Director: Robert Wise
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Stephen Collins
Runtime: 132 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
After a popular but short-lived three-year run on NBC from 1966 to 1969, Star Trek faded away. Cultists made the series’ reruns popular, and banking on that latent popularity, Paramount launched a brief animated series and then sparked initial plans on another live action show called Phase II, the latter of which fizzled out in legal disputes before any real production began. All the while the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry hoped to elevate his televised foundation onto film. Staples of science fiction ranging from Ray Bradbury to Harlan Ellison proposed story concepts for the film. Writer Alan Dean Forster’s screen story was accepted. Ray Wise, director of the legendary sci-fi picture The Day the Earth Stood Still, signed to helm the Enterprise into cinematic space. The first Star Trek film was eventually released to respectable box-office profits, thus beginning the longest running film series in Hollywood history.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrives with an interesting scenario and clever twist in the finale, but the entire film is mishandled while trying to differentiate between television and cinema. Here is a film reliant entirely on special effects and the reaction shots to them. Dialogue is sparse, forgoing character introductions for those unfamiliar with the television series. Indeed, even those devoted to the show might not recognize the thin descriptions of the beloved characters, whose dynamic was the key feature of the show.
The story begins with an energy cloud of some unknown origin approaching Earth, destroying ships and space stations in its path. A newly-constructed Enterprise remains docked and under assembly, while its new captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins) prepares her to intercept the cloud on Starfleet’s order. Seeing this as an opportunity to seize the captain’s chair once more, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) arrives onboard to reduce Decker to commander and become captain once again himself. Kirk is reunited with his former crew: Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), engineer Scotty (James Doohan), helmsman Sulu (George Takei), communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and tactical officer Chekov (Walter Koenig). Even science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is picked up along the way.
When they engage the cloud, the formation takes one of the crew, Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta), and replaces her with a mechanized android to observe human behavior. The crew is subject to its every whim, as it examines them from a purely logical point of view; this is particularly torturous for Decker, who loved Ilia. The drone claims it works for V’ger, the central hub of a massive craft inside the space cloud. When the Enterprise reaches that hub, they discover V’ger is really the lost NASA satellite Voyager, sent back to Earth by an alien race who built the massive construct surrounding the satellite to help it complete its mission. Since its mission was to absorb knowledge, it allows Ilia and Decker to merge into one being comprised of logic and humanity, and so a new form of life is born.
You’ll notice there’s no description of encounters with evil Klingons or Romulans, no phaser-laden space battles, no away missions where the crew encounters bizarre alien monsters. The film arrived in 1979, which is part of the problem. Hollywood had recently proven the science-fiction genre valid with not only the massive space-Western Star Wars, but the heady wonder of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Trying to elevate the material, the filmmakers seem to forget everything that made the show watchable. The crew barely banters in their signature way, so those debates of brash instinct (Kirk) meets logic (Spock) meets humanism (McCoy) are entirely absent. What dialogue we do hear hardly has the charm or wit or sarcasm the later films flourish with.
Most frustrating are the eye-popping special effects, rendered by way of incredibly detailed miniatures of Starfleet crafts and enormous alien bases. Esthetically, they look wonderful. Cinematically, they represent prolonged visual masturbation. They’re shot with a brooding camera in long takes; science fiction fans will find comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey unavoidable. Wise lingers too long on technology, but without the wonder Stanley Kubrick might imbue, and later he attempts an almost psychedelic view inside V’ger’s cloud, except with none of the substance of Kubrick’s landmark film. Wise’s direction presents an embarrassing derivative low-point in his career, as being unfamiliar with the series prior to filming, he could do nothing more but copy from better filmmakers.
With fandom ever-supporting Roddenberry’s lovable universe, The Motion Picture might have failed and ended the brief phenomenon that was the show’s cult popularity. Instead, the series’ supporters flocked to theaters to carry the film into box-office triumph and justify Paramount’s decision to make The Wrath of Khan, what many consider to be the real beginning of the filmic Star Trek adventures. Only the most devoted apologists embrace this first entry, which lacks almost every joyous attribute carried by the television show. Everyone else was left scratching their heads until the next entry in the franchise, which offered universal entertainment value regardless of familiarity.
More from this series:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)