Monday, December 16, 2019

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Before The Last Jedi (2017) came along, The Phantom Menace (1999) was certainly the Star Wars film that many fans -- and certainly those writing on the Internet -- love to hate.  

The reasons for that hate are right there on the film’s surface. Many of these critics and fans don’t like the humor or wacky hijinks of Jar Jar Binks, for instance.

They might also complain about the mundane nature of the film’s overarching conflict (a “dispute” about taxing trade routes), and many also dislike the performance of sunny-faced Jake Lloyd as a pre-pubescent Anakin Skywalker. 

Then again, there’s another complaint written about and spoken of frequently. Many fans and critics simply dislike what they feel is the over-green-screened, CGI look of this first in the prequel trilogy.

I can sympathize and fully get behind some of those arguments. Some aspects of the movie don’t come off as successfully as I would have preferred. 

And yet, across the years I have grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace more than I once did. To quote a Skywalker, I believe there is still good in it.  

Why have I moved to this stance so fully over the last fifteen years, when my initial gut response was, admittedly, grievous disappointment? 

Perhaps because the hostility towards the film (and indeed, its creator) has been so harsh, I have been motivated to go back and really examine the film, and my feelings about it.

My work as a critic, here on the blog or in books, is not to mirror conventional wisdom. It is not to glom on to popular opinion.  It is not to make snarky comments that seek to mock an artist’s attempt to share his or her vision with the world. It is, only, to study a film and determine if an intellectual case for its artistry can be forged.  

A decade-and-a-half after its release, I believe I can make a case for the artistic coherence (and indeed, beauty, in spots) of The Phantom Menace.

First, the entire film -- rather unlike the other Star Wars entries -- features a remarkable, under-the-surface leitmotif that pulls all of the disparate aspects of the narrative together.  

What is that leitmotif?

Symbiont circles.  

Virtually every key relationship is defined in the film by the concept of symbiont circles. For the purposes of the saga, the idea of a symbiont circle is that people -- and their fates -- are connected. Those connections aren’t always seen. Sometimes they are merely hinted at. Sometimes they are detected, but unclear. But they are present nonetheless.

The film’s discussion of symbiont circles allows George Lucas to go beyond the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” dichotomy of the original trilogy, and tread into more nuanced, gray material. For instance, the symbiont circle leitmotif reveals that the Jedi are not paragons of virtue, but arrogant, and occasionally haughty individuals.

This is an appropriate development for an artist returning to his work a generation later; looking to deepen and broaden it in ways that are commensurate with his experience.

Beyond that leitmotif of symbiont circles, The Phantom Menace succeeds on a visual basis. The film’s art direction and production design convey the underlying elements of the narrative, which clearly concerns the rise of fascism and fall of a free, enlightened society.  

Every film critic has as his or her shtick I suppose you could conclude; a benchmark by which to rate a movie a success or failure. As regular readers here are aware, I approach films by looking for the ways that visuals do or do not reflect/augment the thematic content.  If a film can match visualization with theme, I count it artistically sound. If a movie can better make its point with its pictures than its words, it has succeeded in using the art form to its fullest.

On that basis, I find The Phantom Menace flawed, and yet, finally, artistically sound.

“There’s always a bigger fish.”

I have never quite understood why so many fans harp on the fact that -- on the surface -- The Phantom Menace is about a minor dispute over taxation. 

That mundane “challenge” for the Republic is, of course, a stalking horse, for the film’s titular “Phantom Menace,” a puppet master called Darth Sidious who is utilizes the appearance of “business as usual” -- the routine, the bureaucratic, the corrupt -- to achieve something truly radical. That’s actually what a “Phantom Menace” is: something that isn’t obvious; but rather amorphous…at least at first.  Obi Wan begins to sense this truth when he opens himself up to the Force. He senses something “elusive.”  

And that “elusive” threat brings me to the film’s central notion of symbiont circles. If there’s always a “bigger fish,” as Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) informs us early in the film, then the tax dispute is definitively and intentionally “the small fish,” the concrete menace, the challenge that appears before the Jedi’s eyes, but doesn’t reveal the whole truth. Obi Wan, in his comment on something “elusive” almost detects that “bigger fish,” it seems.

Here, a mystery figure is manipulating seemingly mundane disputes between Republic members to achieve a radical or revolutionary end. This Dark Lord of the Sith realizes precisely how the pieces of the Republic interact with one another. He is cognizant of that symbiotic circle, you might conclude. He realizes how he can make one piece of it act in a certain way (an illegal blockade by the Trade Federation), and how another member will respond to that action (Naboo’s resistance).  

His end goal, as is abundantly clear by film’s end, is to create a desire in the Republic for a regime change; to unseat Chancellor Valorum. So Palpatine/Sidious manipulates the symbiotic nature of Republic trade and economic relationships, for lack of a better term, to create war between members, weaken leadership, and see himself installed as chancellor.

There is actually very little talk of taxes or trade routes in the film, though you wouldn’t know that from the Internet criticism leveled at it. What we see mostly is an illegal orbital blockade of Naboo, and attempts to penetrate or end that blockade. That situation, rather than being staid, provides for plenty of action.

The same idea of symbiont circles plays out on Naboo’s surface. Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) warns Boss Nass, leader of the Gungans, that what occurs  to the humanoids of the planet -- invasion, namely -- will also happen to the Gungans.  

Why?  They share the same planet; the same reality.  They are linked.

Amidala recognizes this symbiont circle herself, in the film’s conclusion. Her successful battle tactic is predicated on the idea of the Gungans and humanoids joining forces to stop the invasion.They work together, in symbiosis, rather than failing to recognize their connection to one another.

And Padme is quite a leader too. She recognizes she doesn’t “rule” her people. She is one with them, part of another symbiont circle. “I will sign no treaty,” she declares. “My fate will be the same as my people’s.”

Just as the Gungans will share the same fate as her people.

It’s all connected.

The small fish/big fish comparison fits in quietly elegantly with the idea of the symbiont circle. We all live in inter-connected environments, wherein our actions impact others.  

Take for example Anakin, a slave on Tatooine. The Republic has explicitly outlawed slavery and yet, again, facts are facts: Anakin is a slave on Tatooine.  Qui Gon reports, almost as an aside that he hasn’t come to Tatooine to free the slaves. The Republic/Jedi are therefore -- quite unlike Padme or even Jar Jar -- unable to detect the symbiont circle of which they are a part.  

And the cost of their failure to honor the dignity and basic human rights of Anakin and his mother is their own eventual destruction. Anakin ultimately destroys them and what they stand for. Significantly, even slaves like Anakin and Shmi, who live by the edict that the biggest problem in the universe is that “people don’t help each other,” see how it is right to help others.  For some reason -- either corruption, bureaucracy, avarice, or arrogance -- the Jedi nor the Republic Council can see this truth. They love in opulent, literal ivory towers.

Instead of actually helping those who need them, the Jedi don’t show anything but contempt and arrogance towards some of those with whom they share the universe.  “Why do I get the feeling that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?” Obi Wan asks at one point. That is precisely the wrong perspective for someone who lectures others on the idea of being aware of and valuing inter-connection.

The question: what does this idea of symbiont circles buy George Lucas and Star Wars?

Quite simply, it reveals that the Republic and its defenders have fallen from their high moral ideals, and are vulnerable to the Sith because of it.  The Jedi are arrogant, and can’t see “the bigger” fish operating behind the scenes because of their inadequate sight. The Republic, likewise, is so bureaucratic and caught up in red tape that its leaders cannot free slaves, help an imperiled senate member (Naboo) or even get out of congressional gridlock.

We know from the Original Trilogy that the Republic must fall and give rise to the Empire.  The Phantom Menace makes a kind of double or mirror case regarding that fall. Darth Sidious is aware of symbiont circles and manipulates them to his ends, destroying the Republic. His mirror reflection -- the Jedi and the Republic -- are not tending to their symbiont circles and have therefore failed not just institutionally, but morally. 

So Lucas has shown us, with his concept of symbiont circles, how and why a free society falls…when it loses touch with its own plainly stated and voiced values. Obi Wan and Qui Gon are both quick to talk about inter-connection with the Gungans, but the Gungans (raising their “grand army,”), Padme, and Anakin who actually tend to those relationships. While the Jedi Council holds back because the Jedi can’t fight a war for Naboo, Padme, Anakin and Jar-Jar actually fight that war.

This is where Lucas has broadened and deepened his myth since the 1970s and 1980s. Listening to Obi Wan Kenobi talk to Luke in Star Wars, one might conclude that the “good” Jedi were defeated by the “evil” Emperor and his sidekick Darth Vader. What The Phantom Menace reveals is that the story is not that simple.  

The Jedi and the Republic played roles in their own downfall. The Dark Side was there, ready to exploit those faults but, but those faults existed. The Golden Age was not so golden after all. 

 “Your focus determines your future.”

The Phantom Menace is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum” or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.

This was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny lurked in the shadows.  

Through carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace recreates this very Inter-Bellum age, but on other planets, and in another time.  

We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where the universe is kind of…junked.  But by important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex or zenith of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.  

And yet, of course, as the discussion of symbiont circles reveals, it is not a perfect Republic, is it?  Slavery still thrives in far corners of the galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt institution. And on the rise is wily Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.

In short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe. Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations. Consider just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.

At least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France. 

In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination. In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Phantom Menace features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons.

If Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom.  
 As you may recall, Coruscant is a planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others. This urban city-scape stretches to the horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself.  In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s. 

In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.

And yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo.  The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty. They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.

So this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth. In Star Wars, in 1977, Lucas used visual movie allusions (war films and Kurasawa’s canon, with some Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure) to create a pastiche. Twenty-two years later, Lucas is still using allusions, but historical ones, and ones from schools of art.  His approach, again, is more developed, more nuanced.

But then Lucas stretches his comparisons even a step further in The Phantom Menace and connects that period in Earth history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990s

The Phantom Menace was released at the end of the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror.  

Lucas was downright prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision, Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress. 

Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held. That's what happened to Clinton too. We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals while overseas, terror grew in secret...

And, of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute Gunray.  Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.  And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan.  So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. 

You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present in The Phantom Menace.  And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either. 

 I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique.  

As further evidence in support of this sub-text, I would note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration in Revenge of the Sith that “Either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy.” 

These data points suggest that Lucas understands the sweep of history.That empires age, become corrupt, and are challenged. That periods of peace and prosperity do not go on eternally, unchallenged.

Regarding the film's other lush visuals, The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates.  But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. 

Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment (a call-back to his Star Wars approach). And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature, and involve slavery, or more aptly, a former slave who rises to a place of remarkable power.

As I noted in my introduction, an important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures. And yet surprisingly few films these days effectively manage this (necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning. 

The Phantom Menace succeeds admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry. The images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.

At the very least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual aesthetic in this first prequel.  He makes the images of his fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s.  Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption?  

If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.

Here’s another apparent ding against the film. Many character designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact, based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period. 

Watto the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose appears to be an amalgamation of the offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype of the Inter-Bellum period.

The Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have – literally – slants in their eyes.  They thus serve as the embodiment of negative stereotypes about the Japanese. 

And finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now” routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men in the media of the same, between-wars age. 

While it’s true that these characters hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time, that historical allusion may not validate their inclusion in the film.

What could?

Well, I would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian paradise of equality that many believe it is.  

Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down upon, explicitly…even by the Jedi.  

So we’re right back to the symbiont circle, aren’t we?  Gazing at the Trade Federation as literal “slant eyes” or writing off Jar-Jar because of his apparent dopey-ness.  Trying to run a Jedi-Mind trick on the money-grubbing Watto. The message here may very well be that prejudice is inside all of us, and it blinds us to the inter-connection of our environment, to the symbiont circle.  Jar-Jar, at least in terms of the action, pretty much saves the day, doesn’t he?  And so does a slave.  Those beings who appear to be silly stereotypes, both to us and the Jedi, turn out to have unrecognized value.

Perhaps the Republic falls because there’s that level of hypocrisy and arrogance there, a looking down its collective nose at species like Gungans or Toydarians.  All the Republic and Jedi see, essentially, is the equivalent of “skin color,” not the true value of these individuals and their people. Pathetic life-forms?  What kind of hero would use such words to describe another being?

So is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the eve of its release?  

Not exactly. 

The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly.  

Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable.  I should note, in fairness, that my reservations about Jar-Jar are generational.  They are shared by the OT’ers.  I conducted an informal poll in my carpool last week, before writing this review, about Jar-Jar.  With nine years old, he came in as the third best Star Wars character ever. Number one was R2-D2, number 2 was Yoda, number 3 was Jar-Jar, number 4 was Chewbacca, and number 5 was General Grievous. Han Solo didn’t place with the nine year old set, even in the top ten.

Who are 46 year olds -- who found Star Wars at age 7 or so -- to argue with a nine year old that his impression of Star Wars is the wrong one?  Isn't one joy of Star Wars supposed to be that it sparks the imagination of children. It looks like with Jar-Jar, George Lucas accomplished that for the second generation, even if the first generation holds its nose.  

On the other hand, as my review of Return of the Jedi pointed out, the franchise's overt appeal to childhood set legitimately started there, with all the burping aliens and Ewoks. That's a bit of a shift from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but not one you can blame The Phantom Menace for instigating.  At this point, it's a fait accompli. Selling toys and bringing in the kids is a marketing strategy.

On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga (so far).

But that is all just icing on the cake.  In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas made a film about a galaxy far, far away, but that galaxy was succumbing to the same hatreds and fears that we saw early in the 20th century (and which rear their ugly heads again, even now, in political discourse). The film’s visuals tell us that fact, and even the nature of the aliens remind us of why it is valuable not to speak in Nativist, arrogant, racist terms. To do so is not honoring the connections we share in our symbiotic circle. To do so is to betray the force.

Obviously, I can change no hater’s mind. 

At this juncture, I don’t care to try, and I don’t feel I need to. So I will close with this thought: “your focus determines your future.”

If you focus on the 1919-1939 Inter-Bellum type visuals of The Phantom Menace, and keep your eye on the leitmotif about symbiont circles, the future reputation of this film need not be consumed by hate.  

Because we know hate leads to the Dark Side, right?

Friday, December 06, 2019

40 Years Ago: 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.

The Star Trek franchise has re-invented itself on more than one occasion.  J.J. Abram's Star Trek (2009) wasn't the first instance of it. Indeed, the expensive and highly-profitable film that first did so arrived in American movie theaters forty years ago today, 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 four 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 1960's 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 battle-cruisers 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. Wise 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 printer 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.

Consider 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,  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 egomaniac 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 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.

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