Star Trekking I: The Motion Picture

Posted: May 3, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews, Retrospectives

*Warning: SPOILERS ahead

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

When it comes to movie franchises, Star Trek is one of my major blind spots. I have a bit of experience with the series; I’ve seen the Abrams’ films, Wrath of Khan, and even an episode of the original television series for class. But for the most, I’m a novice, and it’s a bit surprising when a sci-fi/adventure series seems right up my alley. I’ve decided to finally rectify this, and thought it be interesting to chronicle my experience through the films, not unlike what I did for the Harry Potter and Batman films. The major difference being that those series’ were ones I had a lot of experience and a strong emotional connection to, unlike Trek. I will be reviewing all twelve theatrically released films from now until late August (at the very latest). With that said, allow me to begin with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.star_trek_the_motion_picture

When it was first released in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first major Trek property to be released since the tv show was cancelled ten years prior. The show proved well in syndication however, and the wave of successful science-fiction films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind allowed The Motion Picture to be the most highly produced incarnation of Star Trek up to that point. However in spite of all this, the film opened up to a fairly negative reception, with many critical of the film’s slow pace. Though many refer to this film as, “the boring one”, The Motion Picture has built a following over the years, with some even citing the film as one of the series’ best. Because of this, I was pretty interested in this film, even more so when I discovered the film is directed by Robert Wise, the director behind the ground breaking The Day the Earth Stood Still and the under seen The Haunting.

The film opens with three Klingon ships investigating a large anomaly in space. Interpreting the anomaly as a threat, the Klingons fire on it, but these efforts prove futile and the anomaly quickly destroys the ships. This event is observed by a Star Fleet station that quickly determines the anomaly is on a course heading to Earth. Star Fleet decides to send the closest ship, the USS enterprise, to investigate, with former Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) returning to his post as Captain of the ship.

One of the first things that struck me about the film was how little an effort it was making to acclimatize new fans. Within the first ten minutes, the film presents Klingons, Star Fleet, Spock and Vulcan culture, Kirk, the Enterprise, and her crew, all with the assumption that the audience knows what all of these things are. I have enough experience with Star Trek that this wasn’t a problem for me, but I imagine the opening will be a bit frustrating for someone with no knowledge of Star Trek. That said, the opening scene itself is pretty cool. It introduces the anomaly, eventually revealed to be called V’Ger, in a manner which is intimidating and mysterious. The plot itself is overall pretty easy to get behind; a mysterious and powerful force is coming to Earth, and Kirk and the Enterprise need to protect the planet.

Watching the film, I can see why many would call this boring. Despite opening with an action scene, not much happens during the first hour and a bit of the film. There are a lot of glory shots of the Enterprise, and a lot of parts where the crew are just hanging out. That’s not to say nothing is happening. There’s a subplot involving Kirk replacing the Enterprise’s former Captain, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins). The two have some good scenes together and I like how the film shows how Decker probably is a more capable leader than Kirk in this case. The subplot works, but it’s also not interesting enough to carry the film for an hour, and it’s made more frustrating by the fact that the story goes nowhere. Overall, I wouldn’t call this section of the film boring, but it does stretch itself a little thin. I’ve read that at one point, the story for The Motion Picture was going to be the pilot for another Star Trek tv series, and it does feel like a thin story which could have been told in a two-part episode instead of a feature film.

This first hour also has what is, by far, the worst scene of the film. Early on, a Vulcan science officer (who was at one point meant to replace Spock on the aforementioned tv show) is introduced, but is quickly killed off in a transporter accident. I don’t get why the character was introduced only to be immediately killed off. It’s a very strange and unpleasant scene which serves no real purpose and just stands out awkwardly.

I think a big part of why the first hour of The Motion Picture feels fairly weak is because V’Ger doesn’t really feel like that much of a threat. While the opening scene establishes V’Ger as a force to be reckoned with, much of the rest of the film is completely lacking in tension. Two scenes perfectly embody this problem. The first is one where the Enterprise is attempting to send a signal to V’Ger while an attack is coming towards the ship. If the message doesn’t make it to V’Ger, the Enterprise will be hit and likely destroyed. Will the message make it in time? This has all the makings of a tense, nail-biting scene, but Robert Wise flounders the opportunity. Another is a scene where one of the crew, Illia (Persis Khambatta), is vaporized in front of Decker’s eyes. It’s made clear early in the film the two have a romantic history, but Decker seems largely unaffected by her apparent death. This would have been a perfect moment to raise the stakes and on a plot level, and an emotional level, but this doesn’t happen.

For all my complaining about the first half of Star Trek The Motion Picture, things do get pretty awesome in the second half. This is when the science-fiction ideas really come to the forefront of the story. Illia returns to the Enterprise as a probe for V’Ger to begin seeking knowledge. It is here that we learn that V’ger is a machine who has come to Earth seeking its creator and its purpose. This is a pretty interesting idea and it only gets better as the film goes on. I also like how V’Ger has amassed so much knowledge, but cannot comprehend simple emotions or desires. Saying it that way, it sounds kind of silly, but it really works in the film. More importantly, the idea is a clever twist on stories of man seeking God. Early on, V’Ger seems a god-like entity, but it turns out to be seeking its creator, which turns out to be humans. It is revealed that V’Ger is actually one of the Voyager probes sent from Earth during the 20th century, which was sucked into a black hole and brought to a planet inhabited by sentient machines. As a result of the machines coming together, the probe has returned to Earth to seek future steps. It’s also interesting how a dated piece of technology (the Voyager probe) has evolved into something grander. This theme of evolution is made more obvious when Decker decides to merge with V’Ger, not only saving Earth but forming a new being altogether. I do think this aspect could have been handled a little better, but it works for the most part. This is the kind of ambitious science-fiction I was promised from Star Trek, and I’m glad to see it deliver.

The visual effects here are also very strong. While I don’t know if they hold up as well as Star Wars or Alien, many of the visuals are a lot more ambitious than what was scene in those films as far as size and details go. There are some beautiful shots of the Enterprise as well as some interesting moments where characters pass through V’Ger. Some of these moments go on longer than they need to, but I really enjoyed them. Though the focus is definitely on the ideas, there are some character details that work. Kirk’s early subplot is interesting even if it doesn’t go anywhere, Bones (DeForrest Kelley) gets some funny lines and I really love how Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is revealed to the Enterprise crew.

I think this film can be best summed up by a line Spock uses to describe V’Ger. “V’Ger has knowledge that spans this universe. And, yet with all this pure logic…V’Ger is barren, cold.” This pretty much encapsulates how I feel about Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It is a very smart film with some great ideas and very well-executed science-fiction concepts. It’s also lacking in emotion in a lot of ways. Much of the film lacks a sense of excitement and feels like it’s on autopilot, the plot only moving forward to get to the larger science-fiction ideas. Still, I think the great elements here outweigh the bad, and the film isn’t entirely devoid of humanity. Overall, this is a very ambitious and intellectual science-fiction film which reaches for some very grand ideas. I can see why many would call it boring, but I can also see why many would call it amazing. Consider me around the middle, though I definitely lean closer to the latter.

B+

Thanks for reading, and join me next time when I take a look at the highly praised sequel; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Comments
  1. Outstanding review! I really liked the first one and loved it in the movie theater. It was visually stunning back then. Also, coming off the T.V. show syndication, I was an addict and so, the first hour didn’t bother me at all. The themes you discussed and the beauty of the Enterprise and V’ger were great for a teenager to see. Now that I’m much older, a revisit would be in order just to see how it holds up, but I suspect your review is spot on. A fun read, thanks. :)

  2. rgagne says:

    Great review! I watched the whole
    Original Series before I watched all six movies last summer and was extremely disappointed with this movie. Thankfully the franchise picks up later so I’m looking forward to your next review in the series!! I reviewed all six movie on my site if you want to read my thoughts.

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