In certain films, ships serve as analogues for biological bodies. The crew and passengers act as different types of cells in the bodily system, functioning as parts in a loose organic mechanism wrapped in a metal shell at sea or among the stars. The ship is a character composed of different facets represented by human constituents. In this metaphor, individual roles play as more than their separate parts, transforming the ship from a setting into a organism.
Like any organic creature, a ship on film is susceptible to infection. This infection comes in the form of ideas. An individual with new ideas or dreams boards a ship and begins to spread their way of thinking. They challenge the status quo. Some accept these dreams, falling in love with the dreamer in the process. The infection of thought spreads, and the healthy human systems of the ship begin to change. Others counter this idea infection and defend the status quo. To further the association, the dreamer is the infector, the love interest is the infection target, and the old guard are the antibodies. The isolated, enclosed nature of a ship forces the dreamer, the love interest, and the old guard to eventually confront each other over the infection.
In this fashion, films about ships as overarching characters explore sociological aspects of creative thinking, how information travels, and the effects of interpersonal relationships.
In James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, the eponymous ship is a floating city at sea and a self-contained, if lumbering, organism. As the world's largest ship in its day, a tremendous undertaking is required to keep it operational. The film surveys the interlinking systems that give every inhabitant of the ship a specific, cellular duty. Porters move luggage. Stewards and officers shepherd individuals. Chefs prepare food. Engineers maintain mechanical systems. Coal shovelers shovel coal. The Captain and his beard stand around looking solemn. Even the passengers exist in their own system within the entity of the Titanic. Passengers occupy a stratified social structure. The class system determines luxury and power, segmenting the ship deeper. As the ship sets sail from Southampton, England, it is a healthy organism with all of its systems in balance.
However, an infector finds his way onto the ship. A young artist and dreamer named Jack Dawson boards the ship at Southampton. He threatens the balanced systems of the ship. Specifically, he intentionally or unintentionally places pressure on the class system through his actions. At first, Jack's lower class ticket affords him limited access to different parts of the ship, restricting his ability to spread his ideas. Physical barriers and the crew separate him from the upper class and their areas. The wealthy already treat Jack like an infection. The lower classes are penned in the bottom of the ship like lepers. Jack himself is unclean, uncouth, and undesirable to the rich. Jack's ideas and dreams temporarily remain his own. They do not tolerate dreamers.
Jack encounters a way into the upper class to spread his dreams. He encounters a priveleged, young woman named Rose DeWitt Bukater. After saving a despondent Rose from a suicide attempt, Jack begins his seduction. Rose becomes infatuated with Jack and his way of thinking. He is different than the old guard of the ship. The old guard are the wealthy, and their prominent defenders are Rose's fiancée Cal Hockley and his bodyguard Spicer Lovejoy. Cal and Spicer act as antibodies and are suspicious of Jack. They protect their interests, which coincide with the balanced class system of the Titanic. The antibodies relent as Rose vouches for Jack and his rescue, proving the immune defense of the Titanic is as water-tight as its bulkheads.
The upper class have a mixed reaction to Jack's idea infection attempts. At a first class dinner, Rose's mother, Cal, and several other passengers maintain their suspicions about Jack. Other, more historical figures are more receptive and amenable to Jack's charm. These figures include the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, ship's designer Thomas Andrews, and John Jacob Astor IV. Rose remains the most entranced by Jack and goads him into sharing his ideas. She is intrigued by his free spirit and his capacity to dream.
Through Jack's coy behavior and Rose's prompting, Jack continues to corrupt Rose. She believes her emotions are her own, but Jack's thoughts infest her mind. A whirlwind romance ensues, taking only a number of hours. Jack lowers Rose's defenses by sharing his sketches and passion. He then openly transmits his ideas to Rose through discussion. Later, he brings her to Steerage. The couple dances a raucous dance as Jack shows how fun his way of life can be. Rose is successfully seduced and infected with Jack's ideas. Rose blatantly states she would like to live Jack's life.
When Rose returns to the upper class, her family forbids her from mingling with the infector. Cal and Spicer defend the stratification of classes and their system by acting as antibodies. They use all of their resources to confine and expel the infectious agent of ideas. At times, they try to coerce Jack. At others, they physically intimidate and attempt to murder him. Still, Rose is Jack's thrall in love and comes to rescue him on multiple occasions. Again, the immune response of the Titanic is somewhat feeble.
Through no fault of Jack's infection of the ship, the Titanic suffers a mortal wound when it strikes an iceberg. The collision reinforces the metaphor of the ship as a creature. The Titanic's lookout is it eyes. It communicates to the brain in the Bridge. The Bridge signals to its propulsion systems. The reflexive action of the ship fails to prevent its piercing. The creature that is the Titanic is dying. The lights short out as the metal beast splits and founders. The fatal blow cancels Jack's infection of the ship with ideas. He focuses on his current infection target.
While Jack and Rose do have sexual intercourse, this moment is not the final act of corruption. The completion of Jack's idea infection of Rose comes after Titanic sinks. Rose floats on a door, and Jack freezes in the water. He finalizes his infection of Rose by making her promise to live free. He tells her, "You must do me this honor.... That you won't give up, no matter what happens, no matter how hopeless. Promise me now, Rose, and never let go of that promise." Jack recognizes he is dying, but his ideas live on through Rose. Most contagions perpetuate themselves through other means. His dreams are transferred to Rose through the infection process so that they can be retransmitted again. The infection takes hold through love and the fact that she is now saddled with the guilt that she basically killed Jack.
In the film, the idea infection is most apparent when Rose is nearly one hundred and one years old. She directly refers to Titanic as the "Ship of Dreams." Artifacts and dialogue throughout the course of the story reveal she has lived the life that Jack wanted for her. Rose becomes an actor in the 1920s and adopts Jack's last name Dawson. Framed pictures on her dresser illustrate the adventurous life she lived. Those around her comment on her family. She apparently marries a man named Calvert and has children and grandchildren. She then proceeds to share Jack's dreams with them. Jack's infection crosses multiple generations and continues.
Similar to Titanic is the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E (sometimes written Wall·E). The two films share superficial similarities: there is a lower class dreamer/robot that falls in love with an upper class person/probe, there is a luxury liner with an inept captain, the luxury liner tips on its side at one point, and there is a dance near the engines. Importantly, they are both films about infectious ideas, the propagation of hope, and its outcomes. WALL-E's metaphor is slightly more encompassing and less depressing than that of Titanic.
WALL-E is the last Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class left functioning on the planet Earth. He lives a lonely life as he travels around a polluted planet. There is only one thing WALL-E can do: dream. He scavenges artifacts and learns of a thing that humans once called love. As a dreamer, WALL-E believes in the power of love, and love is meant to be shared. WALL-E finds his love interest, his Rose, when EVE the Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator lands on top of his head. At first EVE rebuffs WALL-E, but his charm is disarming (plus a dust storm forces them into close quarters).
WALL-E and EVE fall for each other as WALL-E tries to share his ideas and trinkets with his new friend. WALL-E has a dream. It involves the musical Hello, Dolly! and holding hands. EVE is receptive to his advances until her programming gets in the way. She enters a catatonic security mode to protect a plant sample. For comparison purposes, the programming represents the notions of the old guard countering new dreams -- like Rose's family forbidding her to see Jack. WALL-E continues his attempts to infect EVE with his ideas by taking her on dates across the polluted wasteland. The infection is not as apparent, but EVE's systems are accepting the data, more like a computer virus than a pathogen.
WALL-E stows away on EVE's return vessel and finds a new infection target: the Starship Axiom. The Axiom is like the Titanic in that it is a ship with integrated organic systems, making the ship a hulking creature trundling among the stars. WALL-E is greeted by M-O the Microbe Obliterator. M-O literally treats WALL-E as an infector. M-O attempts to sterilize the ship of WALL-E's pathogens in a prescient attempt to sterilize the Axiom of disease if not ideas. WALL-E escapes M-O and accompanies EVE and the Axiom's antibody system, steward robots. Later, these security steward robots attempt to corral WALL-E as a foreign body. WALL-E follows for EVE in order to spread his dreams.
In the corridors of the Axiom, WALL-E finds how much of an organic system the ship actually is. Robots and humans zip around in lanes, fulfilling their individual functions. The corpulent humans sit in hover chairs and act as part of the circulatory system as they pulse through massive arteries around the Axiom. They absorb nutrients and reproduce, which are the basics of cellular life. Humans no longer live as individuals. They are constituents of the whole and no longer act independently. Humans are red blood cells and initially wear red jumpsuits to reflect this status.
WALL-E finds new infection targets with whom to share his idealistic hopes. His first human infection victim is a man named John. WALL-E bumps into John accidentally and causes John to drop from his hover chair. WALL-E places him back in the chair, but the infection is complete. John waves good-bye to WALL-E as the robot speeds after his love interest. The rusty robot finds his next human to infect on a transport. His infection target is named Mary. WALL-E accidentally breaks her chair's holographic screen and reveals the real world to her for the first time in her life. John and Mary later meet and become friends, sharing this thing that humans once called love. They witness the stars and play in the ship's pool.
Additionally, WALL-E infects robots, like M-O, with his way of thinking. In a silent transfer of thoughts, WALL-E waves at a typing robot. The robot waves back and enjoys the motion. Waving to WALL-E is an indirect symptom of carrying his infectious ideas. Another indirect sign of infection is chirping the Hello, Dolly! song "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." After WALL-E frees a number of misfit robots from a maintenance bay, they become his infected disciples. They defend WALL-E against all comers and signal their new status as a dreamer with "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." WALL-E is a prophet, showing people and robots a new way to look at the obvious.
The Axiom's systems are controlled by Auto, the ship's autopilot. Auto is programmed towards a single directive: A-113. Auto must protect the humans of the ship in space, indefinitely. Auto does so by maintaining the status quo at all costs. The tenuous balance kept by Auto keeps the ship, and its component humans, alive. As defenders of the status quo, Auto and GO-4 are like Cal and Spicer from Titanic in their vehemence and violence. Auto does not want WALL-E, EVE, and the infected to upset the balance of the ship. The robotic ship's wheel turns to lethal means to do so. Auto ejects the infectious WALL-E into space in an escape pod before detonating the vehicle. When this plan fails, Auto dumps WALL-E down a garbage chute. Auto also attempts to crush WALL-E in a retractable container. In fact, Auto does successfully kill WALL-E.
WALL-E's systems are rebooted, and he loses the capability to dream. He loses his internal memory recording of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." He loses the spark of love that he cherished and spread to others. Luckily, EVE returns to WALL-E the infection given to her. She reconstructs WALL-E and transfers a tangible spark of love. As with all good messianic infectors, WALL-E returns from the dead.
In the end, the entire ship is infected. All humans and robots share WALL-E's hopeful perspective on life. With the infection completed, the Axiom dies as an organism. Its purpose is finished, and it no longer sails the stars. It sinks to Earth. WALL-E's simple wish is the same as Jack's: love each other and live free. Unlike Jack, WALL-E is successful on a wider scale. Also, the adorable robot is less selfish than Jack. Jack's infection is more parasitic while WALL-E's infection is more mutually symbiotic, or at least a form of commensalism.
The 2009 Star Trek film's infection plot is more veiled than Titanic's or WALL-E's. It is embedded in a tale of explosions and outer space and more explosions. In the film Star Trek, James T. Kirk is the chief infector. He is a rebellious youth with a head full of radical ideas and dreams. He does not accept the status quo and believes there is always a better way. Captain Christopher Pike recognizes that Kirk's infectious rebellion is needed in Starfleet. The space faring navy is in need of new ideas because officers serving aboard starships are rigid and by the book. They are unprepared for the dangers and wonders of spaceflight. Captain Pike scouts Kirk for Starfleet Academy and to generally cause trouble. Kirk accepts the challenge and joins the new class of officer candidates. It is like Captain Pike's non-sensical catchphrase states, "Let's get some sass in that class." (Note: He never actually says this line, ever).
Kirk meets his first infection target aboard the shuttle to Starfleet Academy. He finds a man receptive to his dreamer ideas with Doctor Leonard McCoy. The two quickly become friends as they mutually share the infection of radical ideas. Ironically, McCoy is a doctor and a hypochondriac, making the infection all the more intriguing.
At Starfleet Academy, Kirk continues his streak of dreamer ideas at Starfleet Academy. He brings many of the other cadets over to his way of thinking. The greatest example of his way of thinking impacting others is his creative approach to the Kobayashi Maru, the unsolvable test. Kirk thinks outside the box by changing the reality of the box. He cheats. His solution to the test attracts the command structure of Starfleet Academy. He particularly attracts the eye of an instructor named Mr. Spock.
Mr. Spock is the Cal/Auto and Rose/EVE of Star Trek. He is both the anti-infection antibody and the love interest infection target (colloquial parlance deems this type of friendship a "bromance"). Spock has a rebellious side that he presently represses. Extending a symbolic middle finger to the Vulcan Science Academy, doing a heel-turn, and leaving one's home planet qualifies as being rebellious. Yet, Spock represents logic and the status quo. Kirk has to work hard to infect Spock with his radical thinking.
When an interplanetary emergency is declared and Starfleet's flagship is crewed by cadets, Kirk is sidelined. Kirk also happens to have vital information about the threat. He and McCoy fake an illness to get Kirk aboard the Enterprise. The USS Enterprise is another bodily system. Kirk sprints through the halls and sees the officers and crewmembers operating the different vital centers of the ship. Kirk attempts to communicate his ideas to those willing to listen. Kirk's patron, Captain Pike, believes Kirk's ideas about the nature of the danger and places Kirk as the tentative third-in-command of the ship. Some explosions occur, a planet implodes, and Pike is taken hostage by the threat. Spock becomes the new Captain of the Enterprise. Kirk's infection of Spock becomes a necessity.
Kirk's infectious ideas are taken by Spock at face value. Rebellious ideas on a military ship are known as a mutiny. Spock maroons Kirk to maintain his power and the status quo. He quarantines the Kirk contagion and ejects him from the body of the ship. This event is the equivalent of WALL-E's death in that it is only temporary. Unlike WALL-E's death, Kirk's ejection from the Enterprise takes him to an afterlife of sorts. On the planet Delta Vega, Kirk runs into a man with all the answers, a god-like figure. This man is Ambassador Spock, or a wiser Mr. Spock from an alternate Universe. Ambassador Spock informs Kirk that it is essential to the survival of humanity that Kirk befriend Mr. Spock and infect him with dreamer ideas.
Mr. Spock is too logical to succumb to just Kirk's infection attempts, and Ambassador Spock guides Kirk to another dreamer. On a Starfleet outpost on Delta Vega, engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott lives in exile. He is another radical thinker that challenged the status quo and lost. His crimes against the established ideas include experimenting with Transwarp Beaming and killing a beagle. Ambassador Spock dispatches the dual idea infectors of Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise. He even tells Kirk the key to lowering Mr. Spock's defenses.
Kirk and Scotty travel back to the Enterprise and successfully infect Spock. Antibodies in the form of security officers capture Kirk and Scotty and bring them before Spock. They infect Spock with emotion, and Spock punches Kirk in the face. Getting punched in the face is a symptom of a successful infection by Kirk. The next step in the infection is converting the whole of the Enterprise to his command -- a mutiny. Fortunately, the command crew is all too willing to follow Kirk.
Kirk infects Mr. Spock, but Mr. Spock is also the love interest of the story. The two bond as they attack the threat to Earth. They beam over to a hostile ship and engage in a deadly dance with phaser pistols. This dance is akin to Jack and Rose's dance in Steerage or WALL-E and EVE's dance in space. In order to win the fight, Mr. Spock must think like Kirk. He does and defeats the threat. The infection is complete.
After the threat passes, Kirk infects the totality of Starfleet's officers. For some reason, Kirk is promoted to Captain due to his creative command qualities. Kirk is a third year and has not even graduated from Starfleet Academy. There are more senior officers and even more senior cadets. Spock outranks Kirk, but Kirk's infectious ideas have transformed Starfleet to his whim. He is in control of the creature known as the Enterprise.
If Jack's infection is parasitic and WALL-E's infection is mutually symbiotic, then James Tiberius Kirk's infection of the USS Enterprise is the type of biological interaction that features a contagion replacing the cognitive center of the organism: dominion.
Cinematic ships are portrayed as living organisms with their own sentient, human components. These human parts of the living system are vulnerable to infections of ideas. In these films, external infectors are introduced onto ships to challenge established ways of thinking. These contagious dreamers encounter antibodies trying to reject them as well as a strong adherent to the new ideas, a love interest. The virulent radicals change the ship as their ideas spread. One cannot effectively innoculate against hopes and dreams, and ideas are self-propagating. Depending on perspective, these films explore how ideas spread and whether they are disease or revolution. Dreams are virulent, doubly so on a ship.