Synopsis: A massive alien presence of enormous power enters Federation space, destroying three powerful Klingon cruisers and neutralizing everything in its path. As it heads toward Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk returns to the helm of an updated U.S.S. Enterprise and sets course to meet the aggressor head-on.
eyelights: its cast. its cinematography. its set designs. its special effects. its score. its metaphysical musings.
eyesores: the new suits. William Shatner’s mild overacting. the flat tone of the second half.
“Each of us at some time in our lives, turns to someone -a father, a brother, a God- and asks, “Why am I here? What was I meant to be?””
To say that ‘Star Trek’ has had a tumultuous history is an understatement. Originally created for broadcast television, it limped to a third season finale after having been saved from extinction during its second year through a fan letter writing campaign.
After going into syndication, the series grew in popularity, becoming a cult favourite. Naturally, a film project was discussed. But even that languished in production hell and show creator Gene Roddenberry considered producing another TV show instead.
This show would have been ‘Star Trek: Phase II’, but, despite some pre-production work, no episode was ever shot.
It’s only after the success of ‘Star Wars‘ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ that the notion of making a ‘Star Trek’ motion picture was revived. For the occasion, the filmmakers decided to adapt the script for the first ‘Phase II’ episode, “In Thy Image”.
This eventually became ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’.
Now, to say that ‘ST:TMP’ is underappreciated is probably an understatement; while it was a box office hit, it remains one of the least revered of the original crew films – likely second only to the much-derided and reviled ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’.
The main complaint is that it’s short on action and excitement: ‘The Motion Picture’ is pure science fiction, content as it is to develop its central conceit without any concern for Hollywood’s usual brand of fights, chases, gunfire and explosive finales.
Nope. While ‘ST:TMP’ does throw in a few dramatic bumps in the road along the way, it is heavy on mood and mystery. It’s ‘Star Trek’ going deep into its roots, with the Enterprise’s crew exploring new life, if not new civilizations. It’s cerebral science-fiction.
But it’s nonetheless a spectacle: Helmed by director Robert Wise, known in his heyday for his large-scale productions such as ‘West Side Story’, ‘The Sound of Music‘, ‘The Sand Pebbles’ and ‘Star!‘, this is ‘Star Trek’ as epic and lavish as it’s ever going to be.
In fact, one could say that it’s a smidge overindulgent. A perfect example of this is when the new Enterprise, recently retrofitted, is first unveiled: Scotty brings Admiral Kirk over by shuttlecraft and takes the long way around to show it all off to him/us.
And shuttlecrafts don’t exactly go at warp speed.
While this is admittedly excessive, it’s also a splendid audio-visual feast: the Enterprise is wrapped in a drydock so we only get glimpses of it, enough to tease us until the full reveal. Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith’s score soars, giving the moment pitch-perfect pomp.
It’s one of many breathtaking sequences in ‘ST: TMP’, starting with the Klingon Bird of Prey attack on a mysterious celestial body inching its way through the galaxy and destroying everything in its path – all the way to the finale when the Enterprise crew explores it.
In between are some of cinema’s most amazing sights, all revolving around this foreign entity: from the Enterprise’s flyby, to its entry at the heart of this living machine, some of the most eye-catching and surrealistic visuals were rendered here by the filmmakers.
Every scene was afforded so much attention to detail that everything looks fairly realistic, and is as awe-inspiring as the future of space exploration could ever be: the sets, the costumes, the props, and even the special effects remain utterly convincing to this day.
What’s stunning is that everything was crafted by hand; this was in the pre-CGI days. Few would bother in this day and age, even though real is always better than the cold artificiality of CGI. Heck, even the special effects are amazing to see – especially in light of this.
There were plenty of times when I just stared in wonder at the visuals before me: how did Wise and co. produce such marvels without CGI? I mean, even the lightshow when the Enterprise goes to lightspeed is cooler than most of the CGI crap we get these days.
Some say that the special effects are dated, but it’s absolutely not the case – and, in fact, I actually prefer them to the cheap CGI of the Director’s Cut that was produced in 2001. The problem with CGI is that it looks dated with time. Well-made practical effects never do.
Another remarkable achievement on ‘ST: TMP’ is the score by Jerry Goldsmith. While I don’t like all that he’s done, here Goldsmith created such a brilliant mixture of epic themes, otherworldly sounds and lush arrangements that it set the stage for the whole franchise.
Seriously, if not for his work on this motion picture, we wouldn’t have the iconic theme to ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. And whenever I hear those rumbling metallic strings during the encounters with V’ger, I’m in awe of his ingenuity. This score is one for the books.
Naturally, though, none of this would be of any worth if not for the cast and its iconic characters. With ‘ST: TMP’, all of the original actors returned, all the way down to Majel Barrett as Christine Chapel and Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand – and they’re all in top form.
Even William Shatner.
William Shatner does his best work as Kirk here. While he’s been consistently lampooned through the years for his unique delivery, he was mostly credible, affecting his stilted line-reading only on occasion. He even added a few touches that made Kirk feel three-dimensional. I was particularly impressed with how he balanced Kirk’s arrogance and pride at returning to the Enterprise with a mild nervousness and self-awareness.
Leonard Nimoy makes an incredible impact on the picture as Spock, due to the fact that the half-Vulcan has just purged himself of most of his remaining humanity. He is now extremely cold, machine-like, disregarding of others unless they serve a purpose. It’s an essential function of Spock’s arc, but it’s jarring because it makes him quite unlikable. It even makes him suspicious, because the rest of the crew doubt his intentions and loyalties now.
DeForest Kelley knocks it right out of the park as Dr. McCoy, who has been drafted by Kirk for the mission even though he’d retired from Starfleet. He’s even more cantankerous than before and always finds something to gripe about. He brings most of the laughs in the picture, though the character itself doesn’t have much to do. Personally, I just love seeing him arrive with a full beard, unbuttoned shirt, like some misfit space hippy.
The rest of the original cast have been given little to do, although no less than in the television series. The best of the bunch is James Doohan as Scotty, who brings much-needed warmth to the picture, glowing with pride as he sees Kirk for the first time in years and gives him the full tour of the new ship. The biggest disappointment is that Nichelle Nichols was given so little to do; her natural charisma was completely squandered here.
There are a few new characters of note on board the NC-1701 this time:
For starters, there is the Captain of the ship, William Decker, played with confidence and flair by Stephen Collins. Though Captain Decker is relegated to second-in-command with the arrival of Admiral Kirk, he remains dignified and honourable, justly challenging Kirk when necessary and supporting him the rest of the time. Collins’ Decker doesn’t have the charisma and natural authority of the best Starfleet Captains, but he’s smart and qualified.
Then there’s the remarkable Persis Khambatta as Ilia, a Deltan navigator. While she doesn’t affect a wide range of emotions, since she is alien one can simply suppose that this inexpressiveness is due to her race. What’s interesting about the character is that she has a past with Decker and she will eventually become a host (of sorts) for the artificial lifeform that the Enterprise encounters. So she stands out from the rest for two very clear reasons.
The overarching theme of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ is a distrust of technology: From the transporter malfunction (which justifies Dr. McCoy’s paranoia), to the wormhole the Enterprise falls into due to engine issues, to V’ger itself, technology is the enemy here.
And yet the lesson to be learned is that technology is only a threat due to human error. If anything, it suggests that technology may lead to the next step in our evolution, that it is a complement to humanity. After all, Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ was intended to inspire.
It was about hope, not fear.
This comes in sharp contrast with more popular science fiction films like ‘The Terminator‘ and ‘The Matrix‘, which treat technology as a threat to humanity. While those may tap into the zeitgeist, hence their massive success, ‘Star Trek’ envisioned a benign future.
Of course, that doesn’t play nearly as well with the masses: While ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ was successful at the box office, its gigantic budget (for the time) rendered it comparably less formidable and it was considered a mild disappointment by the studio.
But ‘Star Trek’ would return in a more mass market form three years later and it would finally carve itself a place in the general public’s hearts. Sadly, the much-maligned franchise would continue to soar then stall for decades to come – and still does to this day.
True fans, however, have never forgotten ‘Star Trek’, even as the franchise strays from time to time. And some of us truly cherish the first motion picture adventures of the crew of the Enterprise: It was the promise of something great, of bold adventures into the unknown.
Its vision engages us to this day.
Date of viewing: June 2, 2016