Monday, June 10, 2013

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

In many ways Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffered a fate similar to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Both were preceded by a large hype machine. Both had fans eager to see the continuing adventures of their favorite characters. Both had fans with very distinct notions of what those adventures should be like. Both films had directors that were shooting for something much different than the fans expected. Both got hit pretty hard by the fans upon release. Of course the big difference is that The Motion Picture didn’t have Jar Jar Binks.

When a mysterious cloud-like entity destroys three Klingon warships and a Federation space station, Starfleet becomes a bit nervous. When they determine that the cloud is coming toward earth they decide to send their flagship, the Enterprise to investigate. Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) pulls some strings to lead the mission, pushing aside Captain Decker (Stephen Collins). Along the way they pick up Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who has determined that pure logic may not be the answer to all his questions.

The Enterprise confronts the cloud and with it a strange energy probe that abducts Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta). When it returns her, she appears to be a mechanical replica that answers to a being called V’Ger. This being has crossed the endless voids to find it’s creator, and it will stop at nothing to do so. Can the crew of the Enterprise solve the puzzle of this mysterious being before it destroys Earth?

Good Points:
  • Amazing visual effects that still hold up well today
  • Jerry Goldsmith provides what I consider his masterpiece of film music
  • Captures the awe and vastness of space exploration
Bad Points:
  • The characters don’t feel like the familiar group
  • The movie takes its sweet time doing anything!
  • The plot is recycled and thin
This movie needs to be rediscovered. It is the only Star Trek film to really embrace the spectacle and enormity of the unknown, and does it in a primarily visual style. It falls directly in line with the ideals and themes of the series, and avoids a direct comparison to Star Wars. While it’s not the best of the series, it is the most ambitious and most thematic of the films. Once you appreciate what it’s trying to do, the movie really works.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Boldly watching what no man has watched before.
Contrary to popular belief, Star Trek: The Motion Picture did very well in the box office. Often I see this film labeled a box office bomb, but the film made its budget back and more. Star Trek fans may have been disappointed, but they saw the film again and again. The success of the film helped fuel additional movies that would lead into spin off television series and a full-fledged franchise. So most Trek fans are willing to give the 1979 film that much, even if they find it dull, lifeless and plodding.

I will admit the film is flawed. It could have used a few more passes with the script, and tightened a few elements down. It could have made the characters feel closer to their television series versions with a bit more banter and camaraderie. It could have turned the story into something more crucial to the world of Star Trek, or to the characters (preferably both). Instead the film focuses on the themes more than the plot and characters and in that way is closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than it is to Star Wars: A New Hope.

The Enterprise in the belly of the beast.
From that point of view, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a dazzling success, especially with the director’s cut that was released on DVD back in 2001. It deals with man’s interaction with machine, on several different levels. It examines the power of logic with the power of irrational human emotions and reactions. And surrounding this core theme is the wonder and awe of the unknown.

What is interesting to me is that the special effects created back in 1979 hold up today (for the most part). So much time and effort went into creating the detailed models, sets, and assorted visuals that most of them were reused and reconfigured for the most of the remaining franchise. A whole host of different visual effect techniques were used, from in-camera tricks, to full-blown composite shots using state of the art motion control techniques. The director’s cut adds a few digital clean up scenes here and there. But nearly all of them would have been possible if the production had a bit more time to smooth things over.

For me it’s the model work that impresses the most. The Enterprise is beautiful creation, and seeing on the big screen during its introduction is a real treat. The camera was able to get incredibly close to the model, because of it’s size (8 feet) and the amazing detail on it. In addition you have the detailed model for the V’Ger starship, and immense creation that dominates the middle portion of the film.  It is an organic, yet mechanical design that is menacing and mysterious all at the same time.

The Enterprise is dwarfed by V'Ger.
A little less effective are the new costumes for the film. The bright colors of the television series were toned down to a set of drab jumpsuits. These provide an interesting unisex look (something that would return with the first couple seasons of The Next Generation television series). But the floating belt buckles are bizarre.

For the directors cut in 2001 the intended sound mix was used. The one on the theatrical cut was actually a temporary track. The intended track actually brings a bit more power to key scenes. The starship sounds, from the proton torpedoes, to the engine room rumble are immersive. You also have a whole array of sounds for V’Ger, its probe and various elements within its inner workings.

The music during the cloud exploration includes plenty
of Blaster Beam sound effects
I can write a whole blog about the music for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It is usually considered one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best creations. He creates a whole host of various themes, and utilizes them to the fullest. But perhaps the most notable part of the score is the use of the electronic instrument – the Blaster Beam. This creation is used for nearly all the V’Ger scenes, and adds a whole new dimension to the score. The sound is electronic, alien and powerful – all the things V’Ger is supposed to be. By integrating this instrument into the score, Goldsmith adds and enhances the visuals to an amazing degree. The film would not be half as successful if it wasn’t for his work.

Unfortunately two elements are lacking in this film and keep it from top marks. The first is the script. The plot itself is very simple. Yes, the stakes are high, but there is nothing really demanding about the situation for the characters. Our main crew of Kirk, Spock and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) find themselves watching much of the action in the film and not entirely participating. In fact most of the original crew gets sidelined in the film.

Guest stars Decker and Ilia get all the action
It is the two “guest stars” Decker and Ilia who end up interacting the most with V’Ger and each other. But oddly, they are fairly bland characters. So we never get too connected with them. When the finale arrives, it lacks power because it is happening to two characters the viewers don’t care much about.

Now, Spock and Kirk do have smaller arcs they work through. Kirk gets his ship back, and comes to understand what his role is as a leader. Obviously being an Admiral had made him a bit rusty on this concept. McCoy calls him on not trusting his crew to do their job and pushing too hard. It results in the ship nearly being destroyed in a wormhole. Eventually Kirk gets back into his groove and is able to figure out V’Ger’s puzzle.

The admiral uniform in this film inspired the admiral
uniforms in 2013's "Into Darkness"
What is interesting is that most people forget that Spock reaches a major milestone with his character in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He finally comes to an understanding with his human half. The film starts with Spock unable to complete the Kolinahr ritual. This would mean he was able to purge himself of all emotion and live though logic alone. Because of his failure in this regard, he returns to the Enterprise to meet with V’Ger, a being he feels may be kindred spirit. As the film progressed, Spock understands that V’Ger is incomplete, because it cannot understand emotions, or friendship or even the simple feeling of hands clasping. This opens Spock’s eyes to the fact that resisting his human and emotional half is futile. He embraces it instead, and it explains why Spock is much more relaxed in The Wrath of Khan.

For the most part the acting is solid. The script doesn’t allow much of the banter fans were used to, and so for many folks the performances seem stiff. However, I’ve always found the performances to be realistic to the situations that occur before the film. Kirk has been in what is essentially a desk job, McCoy was retired and Spock had gone back to Vulcan. So these three would feel a bit awkward around each other. Things thaw a bit as the film progresses, but everything seems so serious at times. Nimoy probably delivers the best performance, but his character is given an actual arc to progress through, so maybe it isn’t fair to judge the others against his performance.

The probe brings the Enterprise to V'Ger.
The director’s cut of the film really makes a difference to the flow and pacing of the film. Some scenes were trimmed a bit here and there, new scenes were added to give Spock some more depth and add a bit more to Decker and Ilia. It’s a much better balance. It also gives us some visual power with a new scene reveling V’Ger for the first time, free of the cloud and closing on Earth. Some feel this takes away from the mystery of V’Ger, but I think delivers a visual payoff of seeing the new life up close and personal.

As much of an improvement the new editing makes, it doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a slow, slow movie. It takes its time setting up the simple situation. It takes its time getting us to V’Ger and then delving into the mystery. I do think the exploration of the cloud and the being itself are visually impressive, but they really drag the thin story down. The main problem with the pacing is that it actually ends up reducing the tension in the film. There is no real urgency here, and it hurts the finale. I really believe that a few more passes with the script could have yielded a better result.

The Enterprise survives for further adventures.

In the end the flaws end up hurting the film for most viewers. They go in expecting an exciting space adventure, and instead get a slow moving mediation on man and machine. It’s a shame too, because I think the elements that set this film apart from other films in the franchise and to other films of the era are what make it appealing and fascinating to watch. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was aiming high, and even its pretentious title seems to indicating something grand in it’s vision. I admire the creative team for having lofty goals and creating something unique and interesting. It isn’t a perfect film and I think that the follow up, The Wrath of Khan is a more entertaining and better executed film. But for all its faults, this is one trek worth taking and the director’s cut is the way to take it.


  1. Yes, Jar-Jar definitely would have added another dimension.

    I never watched the director's cut, so perhaps it' time to revisit this.

    1. Yes, Jar Jar is such a special character... add him to any movie and it automatically becomes a unique experience. :)

      Give the director's cut a shot. The movie is still very slow, but it flows a lot better now. There's been some updates to a few of the effects shots, but they are very subtle and fit well within the context of the film. The remastered sound is also a treat.

    2. Just thinking of Jar Jar Binks makes me feel unwell.

      I purchased the director's cut about a year ago. Yes, it's slow, but still worth watching. The special effects are impressive.

  2. I totally reject the JJ Abrams ST It's NOT STAR TREK ! It's a bad imitation of the universe i grew up with and revere.
    Any true fan will tell you that.
    They need to bring Picard back ! And soon !!!

    **** Hailing Frequency Closed ****

    1. Yeah, I know there are fans out there with very strong feelings about the direction Abrams took the franchise. I completely see where they are coming from. He turned "Star Trek" a series that has always been focused on ideas, themes and humanity's role in the universe, into a series about space action and adventure. And yet, the original series had plenty of those rousing space adventure episodes too. True, nearly all of them always tied back to a theme or moral, but there was a feeling of fun to the original series, and the films based off that series that really seemed to missing from the TNG series (not all the time I'll grant you) and films.

      I think that spirit of fun and adventure is something that Abrams brought back to the franchise and made it more accessible to folks who had equated Star Trek to old and stodgy. I think he went a bit overboard, but I know so many folks who are discovering and re-discovering Star Trek because of his films. I can't say that makes me sad.

      So my opinion is his two films are entertaining and fun. They take place in their own time line (so the adventures older fans know and love are still relevant). I enjoy them for what they are. But I really hope the next film (or series) in this version of the franchise gets back to some of the more thematic and morality based tales of the original series. I'm sure the cast would be up for it and I know there are some very exciting story to tell.

      Thanks for posting!