Movie Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Released: December 7th, 1979

Eh… I can think of at least a few comparisons. (Taken from Wikipedia.)

Synopsis: The year is 2273. Monitoring station Epsilon Nine detects an energy being heading to Earth, destroying three ships of the Klingon Empire and said monitoring station en route. Starfleet dispatches the newly refitted Enterprise to investigate. Headed by Admiral (temporary Captain) James T Kirk, the departure is sullied somewhat by a dispute with Captain (temporary Commander) Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). Commander Spock also boards, noting that while on Vulcan removing his emotions, he sensed the energy being. Also aboard is Navigation Officer Ilia (Persis Khambatta), who once had a romantic relationship with Decker.

Being that this ship is newly refitted and that most of the controls need to be tested, you can probably guess that this will end well.

Review (SPOILERS, MAYBE): Y’know, for a movie which almost screams “disco” in its costumes and sets, Star Trek TMP is actually a rather slow, cerebral movie. It’s common knowledge that the movie has something of a reputation for its slow pacing and lack of “action” sequences, in favor of special effects and a 2001: A Space Odyssey experience. The question is – does this detract from the movie, or give it a charm?

Well, it depends on your viewpoint. In my view, the movie has a good idea, but it wasn’t meant to launch the movie franchise. Even if it had to launch the movie franchise, just a few edits could’ve really improved this movie… mainly in the special effects department.

(I should preface that I watched the movie on Netflix. I’m not sure if it’s the original film, a director’s cut, or a special Netflix edit.)

As I mentioned above, this movie has a reputation for being a special effects showcase WITH A PLOT! There is no reason to doubt that. Let’s be clear here – barring a few awkward moments (thanks to the relative limits of late 70s tech), the special effects are quite impressive.

BUT! Whenever the movie feels like it has an awesome special effect – which is all the damn time – it drags on for minute upon minute. This technique can be effective in limited doses – it could be used to build atmosphere, or create some form of tension. Here, the technique used far too frequently, for what seems to be the most mundane stuff. Take, for example, the launch of the Enterprise.

That is one beautiful looking ship. It deserves quite the glance – a minute or so. In the movie? It takes up four minutes. Yes. Four. Minutes. And what happens? Kirk and Scotty look at the ship… then at each other… then their shuttle slowly enters dock. There’s no dialogue. Whatever atmosphere is created is quickly nuanced by a desire to move the plot forward. Who knows – it was the first time Trek was on the silver screen, and the first new Trek since 1969, so it was probably more impressive in 1979, but still – they took something good, stretched it out too long, and made it annoying.

That’s not an isolated incident. The scene where the crew enter the anomaly? Barring the odd cut to the bridge? Nine minutes. Yes. Nine minutes. I guess that scene was supposed to be more of a “sit and absorb” experience – as I mention below, the crew going into an anomaly is supposed to be this alien experience – but if it had been a one-off, maybe quite a bit shorter, it would’ve been awesome. With the frequency and length of the effects before it, instead, it just comes off as another reason why this movie is called The Slow-Motion Picture. (I’ll be honest here – I wound up skipping ahead on Netflix. The best thing about home release and Netflix – if a movie feels sluggish, yet you want to review it, pause and go back to it later.)

However, maybe this was the point – going inside V’Ger seems beautiful, but eventually, becomes this cold, cold concept. Or maybe it was just too much of a coincidence. I think the latter is much more likely.

Characterization is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we get a multi-dimensional look at Spock – why does he not reject emotions in favor of logic? The reasoning is an interesting re-look at Spock – that Spock wasn’t just the most marketable character in the franchise, but actually was a three-dimensional character. That’s why people loved Spock, and one of many reasons why Leonard Nimoy’s death was mourned as widely as it was.

Kirk also got a bit of development – his cockiness and something of an ego brings him in contact with Decker, and it does land his crew into trouble. I wish this was explored a bit more in this movie, although Wrath of Khan more than made up for it.

The re-introduction of the rest of the cast serves more staunchly as a re-introduction to their main traits. Which is fine – this was the first time in ten years that new Trek was being produced. Reintroducing these characters as is was alright – I just wish there was a bit more development all around. Again, Wrath of Khan made up for it in some areas.

It can’t really be said for Ilia and Decker. For one, their past romance just seems sterile – we know little about these characters, and thus, their conflict is pointless. Ilia and Decker aren’t that fleshed out beyond their relationship with each other. Their actors also deliver something of a bland performance, thus (ironically, see below) reducing the emotion we get from them. And in something as cerebral as this, you need good acting to communicate the emotions. Consequentially, the climax of the film has less impact than it should’ve. Of course, this is just what I felt – if you felt they were relatable and developed, feel free to. I just didn’t feel it.

Oh, and there’s also the fact that Stephen Collins recently admitted to three separate acts of indecent assault involving minors, with one incident apparently occurring three years after this film was made. As far as the film goes, this makes (at least) some scenes involving him awkward to watch. (In the grand scheme of things, though, what really matters are the victims of his actions, and my thoughts are with them.)

Compliments need to be paid where they need to be, and that’s where I talk about the plot. It’s actually not too bad. In fact, it’s pretty damn inventive. While The Original Series is about exploring new worlds, this movie takes it to the next level by showcasing something truly unknown, or at least getting a closer look at it than TOS did.

And genuinely, this is a brilliant social commentary that actually is relevant today. After all, what is V’Ger? A system made of machines and technology. It’s a visually stunning, advanced system with every ounce of intelligence available. However, in practice, it’s a removed, callous system, and it seems to have no knowledge of how to emote. Yet, it does, as, according to Spock, it seems to have one question… “Is this all that I am?” It seems to want to be accepted, but doesn’t know how to comprehend emotion. Wasn’t that what TOS was about? Kirk trying to balance the most logical decision with the most humane/emotional decision? This takes that plot to the meta level.

Also, while at first, it seems simple to call V’Ger a child, technology as we know it – computer science – was in its relative infancy. Even today, the modern computers are still a long way off – at best – from trying to balance logic and emotion. Computers don’t really know the motives of humans – they can try and replicate, but don’t genuinely comprehend. And what will the consequences of technological development be?

It’s a shame, however, because outside of Spock, character development is rather thin, as mentioned above. Thus, we don’t really care if Ilia is taken over by V’Ger, or what Decker’s reaction to the whole scenario (read, having his ship taken by a decorated captain) is. Therefore, the plot has less impact.

Another problem? TOS did it already. This is practically a “remastered/expanded” version of the episode “The Changeling.” It’s not a perfect episode, but “Changeling” is a more entertaining look at the idea. Why? Because it has enough fun while doing so. It introduces these grand ideas, yet doesn’t seem overly pretentious about it – there’s a sizable amount of action in the episode. The episode doesn’t turn into an action show, but it’s not an overtly cerebral affair that could alienate the casual viewer.

I get what they were trying to do with The Motion Picture. I get it. Star Trek was about ideas and philosophy first. However, action was appropriately used to try and get the viewers of the TV show hooked. I do give the movie credit for focusing on their ideas. Still, for an original motion picture, you need to get a balance right – make a brilliant film that can communicate grand ideas, while giving something that a general audience can enjoy.

TMP didn’t do a good job at balancing – the special effects are too obtuse, the character development too acute, and the action relatively inconsequential, for it to be considered a top-tier Trek film. It didn’t capture what made TOS stand out – TOS was cerebral while being fun at the same time. Again, I’m not saying that a film has to go at breakneck speed – ironically, a technique that JJ Abrams took thirty years later. But this film went a bit too far in the other direction, with not enough to back it’s direction up.

I will say, though, that there is a hint that they at least tried. And it is a shame – a few edits would’ve made this a better film. Of course, without the lukewarm reception of this film, we probably wouldn’t have gotten The Wrath Of Khan.

Tidbits:

  • This movie was actually conceived as a TV pilot – Star Trek: Phase II. It was supposed to be the flagship program for the Paramount Television Service. It would’ve aired once a week, and the inaugural slate would’ve been Phase II, followed by a movie. The network was aborted after few ad slots could be sold, and Phase II was reworked as TMP.
    • Seventeen years later, Paramount did something similar – launching the United Paramount Network (UPN), with Star Trek: Voyager being the centerpiece of the network’s schedule. Worth noting that the pilot of Voyager reached 22 million viewers… and the UPN never saw ratings close to that high again. The network effectively sold out to the WB eleven years after that.
  • As I mentioned above, the “quiet special effects scene” technique can be successful if used in limited doses. Take, for example, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The scene where the Reliant and the Enterprise battle in the Mutara Nebula starts with just shots of the two ships flying around, hunting for each other, does seem like a long special effects shot. However, there, it was used to build up tension, was a (relatively) one-off scene, and actually had a purpose other than to show off how much cash was sunk in special effects. Oh, by the way: Wrath of Khan had less than a quarter of TMP’s budget, and despite making less money at the box office, made it’s budget back 8x over. TMP? Only 3x over.
  • Honestly, if you want a film that actually did this more successfully, try Wall-E. It’s gives a good commentary on the potential consequences of computers – not understanding the emotional aspect in favor of logic and stored information. And it’s a fun film – the characters, robot and human, are developed in a great way.
  • Unrelated note: “A Tale of Two Stans”? Thirty. Minute. Long. Episode. No commercials. Next Monday (July 13th), on DisneyXD, at 8:30 PM. Please watch it live.
Favorite Scene: After making contact with V’Ger, Spock details his feelings to the crew of the Enterprise, noting that V’Ger is intelligent, yet cold. He then grabs onto Kirk’s hand and says seven awesome words.

This… simple feeling… is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.”

Before you ask, yes, the Trek fandom had a field day with that scene. However, it shows that, as much as we see Spock as distant and aloof, he actually does have emotional connections, most of all being a genuine connection (friendship or otherwise) with his captain. It is a beautiful mark of character development that wound up foreshadowing Wrath of Khan.

Least Favorite Scene: What was with the romantic subplot between Ilia and Decker? They all tie for worst – we don’t really care for these characters. Had there been just one character to focus on, there would’ve been more development.

Score: 6.25.

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