I’ve been making my way through the “Star Trek” films in preparation for an upcoming reboot of the franchise (an eleventh movie comes out May 8). I was about to give up hope on the series – it’s been an exceedingly dull journey - until I came to “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and found myself watching something rare and rather intriguing: a big-budget release from a major Hollywood studio built around the question of whether or not there is a God.
In the movie, the U.S.S. Enterprise has been hijacked by a renegade Vulcan. (For those unfamiliar with the “Star Trek” universe, they’re the ones with the pointy ears.) Sybok, played by Laurence Luckinbill, forces captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew to pilot into the Great Barrier, an interstellar void where Sybok believes he will find God. I won’t give away what they find there, though I will share this priceless piece of Kirk bravado that comes out of the encounter: “What does God need with a starship?”
“The Final Frontier” is often as dull and campy as the previous “Star Trek” films, yet the spiritual inquiry at its center feels genuine and earnest. This is largely due to Luckinbill, who gives the first performance in the series that doesn’t rely on some sort of character shtick. Using a combination of deadly force and group therapy - “Each of us hides a secret pain,” he tells his captives/converts. “Share your pain.” – Sybok is a persuasive, empathetic character. Watching the movie, you feel he is on an authentic spiritual quest.
Why did Hollywood, normally so fearful of religion, let this story line slide? Because it exists in a piece of science fiction.
Sci-fi often seems like the one safe haven for movies that blatantly explore religious themes. Sure, there are anomalies – “Chariot’s of Fire,” last year’s “Doubt” – but more often than not you’ll find spiritual issues at the heart of movies with aliens and interstellar travel.
“2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Contact.” “The X-Files.” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” “The Matrix.” “Solaris.” Why do these science-fiction films, and many others, consider the spiritual nature of humanity?
I think it’s because when we face the awesome, mysterious expanse of outer space – even vicariously, via the movies – we’re forced to come face to face with our own insignificance. (Nature can do this too, and what is space but nature’s final frontier?) And once we question our own insignificance, the next step is to consider the superior being who created the wonder that surrounds us.
Since spirituality is a natural thematic step when it comes to science fiction, then, having it in a sci-fi movie doesn’t make Hollywood nervous.
So far, of the “Star Trek” series, only “The Final Frontier” has grabbed my attention in this manner. But if any of you Trekkers out there feel otherwise, let me know…