Movie Review: The Truth is in the Stars

Recently, Perimeter aired a showing of The Truth is in the Stars, a documentary about the influence of Star Trek on science and culture, with a panel discussion afterwards. The documentary follows William Shatner as he wanders around the world interviewing scientists and film industry people about how Star Trek inspired them. Along the way he learns a bit about physics, and collects questions to ask Steven Hawking at the end.

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I’ll start with the good: the piece is cute. They managed to capture some fun interactions with the interviewees, there are good (if occasionally silly) visuals, and the whole thing seems fairly well edited. If you’re looking for an hour of Star Trek nostalgia and platitudes about physics, this is the documentary for you.

That said, it doesn’t go much beyond cute, and it dances between topics in a way that felt unsatisfying.

The piece has a heavy focus on Shatner, especially early on, beginning with a clumsily shoehorned-in visit to his ranch to hear his thoughts on horses. For a while, the interviews are all about him: his jokes, his awkward questions, his worries about getting old. He has a habit of asking the scientists he talks to whether “everything is connected”, which to the scientists’ credit is usually met by a deft change of subject. All of this fades somewhat as the movie progresses, though: whether by a trick of editing, or because after talking to so many scientists he begins to pick up some humility.

(Incidentally, I really ought to have a blog post debunking the whole “everything is connected” thing. The tricky part is that it involves so many different misunderstandings, from confusion around entanglement to the role of strings to “we are all star-stuff” that it’s hard to be comprehensive.)

Most of the scientific discussions are quite superficial, to the point that they’re more likely to confuse inexperienced viewers than to tell them something new (especially the people who hinted at dark energy-based technology…no, just no). While I don’t expect a documentary like this to cover the science in-depth, trying to touch on so many topics in this short a time mostly just fuels the “everything is connected” misunderstanding. One surprising element of the science coverage was the choice to have both Michio Kaku giving a passionate description of string theory and Neil Turok bluntly calling string theory “a mess”. While giving the public “both sides” like that isn’t unusual in other contexts, for some reason most science documentaries I’ve seen take one side or the other.

Of course, the point of the documentary isn’t really to teach science, it’s to show how Star Trek influenced science. Here too, though, the piece was disappointing. Most of the scientists interviewed could tell their usual story about the power of science fiction in their childhood, but didn’t have much to say about Star Trek specifically. It was the actors and producers who had the most to say about Star Trek, from Ben Stiller showing off his Gorn mask to Seth MacFarlane admiring the design of the Enterprise. The best of these was probably Whoopi Goldberg’s story of being inspired by Uhura, which has been covered better elsewhere (and might have been better as Mae Jemison’s similar story, which would at least have involved an astronaut rather than another actor). I did enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation of how as a kid he thought everything on Star Trek was plausible…except for the automatic doors.

Shatner’s meeting with Hawking is the finale, and is the documentary’s strongest section. Shatner is humbled, even devout, in Hawking’s presence, while Hawking seems to show genuine joy swapping jokes with Captain Kirk.

Overall, the piece felt more than a little disjointed. It’s not really about the science, but it didn’t have enough content to be really about Star Trek either. If it was “about” anything, it was Shatner’s journey: an aging actor getting to hang out and chat with interesting people around the world. If that sounds fun, you should watch it: but don’t expect much deeper than that.

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One thought on “Movie Review: The Truth is in the Stars

  1. Lubos Motl

    I’ve loved a hundred of sci-fi movies but Star Trek (and Star Wars – I can’t really distinguish them) is something that has never kept me attracted enough to complete watching. And despite the constant references in The Big Bang Theory which I have always tolerated, I don’t really believe that it attracts science types.

    Now I was reminded that it had traveling faster than light which is pretty bad. On a more elementary level, in an episode, some officials in a spaceship needed to extinguish a fire, so they held their breath and removed the air from the cabin. Well, what would happen with the air in the lungs if the external pressure dropped to zero? Boom.

    For many reasons like that, it’s clearly some stories that only want to look sciencey but they were clearly written by someone who doesn’t really have a clue about science and he didn’t bother to have any scientist looking at them. But that wasn’t even the main reason why I’ve never completed a film or an episode, and if I did, I instantly forgot it.

    It’s mainly because the plot looked like some bureaucracy that is just placed to some unrealistic scenery, nearly the vacuum.

    Yes, I only remember the name of William Shatner because Sheldon Cooper once answered a quiz question by Penny and said that Shatner was the hottest scientist elected ever. Again, my guess is that the show has been more likely to have inspired Jim Parsons than a typical scientist. But even if I learned that I have been missing something for the whole decades and Star Trek is a good sci-fi show, I just can’t possibly understand the singular role that it seems to play relatively to hundreds of other sci-fi movies.

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