Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)


Star Trek was one of those shows that grew in fame with age.  It only lasted three years and the last episode, "Turnabout Intruder", was one of the more unsatisfying endings to a series.  After two seasons, and especially the second being some phenomenal science fiction and fantasy, the third was patchy.  Still, a decade later, there was enough good in the show to make it one of the most watched in syndication.  It was revived for a year (with many of the original cast) as an animated series, and was in preparation for a new television show called Star Trek: Phase Two.

The show fell through, but it was only a matter of time before the crew of the Enterprise came back in some form.  Creator Gene Roddenberry, along with director Robert Wise, were interested enough in doing so that Wise got Paramount to negotiate with Leonard Nimoy to work out their issues.  Meanwhile, Roddenberry retooled a script for the unreleased television show, stretching it into a feature-length film. 

The result was Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  In addition to Roddenberry, Wise and the return of the original crew, this had special effects work from both John Dykstra, who had worked on Star Wars, and Douglas Trumbull, whose models and visuals were the true stars of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In addition Isaac Asimov was consulted for his opinion on some plot points, as well as getting a little help along the way from NASA.  Not only did it sound as if there was some effort to please the fans of the show, but also to please those who like hard science fiction as well.  

When a massive cloud of unknown origin takes out a fleet of Klingon ships, a nearby outpost warns that the cloud is on the path to Earth.  James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now an admiral, pulls strings to have himself made captain of a refitted Enterprise, now commanded by a Captain Decker (Stephen Collins).  Decker is not pleased to have a temporary demotion, putting it down to Kirk's ego - something Jim's old friend Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) somewhat agrees with, having joined the crew after being returned to active duty against his will.  Though supplemented, the original crew is still aboard, and is joined by a new navigator named Ilia (Persis Khambatta), who has a history with Decker.  Soon they are also joined by Spock (Nimoy), who takes over for a science officer that was lost in a transporter accident. 

When approaching the cloud Ilia is killed by the creature at the center of it - a machine organism known as V'ger - and a probe in her form is sent back to the ship to interact with its crew.  It turns out that V'ger is searching for its creator, and considers all the "carbon units" crawling around the galaxy to be in the way.  Kirk and his crew must do what they can to make sure the Earth is not wiped clean of all organic life while, at the same time, helping V'ger reach its goals. 

Given the at the original cast, including Scott (James Doohan), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Koenig), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and even Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) are back, and everyone that was involved, Star Trek: The Motion Picture should have been the touchstone science fiction film of the decade.  It should have rivaled Star Wars and put the genre back on the track of 2001 or Silent Running.  Instead, both Shatner and Nimoy thought, after seeing the finished product, that it was the last anyone would ever hear of Star Trek.  

While it does try to transcend its campier elements, it was always walking that line between the ridiculous (often Shatner's acting and most female guest stars being squeezed into a few pieces of tin foil) and truly imaginative scripts like "Doomsday Machine" and "City on the Edge of Tomorrow".  The series didn't always succeed, but even where it didn't there was a dynamic between Kirk, McCoy and Spock that just seemed to overcome even the worst episodes.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture was so gung-ho at being serious and thought provoking that it completely forgot the characters at the heart of it that ultimately made the show what it was.  

Most of the effects (except for the beginning on Vulcan, which looks worse than many of the sets on the show) are amazing, which should be expected considering who was behind them.  Unfortunately, Roddenberry and cowriter Harold Livingston forgot that we don't want to spend 10 minutes with Kirk and Scott looking at the Enterprise, but rather see them on the ship arguing out some pseudoscience about dilithium crystals and what-not while getting chased by Romulans.  I did like the idea of a machine entity looking for purpose for itself in the universe, but the movie does not dwell on it enough.  In fact, it largely takes ideas from a second-season episode called "The Changeling", in which the big twist is pretty much the same.  While understandably it is a beautiful movie to look at the actual substance could have been boiled down to a quick 90 minutes and it would not have affected the quality of the movie at all.

The movie is over two hours long, and most of it is a pretty light show with some great sets and a few things that look like giant sphincters.  The pacing is incredibly slow, and the movie feels even longer than it is, consisting of an inordinate amount of scenes of people just staring at things.  Add to that a redesign of the Enterprise in which it has so much unnecessary space that is utilizing absolutely nothing.  I think it was Shatner that said it looked like a Hilton, but to me both the recreation room (where everyone gathers for a presentation) and Engineering look nothing less than a 1970s airport departure area.  The uniforms are also a major problem, as I am sure no one expected to see what is essentially a crew of military officers running around in onesies with giant belt buckles. 

Despite all of this the movie does have its redeeming points.  The plot, though it is stretched to the breaking point, does offer a more satisfying an explanation of how truly alien forms of life can be than the original "The Changeling" episode.  The Klingons get a design refit that, though it has caused a lot of debate due to how they originally appeared, pretty much defined the look of the creatures until someone decided to unnecessarily mess with it for Star Trek: Discovery.  Also, not to hate on Alexander Courage's original theme, but Jerry Goldsmith's main theme music has become the most recognized music from Star Trek, and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. 

Although not in the original series neither Stephen Collins nor Persis Khambatta, who are both integral to the plot, are forced to play second to older crew members.  In fact, Kirk is written as pretty much an egotistical jackass,, and honestly much of what happened in the original series probably wouldn't have if he were a lot more cautious of a captain.  The same thing happens here, as he almost immediately puts the Enterprise in danger without even encountering V'ger.  Leonard Nimoy gives us an older, and wiser, Spock, but unfortunately someone forgot that his skin tone should not be the same as humans.  DeForrest Kelley, unfortunately, is kind of pushed off to the side except for a few key scenes, although he looks hilarious in his old space hippy get-up.  James Doohan gets some time at the beginning before unfortunately being largely forgotten until the end, while the rest of the original crew, while it's nice to see them, don't get to do much else except look delighted that Kirk and Spock are back.

When taking into consideration what it wants to be, and the places where it does succeed, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a much better movie than its reputation would have one believe.  Despite its pacing problems and its failure to bring the character-driven drama that the best Star Trek does, it is still much better than The Final Frontier or Nemesis.  As great as a director as he was (he was responsible for The Haunting and The Andromeda Strain, after all), Robert Wise just wasn't the right person for bringing Star Trek to the big screen.  Indeed, Roddenberry and Livingston are partially to blame as well, since The Andromeda Strain is the same length and is a movie about trying to contain a virus, and it does not seem anywhere as much as a chore to watch as this.  It is not a horrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but even after all these years, and all the iterations of Star Trek, it remains a disappointment.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Time: 131 minutes 
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelley, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta
Director: Robert Wise


 

Comments

  1. Robert Wise also directed The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original 50's version) and The Sound Of Music.

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    Replies
    1. He sure did. Personally I think this was hampered more by Roddenberry and Livingston's script. I think Wise did the best he could, although with everyone on this it should have been much better.

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