Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Harold Livingston

My familiarity with Star Trek is minimal, especially as it pertains to the original cast and adventures, so take this review from that perspective. Entering into the realm of discussing the Star Trek universe is a daunting task, given the passionate fans and decades worth of discussion already on record. My review is a mere whisper among the cacophony of Trekkie dialogue. Okay, I just wanted to use the word “cacophony”. But the point remains that as this journey kicks off, what I would most like to add to the discussion is the perspective of a n00b, someone being introduced into this for the first time, long after it became popular. With that in mind, I am sure I will be comparing what I saw and felt to preconceived notions of what Star Trek might mean to me, what it might mean to others. As I go through these films, I hope to gain some greater understanding of their cultural importance and what makes them, and the characters therein, so appealing to the masses. In essence, why should I too become a Trekkie?

Well, without much background to go on, having never seen the original series, or any of the original films before, I was taken by surprise by Star Trek: The Motion Picture on a number of levels. Let’s get this out of the way, sort of like a band-aid: I did not enjoy my experience with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, I hold out hope that after this introductory film (for me), and a little back and forth discussion I will find much more bountiful entertainment in the films yet to come. This film picks up, I take it, after the events of the television series, as a now Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) takes over the Enterprise from now Captain Decker (Stephen Collins) in order to guide his crew (George Takei, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, James Doohan) in a mission to solve the mystery of an ominous, unknown cloud making its way toward Earth.

I guess the best place to start would be to talk a little bit about expectations versus reality, and I mean to not bring the film down in any way where it differed from my expectation. That comes later. First of all, I was very taken by how slow moving a film this was. I was not expecting non-stop, edge-of-my-seat action, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an extremely slow and reflective film, for better or worse, making it much more akin to the sci-fi stylings of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey than the action-adventure of Star Wars. I know Star Trek is not Star Wars, and that is the appeal of many of its fans, but I was certainly expecting a little more action that what we get here. The slower pace and lingering shots certainly help with forming the mysticism surrounding this film, the Enterprise, and the ominous cloud, however at 130 minutes I can confidently say that the film likely could have lost 30 minutes with ease.

The lack of fun throughout the film was a disappointment that butts up against my expectation that at least the interplay between characters would be funny or interesting. Instead I was treated to a a film that very much feels like an extension of the television series in that the characters are established, as are the relationships for the most part. Which again is fine for an existing fan, but to someone new to the universe and trying to get into the film series, it becomes a great hurdle to jump over. There are the occasional quips between Kirk and some of the others, but none of it pops, there’s nothing of note here as none of the characters seem to have any sort of character arc throughout the film. Instead, they are merely soldiers on a mission. This lack of connection I felt to the characters became problematic as the film vied for my attention, vied for my investment in the outcome of the impending cloud. I really blame a poor screenplay for this lack of character, as the screenplay also lacked for big ideas too. There is very little excitement or even intrigue for long stretches in this film, making it a slog to watch. And perhaps worst of all as a result of somewhat nothing characters here, hardly anything is asked of the actors in their performances. I wanted to see Shatner do something. I wanted to see Nimoy do something. It’s all so blank.

I don’t want to make the blank statement that I hope the whole series is not like this, as perhaps it will be. Instead, I hope that there is a little more fun and stakes going forward, more room for the characters to shine over the story, and even if the tone and pacing is to remain, at least now I will be prepared for that type of movie and might be better prepared to enjoy something like that. Of course, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not all disappointment, as there is plenty to applaud in this film as well. As a science fiction film, it often lives up to the imagination expected to be at play within the genre. The production design for instance is spectacular for its representation of both the ship and outer space in general, especially the way the cloud envelopes spaceships, or who its nebulous-like coloring is so impressively beautiful. Going hand-in-hand with the production design are the special effects. While they may be a little obvious and cheap at times, one must realize CGI was not a thing back in 1979, and appreciate the imagination and ambition behind many of these effects. In general they are fairly impressive, and Wise uses them to his advantage in being able to tell the story visually the way he wants to.

Overall, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an experience worth having, and it does play like an experience. While it may not have been quite what I was expecting going into the film, I can appreciate everything it brings to the table while also criticizing it as a rather poor narrative film. I think it’s main faults are simply not being able to fully stand on its own. When taken from that perspective, the characters are too thin, which makes my investment in their successes or failures much more flat than they ought to be for a situation like this. I felt like I had to fill in the blanks on my own far too much. That being said, I am intrigued enough by what I know of the characters, and what I know of Star Trek in the first place to want to find out what a truly great Star Trek film might look like. And I really do hope that adventure awaits me ahead in this marathon.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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