The audience can have a little mystery, as a treat.
Over the last 10 years, countless movies have taken pains to make sure the audience understands every single element of the villain’s background, motivation and thinking. We’ve been asked to empathise with Thanos, been told vampires aren’t so bad, consider Killmonger’s point of view in all this and more. The bad guys are not only humanised but put on nearly equal moral ground with the heroes, making us question the motives of those heroes even more than the so-called antagonists.
In some ways that’s not a bad thing. We should consider that the world isn’t black-and-white, that many of the issues surrounding us are some shade of grey. Sure, that means we lack the moral clarity evident in the stories from an earlier age, but it also means whole groups aren’t being painted as criminals.
These kinds of in-depth explanations of why the villain is doing what they are add a lot of time to movies, one reason running lengths have ballooned so drastically.
It also means that the threat they pose is drastically reduced. There’s so much exposition and search for understanding that happens, the audience stops caring about what it is they have planned. That, plus the fact that franchises thrive because individual stories lack meaningful stakes means that even someone as world-shattering as Thanos ultimately becomes a big, purple, petulant child, not a terrible threat that must be eradicated.
All of that stands in stark contrast to the threat presented in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
If you’re not already familiar, the inciting incident that drives the story forward is the appearance of a mysterious, cylinder-shaped probe that travels through the solar system, shutting down all power in ships and outposts along its route. That leaves a trail of dead bodies in its wake, with the probe ultimately arriving at and causing chaos on Earth. It’s up to the Starship Enterprise and its crew to save the day.
While the crew takes an educated guess as to what the probe is looking for, there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including:
- Where did the probe come from?
- Who sent it?
- Why is it trying to make contact with whales?
- What is it that causes it to short out electrical power?
- Is it a ship, an unmanned vessel, or is it sentient itself?
- How long has it been traveling given its late arrival?
Given how modern blockbusters are going, all of those areas would be explored in-depth if the movie were being made today, with at least a half hour devoted to an examination of the family life of the aliens that launched the probe so we could understand their background.
As it stands, though, none of that is on display. There may be some further information offered in some of the Star Trek books or encyclopedias or other sources, but if you’re only familiar with the movie ,the monolithic probe stands as a series of unanswered questions.
It’s all the more terrifying for it. Because the intentions and motivations behind the probe are never stated, the audience is left to fill in the gaps on its own. That means what the probe is out to do can be as dark and destructive as someone’s imagination will allow. It could be out to destroy Earth along with all of Starfleet. It could be out to wipe out the entire universe.
By allowing big parts of the backstory to remain unexplained, the audience has to do some work. They have to make some assumptions and extrapolate on the information that’s offered.
When every last detail of the bad guy’s thinking is rationalized and offered up for easy digestion, it removes some of the dread the audience should be feeling because there’s no mystery there. Part of what makes evil truly terrifying is that it is unknowable. Their thinking should be completely alien to us, like trying to decipher how an armour might be considering the weather.
More movies should follow the lead of The Voyage Home and other films that are similarly uninterested in explaining away the threat faced by the heroes of the story.