So here’s a fascinating fact that I totally missed recently: last week, on Thursday, was the 38th anniversary of the day that Star Trek first appeared on the silver screen. December 7th, 1979, marks the debut of the first Trek film, simply titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In that spirit, I figured this would be an ideal time to take a look back at the premiere installment of one of my favorite film franchises. But is it a blast, or a bust?
The simple answer is that I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re into spectacle in your movies, ST:TMP might be for you. If you’re looking for anything else…not so much.
First, a little background on the film’s production. To say that ST:TMP had a rocky road to the movie screen would be a massive understatement. There were creative difficulties and studio disagreements that went back years before the film’s release, and it only came about due to a failed attempt to launch a new Star Trek TV series after the cancellation of the Original Series. Not all the cast got immediately on board with the movie, and some took a lot of convincing. What’s more, the film remains one of the most expensive ever made, with so much focus on touching up and retouching the special effects that it only came together days before its scheduled premiere. This might explain a lot of the issues with the movie itself, but not the core problem of the story, which I consider just a case of bad writing.
Anyway, the successes of high-concept, cerebral sci-fi space operas like Stanley Kubrick’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were big influences on the production of ST:TMP, with those overseeing the project thinking the only way to draw Star Trek fans to the big screen was crafting something so incredibly epic in scale that it dwarfed all that came before it. Let’s just say that I have some…issues…with both those previously mentioned films. If you like them and think they’re the greatest movies ever, you should probably stop reading right here because you likely won’t agree with anything I’m going to say. I mean, they’re fine for what they are, which is landmark sci-fi films, and that I can’t deny, but whether or not I enjoy sitting at home watching them is another question entirely.
My primary complaint about ST:TMP is that it’s, honestly and bluntly put, dull. Dull, dull, dull. Oh God, it’s so dull. And the most frustrating thing is that I feel like the central plot conceit of the movie could have been pretty cool if done right. For those of you who don’t know, the film takes place in the years following the Original Series. Captain James T. Kirk, now a senior Starfleet officer, is called back to the front lines as a mysterious entity of massive cosmic power approaches the Earth, with ostensibly malicious intentions. Retaking command of the starship Enterprise and reuniting with his original crew, Kirk must find a way to stop the entity, which calls itself V’Ger. Several hours of special effects-driven scenery later, it turns out that “V’Ger” is actually just “Voyager”: a human-built space probe launched to explore the universe (hey, contemporary reference! Well, kind of) that was discovered by a race of intelligent machines, given sentience, and sent back home to find its creator, as well as the meaning of life.
Like I said, the whole V’Ger thing actually had a lot of potential. If it was done right, ST:TMP could have delivered a powerful message about what it means to live, the human spirit, and the nature of the universe as a whole, and really brought home the true, optimistic message of Star Trek. As it was, this conclusion was pretty much muddled up with a lot of technobabble, wall-to-wall shots of the V’Ger starship and the Enterprise sailing majestically through space, and the entire cast all staring at screens for much of the movie rather than doing pretty much anything else, like conversing or interacting. You know, the things most people go to the movies for. It could have connected this fictional future era with the modern day and the problems we face in a more tangible way than pretty much any installment of Star Trek before or since, but sadly it failed miserably in this regard.
For me, one of the key elements that drew me to Star Trek in the first place was the characters dynamics: each one of the players had their own roles to fill, a character with a life all their own, and with something to add to the whole. As it was, ST:TMP pretty much focuses on the key central dynamic of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov are all pretty much hung out to dry, little more than plot convenience and window dressing, which is a total disservice to such awesome characters. It feels like this whole movie could have been done without them, which is a tragedy. In addition, the core characters aren’t even where they’re supposed to be. Spock’s somewhat stilted but clearly friendly relationship with the crew has all but evaporated in the movie, and he’s cold, adversarial, and downright rebellious throughout the story, which makes no sense whatsoever because it doesn’t even further the plot. Much is made in the first half of the movie about Spock’s supposed psychic connection with V’Ger and his identifying with it on some level, which all amounts in the end to…pretty much nothing, as far as I can tell. McCoy has minimal involvement except for that first humorous transporter scene. And I still don’t know how William Shatner managed to sit through this whole movie without going crazy. For a guy who took part in so many Star Trek action scenes, the amount of nothing he does in ST:TMP is staggering. There’s almost no action scenes of any note in the entire movie, in fact. I’m not saying every film needs bombastic fights or explosions to be good, but when you’re spending three hours watching characters watch things, a little punching or shooting couldn’t do anything but help break up the monotony.
Speaking of wasted opportunities, ST:TMP introduced two new characters to the Enterprise crew, both of whom represent more squandered potential. I’m primarily speaking of Captain Decker, the new commander of the Enterprise, who is demoted by Kirk at the start of the film so he can retake command. Decker is one of the most fascinating characters in the film, and I’m dying to know more about him, but he’s just never fleshed out the way he should be. He’s obviously very bright and capable, and his adversarial relationship with Kirk is one of the most intriguing plot threads in the film: but like all the others, it’s just left dangling. Imagine how you could feel to get command of the best ship in the fleet from a man you’ve idolized, only to have it snatched away again by that very same man. You couldn’t ask for a more compelling setup for a character arc than that, especially when Decker saves the ship from an engine malfunction after Kirk makes a bad call. But in reality, not much is really made of this until Decker finally meets his end by merging with V’Ger to create a new life-form. So much for him. As for Lieutenant Ilia…someone remind me why she was here again, at all? Other than her implied past relationship with Decker (again, another plot thread introduced that is completely inconsequential and never expanded upon) and her conversion into V’Ger’s little minion, I don’t understand the value of the character at all. To me, Decker and Ilia are relegated to the role of ST:TMP‘s “red shirts”: people introduced simply to get killed off so the main characters aren’t at risk. Pretty lousy way to use them, if you ask me. Especially if you’re trying to use them to make a big point about the meaning of life, maybe you should try to make me care about them a little bit first.
My Rating: 4/10
While Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t totally horrific, it’s still pretty bad. It whiffs in a spectacular manner for most of its tortuously extended run and fails to recapture the magic of Star Trek that was present in the Original Series and returned in spectacular fashion in the follow up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. More on that another time. It’s quite a shame, too, given all the seemingly promising material ST:TMP had to work with. If I have one positive thing to say about it (other than that it wasn’t so bad a sequel didn’t happen), it’s that the opening credits introduced the iconic Star Trek theme music that’s come to define the franchise. So yeah…there’s that.