Destroy All Monsters: What Does God Need With A Starship?
Not having gotten much out of the Coens' Ex Machina (Hail, Caesar!) over the weekend -- how wry is too wry, I asked myself? -- I started hunting and pecking for other representations of the divine on film. Not being generally possessed of much imagination, I ended up with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: the one where Captain Kirk and friends go off and try to meet God.
Or so its logline is widely reputed to be. Actually, to say that anyone in the film (save Spock's crazy/emotional half-brother, Sybok) is actively searching for the Creator would be a stretch. Some of the crew of the Starship Enterprise get bamboozled or brainwashed (it's never clear which) into joining Sybok's quest, but it's pretty well established throughout that Jim Kirk never for a second believes Sybok's ambition will net out into actually meeting the being who created the universe.
Even allowing for the Star Trek film franchise's partial desecularization of the Roddenberry ideal ("executive consultant" Gene, notably, decanonized this film, in part because of its take on the mystical - Star Trek is, foremost, an atheist worldview), Kirk is a pragmatist at heart. The captain, who once met Apollo, probably wouldn't hold it impossible that the Judeo-Christian Almighty is floating around out there somewhere; only that he probably isn't hanging out in the center of our particular galaxy among the billions available. And as for being imprisoned behind the Great Barrier and unable to get out, well, that makes very little sense at all.
(Side note for a squee: yeah, I'm insanely excited to learn this week that Bryan Fuller will oversee the long-gestating Star Trek reboot TV series. That's better news, IMHO, than anything that's happened to the franchise in twenty years.)
There are about a zillion things wrong with Star Trek V - yeah, the overloading of humour is pretty gruesome, but then, the story is also a patchwork monstrosity of conflicting ideas, none of which particularly land effectively in a slender (by today's standards) hour and forty-five minute feature film.
And before someone in the comments tries to internetsplain it to me, yes, I'm aware of the changes to the final act that budget overruns on The Final Frontier ultimately required. Wouldn't have mattered. Kirk fighting a hoard of rock-men does not solve the preceding hour and twenty minutes.
None of which changes the fact that when James T. Kirk up and meets God - or as close to Him as he's likely to get, with or without the third act of Star Trek: Generations - the scene's a firecracker (with or without the photon torpedo bomb). What happens on Planet Sha Ka Ree (ugh) turns out to be as on-message as anything in Star Trek. As Fake God waxes poetical about taking the Starship Enterprise and using it to go out into the galaxy, spreading his good word, Captain Kirk puts up his hand like a clever and irreverent schoolboy:
"Excuse me... what does God need with a starship?"
It's the obvious question, and it immediately reverse-engineers the plot proper of Star Trek V, either by design or because they couldn't think of anything better to do (more on this later); but indeed, the solution to the problem of the film is, simply, that God ain't God. (There might be a God out there, Kirk is charitable enough to suggest later; it just ain't this particular guy.)
I bring this up, only because I think Star Trek V stumbles here into some repeatable wisdom (again, by either design or desperation, given their chosen scenario) about the articles of faith as described in our films. It's an obvious point, and I'm sure that both the faithful and faithless alike would tell us the same thing in this case: even with a special effects budget greater than the total box office take of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, rendering the central mystery in comprehensible visual terms is pretty dang hard.
I'd take it a step farther: God isn't actually an articulable concept, in language a human can understand, on film or anywhere else; and if he/she/it were, he/she/it wouldn't be God. The Coen Brothers have great fun with this in Hail, Caesar!, of course. "DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT," indeed.
I'm more of an A Serious Man man, anyway. That movie, for my money, is more unerringly and unnervingly on-message for the crushing uncertainty that would be a human being's relationship with a divine power, even if that person existed in a culture of unabashed faith. (That film's solve for the question of how to represent and answer for the presence of the almighty in the narrative: its final shot, a twister.)
Or, if we want to play follow-the-tornado, compare and contrast the storylines of A Serious Man and Jeff Nichols' masterful 2011 film, Take Shelter. Both feature final sequences that see a cyclone answer definitively, or as definitively as can be managed, the lead character's crisis of faith. In Curtis' case in Take Shelter, the crisis is a secular(ish) one, one step further removed from anything as literal as Captain Kirk talking to God. Take Shelter is no less direct, though, in its basic questions around the verifiability and belief in one's subjective experience, from the inner voice to the outer (booming) God Voice.
It all forms a nice analogy for a basic problem: the need to break God down into knowable, understandable, (photographable) human terms all but obliterates his/her/its value as, well, anything godlike. Even the resolute believers among us shouldn't want a deity that can be captured in concrete terms. Concrete can be quantified and tends to hold very still; but there's lots of it, everywhere, and any idiot can pour it.
Read the Book of Genesis sometime and tell me that shit ain't bananas - which isn't a problem, of course, until some yokel starts trying to assert that any of that story is meant to represent something literally. As some kind of mediation, though, between an innate, personal understanding of the mystic and the relatable real-world rubrics of copulation and society-building, a bible or a Coen Brothers movie or Star Trek V serves just fine, and probably interchangeably at that.
Which I guess leads me to conclude that my dear Captain Kirk's premise was, ultimately, wrong. Of course God would need a starship, if he/she/it ever deigned to make itself known to us. It's always been down to us to translate that cockamamie idea into something a person can understand, by whatever human fantasies necessary.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.