Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
I had thought I had reviewed all of the past Star Trek films I was going to review, but I figured, “Why the hell not?” I’m not going to run through all the back story of the production of this movie because it’s been documented in great detail already elsewhere. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is definitely very far from being the best of the franchise, and is rightfully ranked low on the scale. However, there are some elements of it that I have always liked, and have never heard anyone else give credit to. So, here I am to provide you my perspective on this misstep in taking this 1960’s television series into a feature film franchise.
When a destructive space entity is spotted approaching Earth, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returns to the newly retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise to take command away from the young and driven Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Kirk’s entire trusted crew is reunited with the addition of the alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and the surprise return of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who seeks deep, soul searching answers from the mysterious intruder. Now, the crew of the Enterprise must intercept and find a way to stop this alien intelligence before it destroys every human life on Earth.
Okay, let’s get the obvious critiques out of the way. This movie is especially dated in so many ways. Even though this was made because Star Wars was a big success, this is distinctly a science fiction film more akin to those made before Star Wars existed. The grindingly slow pace and the very cerebral focus fall more into a 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run mentality. The costuming and general look of the film are quite 1970’s like Battlestar Galactica. The one piece jumpsuits with their muted color palettes don’t have much of a progressive feel from the vibrant, yet simple uniforms of the television series. There’s a definite reason why these uniforms never reappeared anywhere in Star Trek – they’re instantly dated, impractical, and unappealing. The cast utterly hated wearing them. There’s so much in this film that feels like a step backwards for its time. Amidst films like Star Wars, Alien, and even Superman: The Movie, which all made large leaps forward with the science fiction and fantasy genres with special effects, exciting storytelling, and progressive filmmaking innovations, Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was lagging behind the times on all fronts.
The more immediate problem here is how little resemblance this bares to the television series. Star Trek was an exciting piece of episodic science fiction. It was usually quite intelligently written, and it had action, peril, consequence, and danger making for thrilling entertainment. This film has almost none of that. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has been called The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture by many people. I do enjoy a slow burn, methodically paced film, but this is slow pacing simply for indulgence sake. For example, this film takes almost an hour before the crew of the Enterprise actually encounters V’Ger at all, and every plot element is almost agonizingly drawn out with next to no impact. Instead, this film concerns itself with a drawn out briefing scene, a malfunctioning transporter, a malfunctioning warp drive, and many graceful, yet frivolously time sucking visual effects sequences. So much of this content could be chopped out entirely for an exceedingly tighter story structure, and leave room for building more substance and momentum into its intended story.
While there are character dynamics at play, the film takes no real time to develop a particular story to be engrossed in. While Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta put in good performances as Decker and Ilia, respectively, not enough effort is put into developing them to the point where an audience is invested in their plight. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, just self-contained within this film alone, are infinitely more fascinating than Decker and Ilia. This is firstly a script problem, and secondly, a directorial issue. Robert Wise had a very highly acclaimed career, but nothing in his filmography says he was the right man to direct a feature film version of Star Trek. This is the director who did several musicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and methodically paced thrillers like Run Silent, Run Deep. He could do critically acclaimed science fiction such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain, but none of his work aligns with the exciting, innovative style that was Star Trek. Apparently, Wise really only directed this film because his wife was a fan of the television series.
Circa 1983, George Lucas did a very intelligent interview that coincidentally details the problem of this film, and unfortunately, makes you wonder where that George Lucas disappeared to. He said, and I quote, “One of the fatal mistakes that almost every science fiction film makes is that they spend so much time on the settings, creating the environment, that they spend film time on it. And you don’t have to spend too much film time creating an environment. What they are doing is showing off the amount of work that they generated, and it slows the pace of the film down. The story is not the settings. The story is the story, the plot.” Star Trek: The Motion Picture spends so much film time gushing over the exquisite detail of its models and visual effects that it forgets to actually tell an engaging, thrilling story. I will admit that the models are excellent, but due to a rushed production schedule to meet an unrealistic release date, many of the film’s visual effects were less than what they were supposed to be. The director’s cut released in 2001 went a long way to rectify that, but the fact still remains that this film is better suited as a dazzling visual effects reel than a well constructed and smartly conceived narrative movie. However, while the script is terribly misguided, and the choice of director was way off the mark, there is one great element that flows through both the good and the bad first six Star Trek films – the core cast.
The one actual strength of this film are the character interactions. The foundation of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is retained as solidly as ever. When Bones first beams on board the Enterprise, I really love the exchange between him and Kirk. How McCoy is still as fiery and cranky as ever is great, and how Kirk pleads with his friend because of how desperately he needs him on this mission has always been a favorite moment of mine. It shows that the characters that we know are intact and the actors know exactly who they are inside and out. Jim Kirk knows he can’t do it alone. He’s already without Spock at this point, and so, he has to draft Dr. McCoy back into service. Spock and McCoy balance out Kirk’s ego, passions, humanity, rationale, and decisiveness. You can see this in the first minute that McCoy steps foot on the bridge, and once Spock joins them, the equation is complete. DeForest Kelley did get all the best dialogue, and constantly proved to be an excellent talent in this role. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in this movie, but the moments he does have are pitch perfectly filled with passion, depth, emotion, and wit. Kelley is actually one of the few to inject a humorous, smart quip every now and then, which this film greatly needed to break up its monotonous tone. It’s amazing that the entire original series cast did not miss a single beat slipping back into these classic characters after so many years, and that comfortable, sharp chemistry is part of what always made them work so greatly in any medium.
What I really like about James T. Kirk is that he is a man with an ego, but he’s not so consumed with it to not be aware of it. He’s able to correct himself when he realizes he’s in the wrong, and that becomes clear when dealing with Decker. When Kirk learns that his objection to Decker countermanding his phaser order was justified, he retracts his stance and acknowledges his error. Later on, he catches himself quicker when Decker offers an alternative course of action in defending the ship, and it shows that he’s tempering his actions. William Shatner really does a lot to enhance Kirk in this story as a man who is a little older and a little out of touch with his own ship. He stumbles here and there, but is able to stay on his feet, on his toes. The sort of ticking clock of V’Ger coming closer and closer to Earth forces him to make brash, impulsive decisions. They may not be the wisest ones, but they are the chances he has to take as a Starfleet Captain.
The finest performance in this film, by far, is from Leonard Nimoy. While other characters lack a through line arc, Spock is given one that is prominently at play throughout the movie. In the midst of a Vulcan ritual that would purge all emotion from him, Spock telepathically connects with V’Ger, and begins to question if logic is enough. He then abandons the Kolinahr ritual to seek out V’Ger in hopes of finding answers to his questions. Early on, you can see Spock is troubled and distant. Nimoy utilizes such subtlety in these moments, and it is very compelling seeing that unfold behind his masterful facial expressions. Yet, we gradually see the more comfortable and familiar Spock take stage on the bridge. The intelligent insight and perceptiveness of Spock is hit perfectly on the mark showing us exactly what value this character brings to this crew. Spock progresses and develops as he explores V’Ger in depth, and he once again becomes whole through a introspective, soul searching journey. What story there is in this film is really Spock’s in relation to V’Ger, but it certainly feels like a subplot that is almost drowned out by the constantly dull banality of the weak main plot.
What you have to give credit to is that despite all the blatantly obvious flaws of this movie, it does treat its characters with respect, and features some good character development. At the beginning, Kirk is restless as an Admiral pushing the proverbial paper work around, and Spock is empty, incomplete, and searching. By the end, Kirk has found his home and his purpose again as the commander of a starship, and Spock has embraced more than just logic. And it is clear to me that there was supposed to be more going on with Decker. He starts out ambitious and driven, a man who wanted this command, but had it robbed form him by the very man who endorsed him for the position. In the end, he finds another purpose and path for himself. While the film doesn’t convincingly drive him down that road at all, you can see there was an intention there for it. The fact of the matter is, even if the movie is bad and ill-conceived, as long as the characters are treated with respect and the actors are solid in their portrayals, I can find some enjoyment and a little admiration for any Star Trek film with the original cast.
Now, I firmly believe that Jerry Goldsmith was the quintessential feature film composer for Star Trek. I only find it unfortunate that he just happened to end up scoring some of the worst regarded films in the franchise. While this film has its excessively long, drawn out sequences, they translate into some very inspired and wonderful compositions by Goldsmith. Beyond the new main title theme, I have always loved his Klingon theme as it just encapsulates the feel of them perfectly. Overall, Goldsmith sets the right tone with his score adding in cues that evoke danger, mystery, and the unknown. Even if you can’t bare to sit through this film, listening to Goldsmith’s score is a pleasure. I own the 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition CD, and it is one of the late maestro’s finest epic scores.
While the film has visual spectacle, is fairly well directed, and is technically sound, it was a severely misguided attempt plagued with problems. Nobody was happy with this movie during production or upon release. There were constant creative disputes amongst Gene Roddenberry, the screenwriter, Nimoy and Shatner, and the studio to where rewrites happened daily with the ending being conceived essentially on the spot. Today, a movie like this would kill any chance for a franchise, but Paramount was willing to revamp the creative team and it resulted in what is widely regarded as the absolute best of this film franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With this first movie, I suppose if, by some slim chance, this film does engage your interest and attention, it could be fairly thought provoking about your place in the universe, but there’s a long way it could go to improve upon that material by simply adding more substance into its proceedings. Star Trek: The Motion Picture simply does not have enough meat on the bone to satisfy, and instead, fills itself out with a lot of pointless fat in the form of mind numbingly long visual effects sequences. There are certainly fan edits out there which trim this movie down to under ninety minutes, and it’s likely a little better off for it. I think it is important to say that this is not so much a bad movie as it is a mostly unexciting and dull one. I can’t really urge anyone to go see it if you haven’t already, but if you have seen it, I hope that what I’ve had to say here at least opens you up to seeing that it does have some merits, even if they are lost in a vast sea of stillness.