about a hostile entity so foreign to us that we can’t even comprehend it. Having said that, I was able to appreciate the film once I let go of my expectations. I thought Star Trek was supposed to be a cold science fiction adventure, but the product onscreen has much more human imperfection, and in its own way that’s just as entertaining.
The main plot kicks off when Admiral Kirk, having ascended from his more iconic rank before his introduction in the film, returns to his old ship and assigns himself command of the USS Enterprise. His mission is to investigate the malicious glowy cloud and prevent it from destroying planet Earth. The rest of the film is a straight line to the massive entity while members of the crew count down the hours they have left until Earth’s destruction. The effect of the auditory clock is twofold: it underlines how long Star Trek: TMP feels for a film with such a simple story, and it forces you to realize that there’s really nothing else to said story other than the mission to address Earth’s bad cloud problem.
There is no internal conflict in the first Star Trek film, unless you count Kirk’s maniacal quest to return everything to the status quo of the TV series. The fetishization the original franchise is best illustrated by watching the tragic journey of Decker, the Enterprise’s new commander, as he travels from demotion to demotion so that Kirk and Spock can have their old jobs back. By the end, all Decker has left is an emotional impetus to join his lifeforce and consciousness to the intelligence at the core of the cloud trying destroy our planet. Kirk calls it ascension, but only after correcting himself on a technicality. It’s not death as we know it, but make no mistake, Decker killed himself and it’s mostly Kirk’s fault.
Despite my qualms, reinstating the old guard and giving iconic characters the cinematic treatment does have a spiritual effect, even on the uninitiated. The introduction of the Enterprise, as Kirk and Scotty behold it from a space shuttle, is so glorious that I choked up. The enterprise is a symbol of all humanity’s best qualities, and it’s presented as such.
However, Star Trek: The Motion Picture also shows our clumsy side. When Kirk first enters the Enterprise, it’s a chaotic scene, with technicians in onesies crawling all over the ship’s interior, and there are some beautiful visual effects depicting the majesty of the spacecraft and breathtaking interstellar phenomena. The problem is that they’re mixed with little space-apes that simultaneously give everything a sense of scale and totally ruin the moment in some of the most well intentioned bits of accidental visual comedy. Sci-fi is one of those genres in which directors can get away with extremely long sequences of slow moving geometry set to music. If it weren’t for the little humanoids, the effects would pass today as wonderful and inspiring. At its best, Star Trek TMP does that, but the accomplishments are short lived, quickly undercut by a little guy floating into frame doing a somersault or otherwise making it all about him.
The film’s heavy anthropocentrism should have generated some intriguing existential conflict once the Enterprise and its crew made contact with the unknown entity in the center of the space cloud. Sadly, TMP’s obsession with humanity found its way to the core of the extraterrestrial death vapour, which it turns out is just the Voyager 6 space probe. Centuries ago, it flew through a black hole, learned everything there is to know, and returned home to meet its creator after achieving a terrible sort of infantile sentience. It’s a very fun idea, brimming with potential, but it’s a disappointing twist for the final act of the film. We’re left with a two-hour carpool that ends with our space pilgrims within view of the place they started, trying to reason with a machine their ancestors built on Terran soil. I came to Star Trek expecting to face frontiers, but the movie feels anchored to the only planet I’ve ever known.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture ends with a title card that reads “The human adventure is just beginning.” In another film, probably even another Star Trek film, such a statement might come off as inspiring. But the irony is too much in the context of the movie’s ending, which sees poor Decker with nothing left to live for and a nostalgic Kirk back in his favourite space chair, conveniently having forgotten to ask the omniscient Voyager any important questions.
Then again, that irony is also what makes the movie worth watching decades after it first appeared on big screens with its misguided vision of human hope. And in all honesty, I do recommend it, if for nothing else than its sublime visual effects and to witness an important pop culture milestone. The goofy humanity linking together genuinely inspiring images of objects floating in space, and the occasional tantalizing tidbit of speculative science, grounds the film in the aesthetic absurdity of deeply flawed carbon units interacting with beautiful things. Perhaps the point of space exploration isn’t the pursuit of knowledge or inter-species diplomacy. Maybe it’s to find our right place, in our favorite spaceship, with our best friends all wearing cool t-shirts at work, as we look at pretty things and reflect on our accomplishments.
TIFF’s 50 Years of Star Trek programme runs from September 24 – December 30, 2016 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox
See Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 35mm (with an introduction by visual effects master Douglas Trumbull) on Friday, September 30 @ 6:30 pm and again on Tuesday, November 1 @ 9:15 pm
Find out more about TIFF’s 50 Years of Star Trek celebrations here.