REVIEW – Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Directed by: Robert Wise
Produced by: Gene Roddenberry
Screenplay by: Harold Livingston
Story by: Alan Dean Foster
Edited by: Todd C. Ramsay
Cinematography by: Richard H. Kline
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney
Based on the TV series created by Gene Roddenberry
As some of you may know already, September 8, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the first ever episode of Star Trek airing on NBC. The show ran for a total of three seasons before being cancelled in 1969. Apart from a brief animated series that ran from 1973 – 1974, fans of the show for the next decade would have to settle for reading rumors of a new series titled Star Trek: Phase II. However, by the late 70s, and in the wake of the financial and critical success of sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, Paramount Pictures began to rethink their plans and ultimately decided to ditch the riskier, long term commitment that was the Phase II series and, instead repurpose its assets for a film – one that would feature the return of the original series cast to their respective roles rather than set up a new crew. As a result, a whole ten years after the cancellation of the original series, and despite a troubled and rushed production schedule that required both on-set rewrites and a postproduction that lasted until mere days before the film’s debut, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was finally released to theatres… and, yeah… it didn’t do nearly as well as the studio had hoped it would. (Kinda sounds familiar, huh?)
The Motion Picture, as we all know now, was ultimately considered successful enough for Paramount to greenlight a sequel, albeit one with a much smaller budget. (TMP ultimately cost $46 million, after an initial projection of a $15 million budget, which in today’s numbers means it started at about $54,576,830 and wound up costing $167,368,947). It wasn’t as if The Motion Picture was an underappreciated future classic, either. Plenty of critics and fans complained that the film dragged and didn’t contain enough action, even back in 1979, and it was the first in what would ultimately become a running gag about the odd-numbered Star Trek films being the bad ones. Director Robert Wise himself also called the theatrical release a “rough cut” and would later convince Paramount to allow him to fund the 2001 Director’s Edition (which is not being reviewed here), which featured new CGI effects and sound design more befitting his original vision. Effects, however, really are the least of the original cut’s problems, particularly when you know that the plot to the film was adapted from the planned pilot episode of Phase II – meaning that this film, which runs for 2 hours and 25 minutes, was given a repurposed story originally meant for what was likely an hour long TV episode.
As is usual with a lot of the lesser Star Trek movies, the general plot is actually a solid, if somewhat common premise for an episode, with all the familiar elements present: the crew is summoned to confront a mysterious and unstoppable entity, which is making its way towards Earth, destroying anything that threatens it along the way. Debates ensue about whether to take action by force or through more diplomatic means ensue among the crew, with the entity, meanwhile, revealing unforeseen and shocking details about its own past and the reasons for why it’s so adamantly set in following that path, bringing up questions about the nature of life and having a purpose in the process. See? Solid, and light enough to let in a lot of time with, say, a new crew or see what the remaining crewmembers have been up to and where their perspectives lie in this matter.
However, the film is instead padded out a great deal with psychedelic imagery that stays on screen for far too freaking long. While I can certainly appreciate the attempt to be more experimental and contemplative, the fact is that TMP doesn’t really say much through this visual spectacle beyond the fact that it understands that, “Hey, a lot of people liked when that happened in 2001, so why not here?” For every moment of awe at the unknown, though, there are about five more of pointless scenes of the camera just… showing various kaleidoscopic forms, or the same slow scene shot from several angles. The scene where Scotty shuttles Kirk around the docked Enterprise at the beginning goes from a loving reintroduction for the ship to Kirk practically eye-humping the thing and making us all feel uncomfortable. The Force Awakens did more with its quick “garbage” gag to endear us again to the Millennium Falcon than this movie does with 10 minutes of Enterprise glamor shots. At least we get Jerry Goldsmith’s gorgeous score to listen to, meanwhile.
As a continuation of the TV series, TMP also picks up some years after the series end and reintroduces us to the familiar characters – or, at least, to most of them. Spock has left Starfleet and returned to Vulcan, where he is attempting achieve kolinahr – the complete purging of all emotions and embrace of absolute logic. Kirk, meanwhile, has been promoted to admiral, but he’s become antsy without a ship and crew to lead, and as soon as the opportunity to rejoin with his beloved Enterprise arises, he worms his way aboard and essentially ousts the new captain, William Decker, from the command. The rest of his old crew – Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, Janice Rand, and Christine Chapel – have apparently remained aboard the ship in various (read: almost all the same) capacities, while Dr. McCoy has since retired. Kirk, of course, finds a way around this, too, and has Starfleet reinstate McCoy’s place aboard the ship, much to McCoy’s expected and hilarious frustration. Spock also crashes the party when he senses that the threat they face likely requires his presence. It’s all a very clumsy excuse for getting the crew back together, but there are a few admittedly nice moments throughout, like the aforementioned McCoy introduction… or McCoy lecturing Kirk about being such a jerk…. Pretty much anything with McCoy, as DeForest Kelley provides the liveliest of the performances. If only as much care and affection was evident for characters that weren’t Kirk, Spock, or McCoy – and, even then, I’m not all that enthralled with Shatner nor even Leonard Nimoy’s performances here, either, but the movie at least has some love for them. People frequently complain that the movies since 2009 don’t utilize their crews as much as they should, but this has honestly been a problem since the very beginning, and sometimes to more egregious levels, as is the case here.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not a terrible film, and its ambition is both evident and admirable. One can get through the film without feeling as though they have wasted their time, though many might need to take a few pause breaks here and there to break up the tedium. It’s just that there are a lot of great ideas here that simply do not get the attention that they deserve, and the returning cast is pretty much mostly wasted in favor of the main 3 and even new characters like William Decker and his ethereal love interest Ilia. The latter two, who are basically prototypes for Riker and Troi in The Next Generation, are not at all bad characters, mind you. It’s just a shame that their prominence came at the expense of the returning cast, who mostly just gawk at the viewscreen with mouths agape and nothing much else. (For audience members, a few of those scenes might even feel a bit like looking into a mirror at times.) TMP is just too much of a product of its time and place in sci-fi cinema and suffered as a result of a studio hoping to cash-in on the latest craze, rather than make an actually good film that could hold its own against the bigger critical and financial hits of the time. As for the legend of the old odd numbered Star Trek movies being bad – well, if this is “bad,” then it’s at least one of the more tolerable “bad” Star Trek movies made, considering some of the ones that came afterward.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2.5 / 5