Friday, May 01, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Jaws (1975)


"Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks. And that's all. Now, why don't you take a long, close look at this sign...those proportions are correct."

-Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) describes the nature of the enemy to a wavering politician in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975).


I was in kindergarten in 1975, and I'll never forget that one of my best friends came to school that Halloween costumed as the great white shark from Jaws (1975).
I don't remember what I was wearing for the holiday, but I remember that shark costume plain as day.

Jaws was also a subject of discussion at Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house in Verona, N.J., that year, especially with my aunt Vivian (a horror movie devotee...). I even owned a goofy little Jaws-themed paperback joke book (dopey shark joke after dopey shark joke...) and a Jaws game from Ideal (in which you could fish the blue plastic contents out of the great white shark's stomach before his fanged jaws snapped shut on your hand.)


As someone who lived through that time and soaked it all up, I can tell you with certainty that the Steven Spielberg film represented an absolute national sensation from the movie theaters to book stores, to toy shelves, to playgrounds. My parents didn't let me see the movie at that point (a good thing, I estimate...), but many of my friends in kindergarten did see it (and heck, it was rated PG!).

Jaws was a blockbuster in 1975, all right (actually, it supplanted The Exorcist as the highest grossing film of all time...), but it's also a movie that has survived the test of time. Today, you can find Jaws on AFI's list of the greatest American films in history, for instance. It has been termed "culturally significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry. Spielberg's horror epic even swims in the waters of the top 250 movies at the IMDB. In terms of the pop culture, Jaws has inspired sequels, rip-offs, amusement park rides, video games, and heavily influenced the public's perception of sharks.

Amazingly, Jaws remains as potent and frightening a film today -- some thirty-four years after its theatrical release -- and accordingly, I want to look at some of the reasons why the film remains so scary and so effective. But first, a brief refresher on the film's narrative.

Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws depicts the story of a small island community, a "summer town" called Amity, as it is bedeviled by the arrival of a rogue great white shark in its silver waters. Under pressure from the concerned town elders because the lucrative July 4th weekend is imperiled, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) covers-up the first shark attack and allows Amity's beaches to remain open.

After a second shark attack claims the life of a child, Alex Kintner, Brody faces the animosity of the very citizens he is sworn to protect. Eventually, Brody, a young marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a colorful local fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) team up aboard the ship Orca to battle the shark at sea. Unfortunately for these heroic men, the great white shark proves resourceful, powerful, smart...and committed to their destruction.


And What Did you Say The Name of This Shark Is?
Jaws derives much of its terror from what you might half-jokingly term "information overload." Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap (and the viewer's imagination) with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about the "monster" washes over us. It's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of our learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability, to their impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

The information about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud, into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and thought to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk (after delivering the Hiroshima bomb), and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."
This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared and it feels frightened almost reflexively. Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one who fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. A smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say this is over-reach, a far-fetched notion if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws.

It Was Only Local Jurisdiction


President Nixon resigned from the White House on August 9, 1974...scarcely a year before the release of Jaws.

He did so because he faced Impeachment and removal from office in the Watergate scandal, a benign-sounding umbrella for a plethora of crimes that included breaking-and-entering, political espionage, illegal wire-tapping, and money laundering.

It was clear to the American people, who had watched the Watergate hearings and investigations on television for years, that Nixon and his lackeys had broken the law, to the detriment of the public covenant. It was a breach of the sacred trust, and a collapse of one pillar of American nationalism: faith in government.

In the small town of Amity in Jaws, the Watergate scandal is played out in microcosm. Chief Brody conspires with the town medical examiner, at the behest of Larry Vaughn, the mayor, to "hide" the truth about the shark attack that claimed the life of young Chrissie. Another child dies because of this lie. We are thus treated to scenes of Brody and the town officials hounded by the press (represented by Peter Benchley...), much as Nixon felt hounded by Woodward and Bernstein and the rest. We are thus treating to a town council meeting which plays like a congressional Watergate hearing writ small, with a row of politicians at a long time before an angry crowd, the man in charge banging the gavel helplessly.

These were images that had immediate and powerful resonance at the time of Jaws.
If you combine the "keep the beaches open" conspiracy with the Indianapolis story (a story, essentially, of an impotent, abandoned military) what you get in Jaws is a story about America's 1970s "crisis of confidence," to adopt a phrase from ex-president Jimmy Carter.

Following Watergate, following Vietnam, there was no faith in elected leaders, and Jaws mirrors that reality with an unforgiving depiction of craven politicians and bureaucrats. The cure is also provided, however: the heroism of the individual; the old legend of the cowboy who rides into town and seeks justice. Brody is clearly that figure here: an outsider in the corrupt town of Amity (he's from the NYPD); and the man who rides out onto the sea to face Amity's enemy head on, despite his own fear of the sea and "drowning." Yes Brody was involved in the cover-up, but Americans don't like their heroes too neat. Brody must have a little blood on his hands so that his story of heroism is also one of redemption.

Why is Jaws so enduring and appealing? Simple answer: it's positively archetypal in its presentation of both the monster -- a sea-going dragon ascribed supernatural power -- and it's hero: an everyman who challenges city hall and saves the townsfolk. This hero is ably supported by energetic youth and up-to-date science (Hooper), and also wisdom and experience in the form of the veteran Quint. Not coincidentally, many of the political problems that Jaws deals with (a lost war; a presidential scandal) are things we still see on our landscape today. A president who broke the Geneva Conventions. Another foreign war botched. An economy seemingly hanging on by a thread. In fact, Jaws seems pretty much of the moment, if you take out the 1970s fashions.

You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

You can't truly have an adequate discussion of Jaws without some mention of film technique. The film's first scene exemplifies Spielberg's intelligent, visual approach to the thrilling material.

This introduction to the world of Jaws -- which features a teenager going out for a swim in the ocean and getting the surprise of her life - proves pitch perfect both in orchestration and effect. Hyperbole aside, can you think of a better (or more famous) horror movie prologue than the one featured here?

The film begins under the sea as Spielberg's camera adopts the P.O.V. of the shark itself. We cling to the bottom of the ocean, just skirting it as we move inland. Then, we cut to the beach, and a long, lackadaisical establishing pan across a typical teenage party. Young people are smoking weed, drinking, canoodling...doing what young people do on summer nights, and Spielberg's choice of shot captures that vibe.

When one of the group -- the blond-haired seventies goddess named Chrissie -- gets up to leave the bunch, Spielberg cuts abruptly to a high angle (from a few feet away); a view that we understand signifies doom and danger, and which serves to distance us just a little from the individuals on-screen.

With a horny (but drunk...) companion in tow, Chrissie rapidly disrobes for a night-time dip in the sea, and Spielberg cuts to an angle far below her, from the bottom of the ocean looking up. We see Chrissie's beautiful nude form cutting the surface above, and the first thing you might think of is another monster movie, Jack Arnold's Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). Remember how the creature there spied lovely Julie Adams in the water...even stopping to dance with her (without her knowledge) in the murky lagoon?

Well, that was an image, perhaps, out of a more romantic age. In this case, the swimmer is nude, not garbed, and contact with the monster is quick and fatal, not the beginning of any sort of "relationship." In a horrifying close-shot, we see Chrissie break the surface, as something unseen but immensely powerful tugs at her from below. Once. Then again. After an instant, you realize the shark is actually eating her...ripping through her legs and torso. She begs God for help, but as you might expect in the secular 1970s, there is no help for her.

The extremely unnerving aspect of Spielberg's execution is that recognition of the shark's attack dawns on the audience as the same time it dawns on Chrissie. She doesn't even realize a leg is gone, at first. It's horrifying, but -- in the best tradition of the genre -- this scene is also oddly beautiful. The gorgeous sea; the lovely human form. The night-time lighting.

Everything about this moment should be romantic and wonderful, but isn't. Again, you can detect how Spielberg is taking the malaise days mood of the nation to generate his aura of terror; his overturning of the traditional order. Just as our belief in ourselves as a "good" and powerful nation was overturned by Vietnam and Watergate.

The more puritanical or conservative among us will also recognize this inaugural scene of Jaws as being an early corollary of the "vice precedes slice and dice" dynamic of many a slasher or Friday the 13th film. A young couple, eager to have pre-marital sex (after smoking weed, no less...) faces a surprise "monster" in a foreign realm. Here not in the woods of Crystal Lake, but in a sea of secrets and monsters. It's also no coincidence, I believe, that the first victim in the film is a gorgeous, athletic blond with a perfect figure. Chrissie is the American Ideal of Beauty...torn asunder and devoured before the movie proper has even begun. If that image doesn't unsettle you, nothing will.

I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland; 2002), that, ultimately the characteristics that make a film great go far beyond any rudimentary combination of acting, photography, editing and music. It's a magic equation that some films get right and some don't. Jaws is a classic, I believe, because it educates the viewer about the central diabolical threat and then surprises the viewer by going a step further and hinting that the great white shark is no mere animal, but actually an ancient, malovelent force. The film also brilliantly reflects the issues of the age in which it was created. And finally, Jaws updates the archetypes of good and evil that generations of Americans have grown up recounting, even though it does so with a distinctly disco decade twist. The Hooper-Brody-Quint troika is iconic too, and I love the male-bonding aspects of the film, with "modern" men like Brody and Hooper learning, eventually, to fall in love, after a fashion, with the inappropriate, Quint...warts and all.

Finally, you should never underestimate that Jaws depends on imagination and mystery. It is set on the sea, a murky realm of the unknown where the shark boasts the home field davantage. Meanwhile, man is awkward and endangered there. We can't see the shark...but he can see us. With those black, devil eyes. When you suddenly realize that all that's standing between Brody and those black eyes and jaws is a thin layer of wood (the Orca); when you think about all the information we've been given about great whites and their deadly qualities, you'll agree reflexively - instinctively -- with the good chief's prognosis.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Think or Be Eaten: Millennium Season 2

The second part of my four part interview with Vyzygoth at Think or Be Beaten regarding the brilliant 1990s Chris Carter series Millennium, is now posted online.

This time, Vyz and I talk specifically about the changes in the series' second season, including the opening up of the stories, the additions to the Group's mythology, and the changes in characters from the first season. We look at some 1990s contexts informing episodes, specific episodes such as "Somehow Satan Got Me," and more. Take a listen here. Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


"Why is any object we don't understand always called a thing?"

- Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

As the Star Trek franchise prepares to re-invent itself with the premiere of J.J. Abrams' big budget Kirk and Spock "origin story" in just a few short weeks, it seems an appropriate time to remember the first big-budget re-invention of the durable science-fiction mythos. That expensive and highly-profitable film arrived in American movie theaters nearly thirty years ago, on December 7, 1979, and was titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]), Run Silent, Run Deep [1958], The Haunting [1963], Audrey Rose [1977]) and produced by TV series creator and "Great Bird of the Galaxy" Gene Roddenberry, this forty-five million dollar voyage of the starship Enterprise launched a film series that has endured a whopping three decades.

Despite proving a box-office bonanza and the father to ten cinematic successors of varying quality, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains today one of the most polarizing of the film series entries.

The received wisdom on the Robert Wise film is that it is dull, over-long, and entirely lacking in the sparkling character relationships and dimensions that made the 1960s series such a beloved success with fans worldwide.

It is likely you've heard all the derogatory titles for the film too, from The Motionless Picture, to Spockalypse Now, to Where Nomad Has Gone Before (a reference to the episode "The Changeling.")

Conventional wisdom, however, isn't always right. Among its many fine and enduring qualities, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is undeniably the most cinematic of the Trek movie series in scope and visualization.

And, on closer examination, the films features two very important elements that many critics insist it lacks: a deliberate, symbolic character arc (particularly in the case of Mr. Spock) and a valuable commentary on the co-existence/symbiosis of man with his technology.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture also re-invents the visual texture of the franchise, fully and authoritatively, transforming what Roddenberry himself once derided as "the Des Moines Holiday Inn" look of the sixties TV series for a post-Space:1999, post-Star Wars world.

The central narrative of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is clever and fascinating (and, as some may rightly insist, highly reminiscent of various episodes of the TV series). Sometime in the 23rd century, a massive, mysterious space cloud passes through the boundaries of Klingon territory and destroys three battlecruisers while assuming a direct heading to Earth.

The only starship within interception range is the U.S.S. Enterprise, a Constitution class starship just completing an eighteen month re-fit and re-design. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Chief of Starfleet Operations, pulls strings and calls in favors to be re-assigned as captain of the Enterprise, arrogantly displacing the young, "untried" Captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins).

After departure from dry dock, the Enterprise faces severe engine design difficulties of near-catastrophic proportion, but the timely arrival of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) resolves the problem. In the intervening years since the series, however, the inscrutable Spock has become even more stoic and unemotional, having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in the Vulcan ritual called Kolinahr.

Upon intercepting the vast space cloud, known also as "the intruder," the Enterprise crew learns, following a series of clues, that the colossal space vessel sheathed within the cloud/power-field is actually an artificial intelligence, a living machine called V'ger. And at the "heart" of V'Ger is a NASA Voyager probe from the 20th century -- re-purposed by an advanced society of living machines on the other side of the galaxy -- sent back to Earth to find God, it's "Creator." In V'ger's quest to touch the Divine, Kirk, Spock and Decker each find personal enlightenment, resolving their personal dilemmas and also saving Earth from destruction.

All Our Scans Are Being Reflected Back...
The creative team of producer Gene Roddenberry (1921 - 1991) and director Robert Wise (1914 - 2005) consisted of two individuals who had very distinct philosophical views about technology, and the destination technology was driving mankind.

In Roddenberry's case, we must countenance his progressive concept of "Technology Unchained," the notion of technology becoming both beautiful (rather than clunky and mechanical...) and benign.

Man's machines, Roddenberry believed, would come to serve all the needs of the species, thus freeing humanity from the age-old dilemmas of poverty, dwindling resources, racial prejudice, hunger, territorial gain and war. This was an optimistic vision of man and machine in harmony, one given even fuller voice almost a decade later in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).

By contrast, Robert Wise directed the technological thriller, The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on the best-selling Michael Crichton (1942-2008) novel about an alien organism (or germ...) threatening all human life on Earth. Wi
se once stated that The Andromeda Strain concerned "the first crisis of the space age," a descriptor which permits us to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a further meditation on a similar theme, only representing a (much) later planetary crisis, only in the 23rd century.

Wise also stated that technology, particularly that on hand in the subterranean Wildfire Laboratory, was the "star" of The Andromeda Strain.

In keeping with that motif, The Andromeda Strain's opening credits consisted of a space-age montage of technological symbols, from blueprints to graphs, to top secret communiques. Think of it as Dot Matrix as Jackson Pollock.

In the same vein, the characters in the film spoke in protean techno-babble on arcane subjects such as "Nutrient 24-5," "Red Kappa Phoenix Status," the "Odd Man Hypothesis," "Sterile Conveyor Systems" and the like. In all, Wise's 1970s sci-fi film represented a dedicated documentary-style approach, one that never easily accommodated a "lay" audience. Instead, you felt you were actually inside that underground complex alongside the Wildfire team.

Most uniquely, however, the The Andromeda Strain's climax concerned the pitfalls of technology: a teletype/printer experienced an unnoticed paper jam at a very inopportune moment. Some critics and film scholars have interpreted this malfunction as Wise's explicit warning about relying too heavily on technology, but the opposite was true. Had the pri
nter worked as planned, one of the scientists would have transmitted orders for a nuclear bomb detonation at an infected site, a course of action that would have catalyzed and spread the Andromeda germ.

The machine's paper jam gave the flawed human being time to learn more, and re-consider the course of action. Given this analysis, one can detect that Wise was, perhaps, agnostic on the subject of man and technology, seeing both how it could prove a great tool, but also a great danger.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture serves, in several ways, as an unofficial "sequel" or heir to Wise's Andromeda Strain in terms of both approach and philosophy. Of all the Star Trek films, The Motion Picture is the only series installment to feature so many lingering insert shots of technological read-outs and schematics. For example we see a medical visualization of the Ilia Probe's physiology, a representation of "a simple binary code" (radio waves), "photic-sonar readings"(!) and several tacticals revealing Enterprise's approach and entrance into the cloud.


These multitudinous close-ups of computer graphics and read-outs not only enhance the notion of Enterprise as working starship -- with several interfaces directly at our disposal (fostering the documentary feel), -- but go a long way towards establishing the vital link between technology and crew, a symbiosis, if you will.

A great deal of time is spent in the Motion Picture on views of the crew gazing through the Enterprise's "technological" eye or window on the universe, the view screen. In a film about the combining of man and machine into a "new life-form," these moments carry resonance and significance: they reveal man already traveling down that road to symbiosis, relying on technology as his eyes, ears and (in the case of the ship's computer...) key interpreter of data or external stimuli.

In Star Trek, the TV series, Spock often gazed into a hooded library computer and we were denied access to what data he saw recorded inside (save for the reflected blue illumination on his face). In later Treks, stellar cartography played a role, but the high-tech, colorful displays it produced for crew members were not filmed as inserts. In other words, we saw Picard and Data interpreting the data, and the data itself. It's important, I believe, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that the data read-outs and view screen images are primarily brought directly to our eyes without dramatis personae coming between projector and percipient. For one thing, we feel as though we're actually aboard a ship in space. For another, we're taking part in that symbiosis of man and machine, we're interpreting the runes ourselves.

The underlying philosophy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems to consist of an admonition that man and machine work best together integrated, not when separated. V'Ger is a living machine who has "amassed" all the knowledge of the universe, but is without the human capacity of "faith," to "leap beyond logic," The machine (without human input or touch...) is cold, and barren, and incapable of believing in other realities (like the after-life) or other dimensions. Thus it is incomplete. Only by joining with a human (Commander Decker), does V'Ger find a sense of wholeness, of completion.

Kirk's journey is not entirely different. He views the Enterprise -- a machine itself -- as almost a physical lover in this film. When Scotty takes Admiral Kirk via a shuttle pod to inspect the Enterprise's re-designed exterior, Kirk has the unmistakable look of a man sizing up a sexual conquest, not a starship captain merely reporting to his new assignment. He avariciously sizes up the "woman" in his life (and ships are always "she" aren't they?). Like V'Ger after the union with Decker, Kirk ultimately finds a sense of completion once he has "joined" with the starship Enterprise, both metaphorically and literally. Once he is her captain again, Kirk is complete.

C
onsider for a moment just how many times Star Trek: The Motion Picture lingers upon the important act of a man entering -- or connecting to -- a machine. We watch Kirk's shuttle pod "dock" with Enterprise after a long, lingering examination of the ship. We see Spock, in a thruster suit, "penetrate" -- in his words, "the orifice" leading to the next interior "chamber" of V'Ger. This terminology sounds very biological, doesn't it? Consider that Spock next mentally-joins with V'Ger, utilizing a Vulcan mind-meld, yet another form of symbiosis.

And finally, we see Decker and Ilia physically join with the V'ger Entity during the film's climax. And make no mistake, that final act is equated with physical reproduction explicitly in the film's text. "Well, it's been a long time since I delivered a baby," McCoy notes happily in the film's epilogue, and Kirk remarks on "the birth" of a new life-form. They're talking about sex, about the union of two-life forms creating a third, unique life form.

Similarly, the journey of the Enterprise inside the giant V'Ger cloud replicates the details of the human reproductive process, with the final result proving identical: the birth of new life. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, man and machine mate. They join in symbiosis to create something new, perhaps even as Spock notes, "the next step in our own evolution."

While Star Trek films have traded explicitly in both allegory (particularly The Undiscovered Country and the Cold War "bringing down the Berlin Wall in Space" idea) and social commentary (consider the environmental message of The Voyage Home), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is decidedly symbolic. That's an important distinction.

The central images in the film all symbolize the reproductive, joining process. Spock penetrates the V'Ger "orifice," to mentally join with a living machine. Decker and Ilia (V'ger's surrogate) are mated in a light show that some Paramount studio executives allegedly termed a "40 million dollar fuck." And even the journey of the Enterprise (essentially the male "sperm") through the fallopian tube-type interior of V'Ger -- carrying its creative material (the human spirit in this case) to the V'ger complex (ovum) -- reflects the overriding theme of mating/joining/symbiosis.

So is technology a help or a hindrance? For the Klingons, destroyed in the film's first act, technology doesn't seem to help much. All their elaborate technical read-outs and tracking sensors (again, shown in dramatic insert shots) only permit them to watch the progress of their annihilation down to the last detail; down to the last second.

On the Enterprise, technological attempts to understand V'ger are constantly stymied by the living machine. "All scans are being reflected back," Uhura notes in the film on more than one occasion, meaning that V'Ger is re-directing the Enterprise's investigative entreaties back at itself. This is a subtle indicator that the answers Kirk and the others seek are held within themselves; in the gifts, contradictions and essential nature of "carbon based life forms." They begin to key in on this fact when Kirk and Spock assign Decker to awaken the human (er, Deltan...) memory patterns of the Ilia Probe (a mechanism). The answer, they come to understand, rests in the human equation, not in a technological assessment of V'ger.

It's interesting to tally the scoreboard here. V'Ger (a machine) finds "God" and evolves with the help of a human (Decker). Kirk finds his peace with a machine (The Enterprise). Spock finds his answer from a machine, and that answer is an acceptance of humanity. Even Decker finds his "peace" with a machine that replicates (down to the last detail) the memory patterns of his lost beloved. Each of these main characters (Kirk, Spock, V'Ger and Decker) are intricately involved with the story's main conceit: the mating of man and machine; of "cold" knowledge and "warm" human emotions.


Our Own Human Weaknesses...and the Drive That Compels Us to Overcome Them...

Despite protestations to the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a movie intrinsically, nay organically, about character, and character development. In simple terms, the film's main characters (Kirk, Spock and Decker) serve as the deliverer of human ideals to the cold, empty V'Ger child so that it may "evolve." But in doing so, they also bring along a lot of "foolish human emotions," as Dr. McCoy asserts at the film's conclusion.

Captain Kirk begins the film, for instance, as a ruthless, single-minded "my way or the highway" obsessive. We see his determination to reclaim the "center seat" when he tells Commander Sonak at a space port that he intends to be aboard the Enterprise following a meeting with Admiral Nogura, Starfleet's top brass. We see it again when he rationalizes displacing Decker, off-handedly noting that his "experience...five years out there, facing unknowns like this one," make him the superior commanding officer. The contradiction in that argument should be obvious. Are different "unknowns" actually capable of being categorized? How does Kirk know that Decker's history and experience won't prove superior in dealing with this threat, the alien cloud? He doesn't: he just wants what he wants.

And to some extent, the Enterprise (Kirk's other half, or perhaps a representation of his id...) rebels against this egomaniacal version of Kirk. Consider how much goes wrong on Enterprise when Kirk is acting in this selfish mode. The transporters break down, killing two new crewmembers. Kirk gets lost on his own ship and is discovered (in an embarrassing moment) by Decker, the very man he replaced. Kirk "pushes" his people too hard, forcing the Enterprise into warp speed before it is ready, and in the process nearly destroys the ship in a wormhole. He does so over the objections of Mr. Scott, Captain Decker and even Dr. McCoy. This Kirk is all ego and selfishness, until he remembers the key to commanding the Enterprise: listening to all viewpoints and making informed decisions. This also happens to be the key in any male/female relationship. Just treat her like a lady, Jim, and she'll always bring you home. This first Kirk is too hungry, too grasping, too desperate to "re-connect" with the Enterprise in anything but a physical way. Bones puts Kirk in his place, but all the malfunctions of the Enterprise subtly (and symbolically) perform the same function.

About half-way through the film, Kirk is still learning this lesson in humility, as Decker notes that as the vessel's executive officer, it's his responsibility to "provide alternative" view points. Kirk accepts that argument, but hasn't internalized it. By the end of the film, he is actively listening to others again, heeding Decker's request to join a landing party, and allowing Spock to proceed when the curious half-Vulcan overrides his orders and steals a thruster suit.

The familiar Kirk of Star Trek lore, the one who develops a strategy based on hearing all viewpoints, slowly re-asserts itself over the selfish one who wanted command and conquest of the Enterprise, and nothing else. A journey that began in selfishness, ends in his "unity" with the crew and ship, his acceptance and sense of joining with those around him, a reflection of V'Ger's joining with the human race. Kirk has, as he states, overcome human weakness.

Although Spock is only half-human, he undertakes much the same journey as Kirk in the film. He returns to Starfleet because he has failed to purge himself of human emotion and believes that an understanding of V'Ger will lead him to that destination. McCoy fears that Spock -- like Kirk -- will put his own personal interests ahead of the ship's. What Spock ultimately learns from his encounter (mind-meld) with V'Ger is life changing for him. He discovers that V'Ger has achieved what he seeks, "total logic." But damningly, "total logic" doesn't make V'Ger happy. Thought patterns of "exactingly perfect order" don't leave room for belief (in the afterlife...), for the "simple feeling" of friendship Spock feels towards Kirk, or much else.

For all V'Ger's knowledge, Spock realizes that the alien is "barren" and "empty." Were Spock to pursue Kolinahr, he would end up the same way. Spock's "human flaw," if we can call it that, is also one of ego, his obsession with becoming the "perfect" Vulcan. In embracing friendship with Kirk, in feeling his emotions (and even weeping, in the film's extended version), Spock begins to embrace the emotions he has long denied...and provides Kirk with the key to understanding V'Ger's psychology. He would never have come to this epiphany had Spock not "joined" with V'Ger in a mind-meld. And that puts us right back at the theme of symbiosis.

Decker (Stephen Collins) undergoes an interesting character arc too. He is a young man who fears commitment and the responsibilities it brings. He left Delta IV, Ilia's home wold without even saying goodbye to the woman he loved, which is a pretty sleazy and avoidant thing to do. It might even be termed "cowardice." In the end, Decker overcomes this "human weakness" and joins with Ilia and V'Ger, saving the Earth, repairing his relationship with Ilia, and adding the human component to V'Ger that the machine life-form requires to "evolve."

When Kirk, Spock and McCoy return to the Enterprise, Kirk explicitly asks if they have just witnessed the "birth of a new life form." As I noted bove, Spock's answer is that perhaps they have seen "the next step" in their "own evolution." This is a statement that is linked to the characters themselves. Though Decker has physically evolved to another (higher...) dimension or plane of existence, Kirk and Spock have evolved too. Kirk is suddenly gracious and comfortable in his skin again instead of imperious and dictatorial. And Spock, for the first time in his life, understands that that his human emotions carry value, and augment his "whole" personhood.

To claim that there is little or no character development in Star Trek: the Motion Picture is wrong-headed in the extreme. In some fashion, this is surely the most important story of Mr. Spock's "life," his final recognition of his "human" half and the gifts it offers. When we cavalierly write off Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we are also writing off Spock's new enlightenment.

This is An Almost Totally New Enterprise...

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often termed the film that saved Star Trek, and there may indeed be truth to that argument. Certainly, I love and admire that Nicholas Meyer film. However, consider just how much material present in later Star Trek originates directly from the re-invention of the franchise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Most notably, the Enterprise re-design and update -- featured in the first six feature films -- is introduced in this Robert Wise film (exteriors and interiors). This was also the first Star Trek production to feature a "warp" distortion effect around the ship when it went beyond light speed.

Also, the modern iteration of Klingons -- so beloved by Trek fans today -- is introduced here, in The Motion Picture. Before the Wise film, Klingons were swarthy guys with beards who talked about Klingonese (in "The Trouble with Tribbles") but didn't actually speak it. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Klingons were menacing aliens with ridges on their foreheads (and boy would Next Gen go to town with THAT idea...), wearing convincing armor and speaking their own language.

We can't forget, either that Star Trek: The Next Generation's very theme song, as well as the Klingon theme featured in First Contact and elsewhere -- were re-purposed from Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant soundtrack for
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

There seems to be this weird belief among many fans that Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't represent the best of Star Trek. While it is easy to see that the film doesn't accent the humorous side of the Star Trek equation, The Wise film does get so many things right. Most importantly, it captures the Kirk/Spock friendship in simple, poignant terms (in a scene set in sickbay). Imagine how easy it would have been for Gene Roddenberry -- just two years after Star Wars -- to cowtow to public opinion and make a huge, empty action film with laser blasts and spaceships performing barrel rolls. No one would have blamed him. I'll bet you a lot of fans would have liked that story better.

Instead, Roddenberry took a much more difficult route. He maintained the integrity of Star Trek and dramatized a story about mankind's future, and the direction we could be heading (with man and machine joined together, balancing weaknesses and sharing strengths). Some might declare that the film actually attempts and fails to reach the profound quality of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, I would agree The Motion Picture is not an equal to that film. However, here's another point of view: in Roddenberry's vision of man's evolution, it isn't some mysterious, unknown alien who transforms us for the better. No, in the universe of Star Trek, it's mankind playing a critical part in his own evolution, taking the reigns of his own destiny himself. We aren't victims of an alien agenda unknown to us. We're standing tall, ready to face what the universe throws at us. Somehow, this is more...noble.

In considering (or perhaps, re-considering....) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, our mission ought to be the same as the Enterprise's: to "intercept" and "investigate" this fascinating movie and judge for ourselves if it is just the cosmic bore critics complained of, or perhaps something a bit deeper. Of all the Star Trek movies, this is the one that shows us the most of the universe at large (Klingon territory, Federation spaceships, Vulcan, Earth...), most closely follows the creed of "discovering new life forms" from the series, and most makes us feel like we're actually passengers aboard the Enterprise. Perhaps we wouldn't want Star Trek to exist on this elevated, cerebral plateau for long, since humor and action are indeed shorted. Yet there's something intensely admirable about the fact that this careful, somber, thematically-consistent, intelligent effort was Star Trek's opening salvo in the blockbuster sweepstakes of the post-Star Wars age. While others sought to imitate, Star Trek chose its own path.

And that's how a movie franchise was born.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week


"We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything -- solitude, hardship, exhaustion, death. We're proud of ourselves. But when you think about it, our enthusiasm's a sham. We don't want other worlds...we want mirrors. "

-- Solaris (2002)

Theme Song of the Week: Kolchak - The Night Stalker (1974-1975)

Monday, April 27, 2009

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 86: A Strange Change Toy (Mattel; 1967)


When I was a little kid waaaay back in the 1970s, I loved to go visit my Granny and Grandpa's house in Verona, New Jersey. In part this was so because when I was visiting I always got to play games with my beloved uncle Larry, and, well, he had some of the coolest toys you've ever seen.

One vintage toy from that era, in particular, leaps immediately to mind: Mattel's A Strange Change Toy Featuring The Lost World.

This incredible "electrical toy" from 1967 is actually just a small oven -- or heating chamber of sorts -- though the box art colorfully describes the mechanism as a "mysterious strange change machine" that "changes time capsules" and offers you -- a mad scientist -- the opportunity to create "16 hidden wonders of the lost world" as they "appear and disappear into capsules over and over again."

What this comes down to, essentially, is that with a pair of blue plastic tongs (included), you would insert small red, yellow and green "capsules" into the heating chamber, and as they heated up, the cubes would unfold (in glorious slow-motion...) into the ships of plastic monsters, dinosaurs and bugs.

The box also reads: "Discovered to date: Membrane Men, Fragments of Space Creatures... Crawlers... fliers... Skeletons of Human Types.... Mummies... Robots." So as you can probably imagine, A Strange Change Toy was an awesome genre-style product, even if it was a little too easy to burn yourself on the strange change machine.

This great Mattel invention also came complete with a "compressor" on the red heating unit so you could crush the 16 hidden wonders back into their original cube forms and start all over again. The box implored kids to: CREATE 'EM! CRUSH 'EM! and CREATE 'EM! AGAIN AND AGAIN In the STRANGE CHANGE MACHINE! And boy did we ever! This thing kept us occupied for hours, visit after visit.

Mattel's "A Strange Change" Toy also came equipped with a 3-D Base for your plastic lost world creatures to inhabit, and a landscape map of the lost world that you could hang as background to the base. The instructions read: "The Green 3-D base is the lost world home for all the creatures. For more lost world strange change fun, play with your creatures on the colorful map of the lost world on the other side of this sheet!"

So, this is truly one of the weirdest and wildest toys of the late 1960s and I don't think A Strange Change Toy could even be successfully marketed to kids today without consumer groups getting up in arms. I mean, don't you just wonder how many electrical fires The Strange Change Toy must have started back in the disco decade?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some fantastic time capsule creepy-crawlies to create (and CRUSH!). While I'm away, go ahead and check out this vintage commercial for Mattel's A Strange Change Toy (Featuring The Lost World...).