Treknobabble #38: Will Star Trek Save the Science Fiction Film?

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

The answer is, “No.” I can say this with reasonable certainty despite not possessing any prescient abilities. Let me try to explain.

No Star Trek film has ever been given any serious thought by any respectable critic. When the Star Trek movies were being released on a regular basis, movie reviewers would comment on the actors getting too old for roaming in space, and compliments would rarely go beyond stating that having the dependable Enterprise crew in another adventure offered a comfortable feeling. Hardly any time was spent in analyzing the relevance of the plot, the acting abilities of the actors, the direction of the film, etc.

The television series have been given more respect with academic courses analyzing episodes to spur discussion on any real-world topic imaginable. But for some reason, movie critics have failed to see any relevance in Star Trek to the film world.

Maybe part of the problem is that the movies have not been based on ideas from any novels. And the screenwriters have not been reputable with the possible exceptions of Nicholas Meyer and John Logan. Hiring John Logan for the last movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, seemed like a move in the right direction. But having failed with Nemesis, Logan has yet to establish his credentials beyond having been a co-writer of Gladiator.

When the idea of bringing Star Trek to the big screen was considered in the latter half of the 70s, the task of coming up with a suitable screenplay was not easy. Even attempts by science fiction authors were rejected. This is surprising to me because what made the premise of Star Trek brilliant was its simplicity and broad scope. A group of people have an adventure in any location imaginable. This covers a wide range of stories. Still, when filming began on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (STTMP), the screenplay had not been finished and the ending had not been determined.

One of the earlier aborted screenplays in the 70s, “Star Trek: Planet of the Titans,” had director Philip Kaufman assigned to direct. Basically, the plot involved Kirk and crew competing with the Klingons over a planet that might be the home of the legendary, technologically advanced Titans. The Enterprise comes in conflict with the planet’s inhabitants. Circumstances around a black hole result in the Enterprise being sent back through time. Somehow Kirk and crew inadvertently introduce fire to primitive humanity on Earth! Not only are they Promethean, but Kirk and crew are revealed to be the Titans of lore!

Maybe studio heads aren’t given enough credit, but they were intelligent enough to abandon this hackneyed screenplay. (On the other hand, supposedly the studio heads wanted to inject Mayans into any given Star Trek screenplay, because Chariots of the Gods was popular at the time. For those who didn’t live through the 70s, let me just say that the idea of Mayans being aliens from outer space was a popular notion at the time. Ever hear of pyramid power?) Whenever writers of television science fiction need an idea, they can always rely on time travel. Even though I admit to enjoying these cause and effect paradoxes, readers of science fiction had grown tired of this idea even as far back as the ’60s when Planet of the Apes used the twist time ending.

Despite the difficulty in having a final screenplay, STTMP had an interesting theme that was obscured by interminable scenes of the Enterprise flying around V’ger. Early in the movie, Spock is shown on Vulcan undergoing the Kolinahr ritual to purge himself of all emotion. Throughout the television series, Spock was always denying his human half, so this Kolinahr ritual was an important step. But his mind is troubled and he fails. He joins the Enterprise on its mission to intercept V’ger as it destroys and catalogs everything in its path as it heads toward Earth in search of its creator.

When Spock mind-melds with V’ger, he finds that V’ger is barren and void of emotion! Spock realizes that without emotion, V’ger cannot begin to understand the meaning of its existence. Interestingly, the scene in which Spock expresses this realization, smiling with moist eyes, grabbing Kirk’s hand while in the sickbay bed was not in the theatrical release. So the solution to the problem is to have Captain Decker “join” with the V’ger probe, Ilia, thereby aiding V’ger in its next step of evolution.

Unfortunately, the critics couldn’t cope with the long stretches without dialog. And many were distracted by Kirk’s shifting toupee. As for the twist at the end, critics couldn’t get past why the aliens that found V’ger had not rubbed the tarnish off V’ger’s nameplate. Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful musical score wasn’t enough to bring the movie out of its doldrums. Even the actors fell asleep in the audience at the premiere. To the movie’s credit, the only space battle scene was necessary to show the power of the V’ger cloud.

Many people including myself have expressed the notion that the serious science fiction film no longer exists. I think the perception is that ideas have been sublimated by visual effects, action extravaganzas. As an example, critics generally thought the first half of Michael Bay’s The Island was interesting and that the last half with the action chase was not.

There’s an irony in that CGI is now advanced enough for anything imaginable to be visualized, yet it’s primarily used to give us scenes of destruction. I would think it’s now possible to put on the screen anything that a science fiction author can imagine. I think I have to qualify that statement by saying an exception would possibly be a Ray Bradbury metaphor. A metaphor’s resonance is lost when visualized literally.

Let’s list the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Science Fiction films:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
3. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
6. Blade Runner (1982)
7. Alien (1979)
8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
10. Back to the Future (1985)

Now you’ll notice the most recent film on the list is from 1991. That’s 17 years ago! (Pretty soon, it’ll be time to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey. :-))

However, let’s look at Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 10 Best-Reviewed Sci-Fi films:

1. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
3. Metropolis (1927)
4. Alien (1979)
5. Minority Report (2002)
6. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
7. Children of Men (2006)
8. The Host (2007)
9. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
10. Aliens (1986)

This list tells a different story with four of the ten from the past decade. I guess it’s all in how one defines a great science fiction film. If thought-provoking is high on your list of criteria, then you might consider adding any of the following:

Silent Running (1971)
Solaris (1971)
Soylent Green (1973)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Brazil (1985)
Gattaca (1997)
Dark City (1998)
The Matrix (1999)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Primer (2004)
The Fountain (2006)
Sunshine (2007)

So maybe the spectacle is obscuring my judgment, and the serious science fiction films are unjustly being ignored. Maybe there are more science fiction films being made nowadays and subsequently, most of them are trivial. Maybe it’s just harder to surprise me after so many years of life experience.

Many people unfairly blame Star Wars for the death of serious science fiction. Perhaps it influenced the making of many “bad” science fiction films, but I don’t think those science fiction films would have been made without Star Wars‘ popularity in the first place.

Will the new Star Trek film save the science fiction film? Science fiction film doesn’t need saving. But if you really need an answer, watch the film next May, and you’ll see why the answer must be, “No.”

  • SolesGirlRachel

    I really liked this new article, Reed, well done. I find it utterly baffling that not even *one* of the Trek pictures are on either of those top ten sci-fi film lists.

    There are other omissions that to my eye are glaring. Movies like “Contact” with Jodie Foster; “Forbidden Planet” (an inspired futuristic re-telling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”); or in the less-serious category, the vastly entertaining “Independence Day”.

    I too, have long felt that it is a general return to the mysterious…to ideas…to interesting, different places, people & concepts that expand & fire the imagination…that will be the salvation of science fiction films. As Sybok replied to Mr. Baldie McField-Of-Dry-Holes in “The Final Frontier, when asked what he seeks:

    “What you seek……what all men have sought since time began…ultimate knowledge.”

    It is that desire to know the unknown (and perhaps unknowable) – to grow, that strikes an unquenchable spark within humankind to explore, in real life and through storytelling. It is this same innate desire that compels us to ever reflect on who we are today, and what we can become. We cannot resist exploring our world or our selves, especially given the fact that we have so many questions. It’s why we go to see films.

    The endless oversaturation of horror and bukkake-style destruction in an ever-increasing number of movies has been borne out of a lack of ideas. It is difficult to create and easy to destroy…and so film has resorted to the well of violence again and again. Violence *can* play an important part in storytelling – but when it is being used as it has been – due to a dearth of ideas, and because it requires the least effort of all – it loses much of its value.

    I don’t know what else to tell ya, man. It would seem that some people just don’t get things. A lot of people like crap, if “reality” television is any indication. I tend to distrust the majority tastes for these reasons. For example, I’ve never seen any of the Terminator films, or any of the Alien films…or even any of the Back To The Future ones. I have never seen Titanic (not a sci-fi, I know – I’m just perversely proud of not having seen that film). Nor do I have plans to see any of these anytime soon.

    Do I still believe that the science fiction film will be saved? Oh yes, I have hope. My faith is secure. It will happen as soon as a new generation realizes it would much rather eat a gourmet meal, than eat out of the trashcan. Kind of like how a new generation has united to vote for new, real, positive change in America, after 8 years of eating from the trashcan. :)

    In the meantime, I am abstaining until at least later this month (after the new trailer comes out) from saying anything new on the the upcoming Trek film. *hugs* Hope all is well with you Reed! Thanks again for the neato blog.


    Rachel :)

  • You might be right about the cell phones reed but I still highly reccomend watching the history channels how william shatner changed the world if you can find it on netflix, at blockbuster, or on the magical interwebs.

  • disregard that comment I posted on the wrong article

  • Drew, I have seen “How William Shatner Changed the World.” I don’t usually find Shatner funny, but the segments he filmed made me smile. I’ve also read Shatner’s book, “I’m Working on That,” in which he interviewed scientists who are working on things postulated by Star Trek.

    Yeah, I guess I do really think Star Trek has made a difference, but I find that people won’t believe what you tell them. If they think they’ve come up with a notion on their own, they’re more willing to accept it.

    Now, you’ve made me post on the wrong article. Oh, well, Treknobabble needs as many comments as it can get.

    Rachel, I thought you had been run over by an automobile, and thus allowing McCain to become President. But I guess the timeline has been restored.

    It was good to hear your remarks. As for the films you haven’t seen, your stubbornness is more perverse than mine.

    I had to look up what “bukkake” means. Wow, I’m making it the Film Junk word of the day. I’m going to get Jay to use the word on the next Film Junk podcast.

  • Stephanie Bradshaw

    Gr8 post! i know you can find more.. @

  • Nice level of information here. There is so much data around about this subject that sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees but you have pitched this at just the right level so that the lay person can understand – thank you!